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List Of Contents | Contents of On Horseback by Charles Dudley Warner
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was maneuvering for an engagement.  One after another, as they came
into range about our peak of observation, they opened fire.  Sharp
flashes of lightning darted from one to the other; a jet of flame
from one leaped across the interval and was buried in the bosom of
its adversary; and at every discharge the boom of great guns echoed
through the mountains.  It was something more than a royal salute to
the tomb of the mortal at our feet, for the masses of cloud were rent
in the fray, at every discharge the rain was precipitated in
increasing torrents, and soon the vast hulks were trailing torn
fragments and wreaths of mist, like the shot-away shrouds and sails
of ships in battle.  Gradually, from this long-range practice with
single guns and exchange of broadsides, they drifted into closer
conflict, rushed together, and we lost sight of the individual
combatants in the general tumult of this aerial war.

We had barely twenty minutes for our observations, when it was time
to go; and had scarcely left the peak when the clouds enveloped it.
We hastened down under the threatening sky to the saddles and the
luncheon.  Just off from the summit, amid the rocks, is a complete
arbor, or tunnel, of rhododendrons.  This cavernous place a Western
writer has made the scene of a desperate encounter between Big Tom
and a catamount, or American panther, which had been caught in a trap
and dragged it there, pursued by Wilson.  It is an exceedingly
graphic narrative, and is enlivened by the statement that Big Tom had
the night before drunk up all the whisky of the party which had spent
the night on the summit.  Now Big Tom assured us that the whisky part
of the story was an invention; he was not (which is true) in the
habit of using it; if he ever did take any, it might be a drop on
Mitchell; in fact, when he inquired if we had a flask, he remarked
that a taste of it would do him good then and there.  We regretted
the lack of it in our baggage.  But what inclined Big Tom to
discredit the Western writer's story altogether was the fact that he
never in his life had had a difficulty with a catamount, and never
had seen one in these mountains.

Our lunch was eaten in haste.  Big Tom refused the chicken he had
provided for us, and strengthened himself with slices of raw salt
pork, which he cut from a hunk with his clasp-knife.  We caught and
saddled our horses, who were reluctant to leave the rich feed,
enveloped ourselves in waterproofs, and got into the stony path for
the descent just as the torrent came down.  It did rain.  It
lightened, the thunder crashed, the wind howled and twisted the
treetops.  It was as if we were pursued by the avenging spirits of
the mountains for our intrusion.  Such a tempest on this height had
its terrors even for our hardy guide.  He preferred to be lower down
while it was going on.  The crash and reverberation of the thunder
did not trouble us so much as the swish of the wet branches in our
faces and the horrible road, with its mud, tripping roots, loose
stones, and slippery rocks.  Progress was slow.  The horses were in
momentary danger of breaking their legs.  In the first hour there was
not much descent.  In the clouds we were passing over Clingman,
Gibbs, and Holdback.  The rain had ceased, but the mist still shut
off all view, if any had been attainable, and bushes and paths were
deluged.  The descent was more uncomfortable than the ascent, and we
were compelled a good deal of the way to lead the jaded horses down
the slippery rocks.

>From the peak to the Widow Patten's, where we proposed to pass the
night, is twelve miles, a distance we rode or scrambled down, every
step of the road bad, in five and a half hours.  Halfway down we came
out upon a cleared place, a farm, with fruit-trees and a house in
ruins.  Here had been a summer hotel much resorted to before the war,
but now abandoned.  Above it we turned aside for the view from
Elizabeth rock, named from the daughter of the proprietor of the
hotel, who often sat here, said Big Tom, before she went out of this
world.  It is a bold rocky ledge, and the view from it, looking
south, is unquestionably the finest, the most pleasing and picture-
like, we found in these mountains.  In the foreground is the deep
gorge of a branch of the Swannanoa, and opposite is the great wall of
the Blue Ridge (the Blue Ridge is the most capricious and
inexplicable system) making off to the Blacks.  The depth of the
gorge, the sweep of the sky line, and the reposeful aspect of the
scene to the sunny south made this view both grand and charming.
Nature does not always put the needed dash of poetry into her
extensive prospects.

Leaving this clearing and the now neglected spring, where fashion
used to slake its thirst, we zigzagged down the mountain-side through
a forest of trees growing at every step larger and nobler, and at
length struck a small stream, the North Fork of the Swannanoa, which
led us to the first settlement.  Just at night,--it was nearly seven
o'clock,--we entered one of the most stately forests I have ever
seen, and rode for some distance in an alley of rhododendrons that
arched overhead and made a bower.  It was like an aisle in a temple;
high overhead was the somber, leafy roof, supported by gigantic
columns.  Few widows have such an avenue of approach to their domain
as the Widow Patten has.

Cheering as this outcome was from the day's struggle and storm, the
Professor seemed sunk in a profound sadness.  The auguries which the
Friend drew from these signs of civilization of a charming inn and a
royal supper did not lighten the melancholy of his mind.  "Alas," he
said,

    "Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
     And make me travel forth without my cloak,
     To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
     Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
     'T is not enough that through the cloud thou break,
     To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
     For no man well of such a salve can speak
     That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:
     Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief:
     Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss."

"Loss of what?"  cried the Friend, as he whipped up his halting
steed.

"Loss of self-respect.  I feel humiliated that I consented to climb
this mountain."

"Nonsense!  You'll live to thank me for it, as the best thing you
ever did.  It's over and done now, and you've got it to tell your
friends."

"That's just the trouble.  They'll ask me if I went up Mitchell, and
I shall have to say I did.  My character for consistency is gone.
Not that I care much what they think, but my own self-respect is
gone.  I never believed I would do it.  A man ca'nt afford to lower
himself in his own esteem, at my time of life."

The Widow Patten's was only an advanced settlement in this narrow
valley on the mountain-side, but a little group of buildings, a
fence, and a gate gave it the air of a place, and it had once been
better cared for than it is now.  Few travelers pass that way, and
the art of entertaining, if it ever existed, is fallen into
desuetude.  We unsaddled at the veranda, and sat down to review our
adventure, make the acquaintance of the family, and hear the last
story from Big Tom.  The mountaineer, though wet, was as fresh as a
daisy, and fatigue in no wise checked the easy, cheerful flow of his
talk.  He was evidently a favorite with his neighbors, and not
unpleasantly conscious of the extent of his reputation.  But he
encountered here another social grade.  The Widow Patten was highly
connected.  We were not long in discovering that she was an
Alexander.  She had been a schoolmate of Senator Vance,--" Zeb Vance
"he still was to her,--and the senator and his wife had stayed at her
house.  I wish I could say that the supper, for which we waited till
nine o'clock, was as "highly connected" as the landlady.  It was,
however, a supper that left its memory.  We were lodged in a detached
house, which we had to ourselves, where a roaring wood fire made
amends for other things lacking.  It was necessary to close the doors
to keep out the wandering cows and pigs, and I am bound to say that,
notwithstanding the voices of the night, we slept there the sleep of
peace.

In the morning a genuine surprise awaited us; it seemed impossible,
but the breakfast was many degrees worse than the supper; and when we
paid our bill, large for the region, we were consoled by the thought
that we paid for the high connection as well as for the
accommodations.  This is a regular place of entertainment, and one is
at liberty to praise it without violation of delicacy.

The broken shoe of Jack required attention, and we were all the
morning hunting a blacksmith, as we rode down the valley.  Three
blacksmith's shanties were found, and after long waiting to send for
the operator it turned out in each case that he had no shoes, no
nails, no iron to make either of.  We made a detour of three miles to
what was represented as a regular shop.  The owner had secured the
service of a colored blacksmith for a special job, and was, not
inclined to accommodate us; he had no shoes, no nails.  But the
colored blacksmith, who appreciated the plight we were in, offered to
make a shoe, and to crib four nails from those he had laid aside for
a couple of mules; and after a good deal of delay, we were enabled to
go on.  The incident shows, as well as anything, the barrenness and
shiftlessness of the region.  A horseman with whom we rode in the
morning gave us a very low estimate of the trustworthiness of the
inhabitants.  The valley is wild and very pretty all the way down to
Colonel Long's,--twelve miles,--but the wretched-looking people along
the way live in a wretched manner.

Just before reaching Colonel Long's we forded the stream (here of
good size), the bridge having tumbled down, and encountered a party
of picnickers under the trees--signs of civilization; a railway
station is not far off.  Colonel Long's is a typical Southern
establishment: a white house, or rather three houses, all of one
story, built on to each other as beehives are set in a row, all

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