Dangerous Journey Through The Arkansas Swamps On Horseback

From Chicago Times Newspaper

November 3, 1887


I had been some days in Memphis testing myself from the fatigue, my long journey and looking for a Bay Beauty had carried me many a long mile from the distant Alleghenies, and I feared under the hard  snips yet to be it was possible that she might break. Finally I succeeded in selling her and purchasing another, my new acquisition was described in her "papers" as a black or brown mare about nine or ten years old 14 1/2 hands and a good saddler. And so she was all of these and much more.  In a few days she had learned to know me perfectly. All day long I could ride with the knotted reins lying loosely upon the neck and direct her by verbal aided by the very slightest pressure of either knee. I used the military commands and she obeyed as willingly and swiftly as would the most intelligent soldier. I took long rides near Memphis and camping at night in the open. Nita was turned loose to graze. In the morning she was often nowhere in but the sound of my shrill hunting whistle would find her and soon I would hear her rapid hoofs beating the prairie as she would dash up at full and thrusting her velvety muzzle over my shoulder whinnying evident delight. 

On my return to Memphis from one of these excursions, I found a telegram ordering me to proceed with all speed to Little Rock, Arkansas stopping at Des Arc on the way. Nita and I crossed the great river on a steamboat going to Mound City. We left the boat at Wade's Landing struck out westward for the Blackfish. The distance from Mound City to Little Rock is about one hundred and ninety of which more than one hundred and twenty five lie through swamps. After leaving Mound City the road as far as the Blackfish was broadly smooth and and in no wise indicative of the character of the road yet to be  traveled. The mighty Mississippi at is part of its course spreads out on its western bank into vast swamps thickly grown with great trees.

Many years ago a military road was cut and built through these and today an experienced woodsman or traveler can still follow old road by noticing the gaps in the trees. Several rivers run through the great swamps and enterprising colonists have established little hamlets at the points where the road reaches Cache River. They have constructed rude ferries with boats of various types sometimes propelled by the force of the stream the direction being guided by an ingenious system of lines but usually the great raft or flat - bottom boat would make the traverse by sheer muscle applied to long poles. We stopped all night at a friendly farm and next morning bright and early started for the St. Francis half a mile from our starting point the road entered the swamps, Nita's hoofs disappeared below the water and in all that day I did not see them again. It was the strangest ride I have ever and many a thousand miles have I covered in these many years on horseback and in many climates. Great columnar trees grew straight up shooting ambitiously seeking the generous sunlight. Shaft after shaft repeated endlessly as far as the eye could these grown pillars crowded with overhead the thick overshadowing arch of foliage shutting out the sunlight. Between them ran interminable corridors filled with palpable shadows of wonder tones below and everywhere the wild swamp. Not like other water is but alive with a mysterious life of its own. Brown is it everywhere from the almost of the deepest shadow through every shade of gold brown to a quivering jewel where a stray pierces the solemn aisles like a javelin hurled and stirs the bewitched water to pulsating. Through the silent years millions upon millions of dead brown leaves have come floating down to the arid water below and beneath its shimmering surface they a rich carpet. Strange forms of life within those waters. Great monstrous frogs would plunge from some decaying stump that shone like an immense emerald in the dim shadow and with a slow stroke swim out of sight. Slim spotted snakes  with bitten malignant metallic eyes and strident slid away into the dense tangled water- weeds. Hideous lizards horrid deformed monsters writhed or wriggled their misshapen ugliness through the sullen water, or mayhap of brilliant green or startling vivid crimson, darted away among long swinging vines. Strange water insect there too and every tree was covered with huge clumps of moss and orchids and strange parasites and long tangles of gray and sinuous vines that swept blazing with rare weird brilliant flowers to the weirder water plants below. No bird's clear note cheered these solitudes; no bird was there, save in a ruined tall tree stump clothed in rich garment of vines and of there sat a huge horned owl staring with yellow eyes across the brown,  and this was strangest thing how brown green of the leaves and even the vivid scarlet of lizard or flowers seemed to be the very air was golden brown.

Onward patiently we went. The majestic silence of those somber swamp solitudes soon hushed the song on my lips and only the plash, plash of Nita's dainty hoofs broke the silence. And so for the long hours we moved onward through this unreal world of brown guided by the scarcely distinguishable gap left by the old military road and by the faithful compass fastened to my saddle. At four o'clock we reached the St. Francis. The roofs of the ferryman dwellings were barely visible on the opposite shore and I tried for two long hours to attract his attention in vain. At last as night was descending and as Nita and I were becoming frantic from the stings of millions of voracious flies the colored man caught the report of my revolver and came running down and soon pushed his unwieldy boat. We crossed the stream and rejoiced at past troubles. Sweet rank grass grew along the rivers and Nita was well provided for. For myself there was a hot squirrel bacon  stew and good corn pone and then bed and  a sleep. Twenty - six miles had we traveled that day. For two days more we traveled onward through these swamps and as we advanced there were grateful pots of firm prairie, long tongues of sun-drenched plain that ran into the melancholy morass. Travel been slower than I had expected and so on the afternoon of the  fourth day, as I approached the last "bottom" as these swamps are called I resolved to put through that day.

Cache "bottom" so called from the river traversing has an evil name among those who know these regions and my kind host of that bright summer afternoon did all in his power to persuade me wait until the following day when he offered to accompany me to Des Arc. He told me of dangerous passages across deeper pools of misleading trails of slimy mud and awful quicksand's all in vain. He told me tales of travelers lost in that hideous never seen again by man, who had died of fever and starvation in horrid recesses  in vain. Finally,  he assured me that he knew by "signs" that a thunderstorm was "blowing up " and would overtake me where upon I merely said that it was all the more necessary for me to at once departe and with a warm shake of the hand I bade him good-bye, and with a merry laugh at his anxious face, vaulted into the saddle and was off. 

We were used to the swamps by this Nita and I and bits of French chansons and Spanish zarzuelas and English ballad or college drinking song went ringing out among the arched corridors and awaking strange muffled mocking echo's.  An hour or two later we crossed Cache River on a ferryboat and again was warned against going forward by the lone ferryman, who pointed to the rapidly gathering clouds and earnestly deprecated my attempting to cross Cache in a thunder storm. But I thought that I knew the dangers of the swamps by then, ten miles more and I was through with them and my desire to be free from them  very strong. So again we plunged into the wild morasses. I fear that I have not strongly enough the expressed utter absolute solitude of the Wilderness. Once within its confines you move in watery shadowy maze, and completely absolutely isolated from your fellow - man. No token is there that any human being before you ever penetrated the depths you leave no trace of your journey behind. You are alone. Soon I found that my informants had in nowise exaggerated the horrors of that of the brilliant water with its gold brown carpet of leaves there stretched vast morasses of slimy gray or black mud, scarce concealed by hideous vegetation with sinister leaves and livid blooms. Deep pools of muddy water often crossed the trail and once and again. Nita lost her feet and I felt her swimming under me. Rapidly the storm gathered and great gloom and blackness filled the air. The wind sobbed and moaned through the twisted sullen trees, the road grew more and more obscure and at last I halted with a horrible doubt growing fast into belief in my mind that we had lost the trail. I brought Nita to a halt and anxiously peered into the growing darkness. The wind grew fiercer and blew angrily great pelting drops of rain began to fall the thunder muttered in the distance and Nita was trembling in every limb, so I pushed forward in what I judged to be the right direction cursing my folly at not having taken the good counsel preferred to me. Nearer and nearer came the storms I found myself on the brink of a pool larger blacker more hideous than any I had seen. Low, straggling trees surrounded with gnarled roots high in the air like writhing, water serpents and lank boughs outstretched. After a hesitation Nita ventured in. Deep sank her hoofs in the hideous and the black foul water crept up her sides. Suddenly there was a scream in the air a  wild rush of the mad wind an intense blinding glare, the awful report of some huge trees near by stricken by the fiery lightening. Nita fairly shrieked in her terror plunged losing her and flung me from her I struck against the limbs of a low and grasp instinctive and looked around quickly for Nita, she was gone . I stood there in that hideous pool trying to realize my position. Then I thought I would work my way to the tree and climb into branches and whistle Nita to me when the fury of the storm should pass. What was my horror when I found my set firmly fixed in the tenacious swamp. I could throw my arms over the low bough and I did putting forth my every exertion in a vain endeavor to free myself while the storm was raging in all its might. The wind howled and shrieked through the trees as though a million demons were let the crashed unceasingly and the lights in awful flashes ever and an on lit up the darkness. The rain fell in torrents and drenched me to the skin. I gave myself up for lost unless the storm should soon pass if I could hold on till then. hold I might get Nita back and holding fast to her be drawn from the quagmire in which I stood. That I might husband my strength, I succeeded after much effort after in loosening from my waist a broad leather belt, and passing it under my arms lashed myself there by to the limb to which I clung. The hours passed and yet the storm seemed but to increase in fury. Suddenly I realized that I was sinking deeper in the water and yet that was impossible lashed as I was to the stout limb. Soon I understood my awful position . The water was rising ! The realization of the awful doom that threatened me chilled  my hearts blood, threatened me chilled my cold beads of perspiration broke out upon my clammy forehead and I shrieked aloud in agony. Slowly I could feel the water creeping upward. Frantically I struggled to free myself from the close clinging mud that held my feet and legs as in a vise. Fortunately it was that I had lashed myself for at length I must have fainted. How long I lay or rather hung there unconscious I do not know, but hours must have passed for the storm had ceased great murky, ragged clouds were flying across the angry sky and the water I gasped in horror, it was at my  breast and rising visibly now. The slow hours wore by and the sullen water crept ever up, greed, hideous. And a stolid calm came over me, and all unmindful of the growing light that heralded the birth of a new day. I kept a dull gaze up above of water as it crept from thread to thread on my garments. It reached my neck and before my strained blood shot eyes it quivered and shone like  a resistless sea of steel. Higher, higher and a last despairing shriek burst from my lips. Hark!  What was that! And the water approaching my lips!  Another shriek! And an answer! A horsed whinny listen! 

"Hole on dar boss,  I'se coming!"  A vision of a great Negro on Nita's back, and again I lost consciousness. When I again awoke I was in a comfortable bed in Des Arc, weak from the long delirium and fever that followed that night of horror. It seems that Nita once free, galloped back to Cache River, there to meet the Negro who had been sent after me by my anxious host of the afternoon. Thanks to Nita's fidelity and the Negro's knowledge of the swamps, I live today to tell the tale.

Nita died some years after, and a modest stone under the bright Texas sun recounts her virtues and prowess.

Transcribed by: Sandy Hardin

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