Jean LaBarge stopped beside the trunk of a huge cypress, scanning the woods for Rob Walker. By this time Rob should have reached their meeting place by the Honey Tree, so after only a momentary pause, he started to go on his way. Then he stopped abruptly.
The woods were very still. Somewhere, far-off, a crow cawed into the stillness, but there was no other sound except the faint murmur of wind in the high leaves. The boy felt his heart begin to pound heavily.
In the leaf mold just beyond the cypress was a boot print, its toe pointing southward into the deeper woods.
At fourteen Jean LaBarge knew the track of every man in the small village closest to the swamp, of the farmers who worked the fields nearby, and even the occasional cattle drovers who traveled the road along the swamp's edge. But this was the track of a stranger.
Sunlight filtered through the leaves and dappled the forest with light and shadow. No breeze stirred more than the topmost boughs, for at this place, deep within the Great Swamp, all the wind was shut out, as were the sounds.
Under the feathered hemlock, beside the stagnant pools, upon the spongy, moss-green earth there was no movement but the flight of some small bird, or a butterfly on wraithlike wings suspended for an instant in a shaft of sunlight. Only the green golden twilight of the forest, only the rustling of a tiny animal among the leaves. This was a place lost, remote, unvisited, and this was home, the only home he had known since his father went to the far lands beyond the Mississippi, and his mother died.
No townsman came to the Great Swamp, nor used the trail through the deserted valley beyond, the trail known as the shades of Death. Not many years before, during the War of 1812, soldiers had been ambushed here by Indians and in both earlier and later years men had disappeared from that trail, leaving no evidence to explain their going.
Where Mill Creek Road divided the world of people and farms from the jungle of the swamp, it also divided the world of Jean LaBarge, divided the one he visited from the one in which he lived and where he was wholly himself. The swamp had been his first playground, and since then a school as well, and source of a precarious living.
Beside the cypress he waited, listening.
The man whose track he had seen was large, for the stride was long and the indentation left by his foot was deep, and he was a man not unaccustomed to woodland travel. This much became obvious as Jean followed along the trail the man had left, noting where he stepped and how he moved. Moreover, the man was neither hunting nor wandering at random, but moving directly toward some known objective, and his direction was generally south.
Nobody knew the swamp as Jean did. He had grown up on a small farm at its edge, and before his mother died had come regularly to the swamp to help her collect the herbs she sold in the village. Now that she had gone he continued to gather herbs and take them to the village to sell to old man Dean.
Jean was a tall fourteen, a slender boy with dark eyes and a shock of curly, almost black hair. Already his shoulders were broad, although his body was painfully thin. There was more than a hint of the man he would become in the size of his frame and the easy way he moved.
After his mother died his Uncle George had come to work the small farm, but Uncle George was a good-natured, gregarious man who liked people and hated the loneliness of the cabin. Moreover, he disliked work as much as he enjoyed loafing and idle talk. The boy accepted his coming, and when one day Uncle George failed to return from one of his longer absences, he accepted his going.
Left alone in the cabin Jean carried on as always; there was nothing else to do. His uncle had gone but once to the village where Jean sold most of his furs and herbs, and his appearance caused no comment: there were several villages within easy walking distance of the swamp, and he might be frequenting any of them. Jean, a lonely, self-sufficient boy, had common sense enough to tell no one that his uncle had deserted him.
The boy's coming and going had long since been taken for granted in the towns; and no one ever believed-or very much cared--that he was alone.
Of his father he remembered little except what his mother told him, that he had gone to the western mountains to trap and hunt, and that he would return eventually. To Jean he remained a vague, shadowy figure, bearded and in buckskins, who smoked a pipe and seemed always in a good humor. From time to time Jean heard mention of him in the villages, for he was that most fabulous of persons, a mountain man. And he was what Jean wanted to be.
Jean LeBarge had no friend but Rob Walker. Rob was older than Jean, but shy due to his small size. As other boys of his age grew bigger and stronger he turned more and more to books for companionship, yet his alert mind and imagination were fascinated by a boy several years younger than himself who came and went in the Great Swamp without fear. From time to time he saw Jean LaBarge come to town with his sacks of herbs and finally he began waiting at the store to watch Mister Dean sort them carefully into piles. From listening he learned the piles were of many kinds, but the largest were usually bloodroot, wild ginger, senega snakeroot and sassafras.
The friendship between the boys began with a question. One afternoon old Mister Dean was totaling the amount owed to Jean. Rob watched him as he bent over the figures, peering through his square-cut steel-rimmed glasses, his great shock of iron-gray hair making his head seem much too heavy for his scrawny neck. Catching Jean's eyes, Rob asked, "Where do you get all those?"
Naturally shy, Jean recognized the even greater shyness of the smaller boy. "Over in the swamp," he replied.
"Are you afraid?"
Jean considered the question with care. He was, he realized, afraid sometimes. But it was not when he was in the swamp. It was only at night, those nights when he awakened in the silent cabin and knew he was alone. But was he afraid of the swamp? "Not very," he said.
"How do you know which plants to pick?"
"My mother taught me." He knew what they said in the village about his mother being a gypsy. "She grew up in a house near a field where gypsies used to camp."
Dean counted out a few coins, peering at Jim over his glasses when he had completed the payment. "I can use more of that sassafras, son, and when berry time comes around I can use all the blackberries and huckleberries you can gather. Don't know where you find'em. Biggest I ever did see."
Rob Walker waited until Jean started for the door.
"That ol' swamp," he said, when they were outside, "I hear it's a mighty gloomy place."
"I like it."
"I'd think you'd be scared, out there alone."
"Nothin' to be scared of . . . not if you know where to walk." Jean dug into his pocket for the rattles clipped from a snake he had killed. "Got to watch for rattlers, though. There's big ones in there."
"They say there's a new rattle for every year a snake lives."
"Ain't so," Jean said. "There's a new rattle or button every time he sheds his skin, and they do it two, sometimes three times a year."
"Would you take me sometimes?"
"You'd be scared."
"I would not. I've almost gone in alone--lots of times."
"All right. You can come now if you want."
That was how it had begun, nearly three years before their planned meeting at the Honey Tree. United in their loneliness, the boys had discovered they shared a dream, the dream to go west, far across the plains where buffalo were, far away to the land of the Sioux and the Blackfoot, and there to be mountain men.
Yet for Jean dreams would never be enough. The swamp became the training ground for that great day when he would be "big" and could go away. Yet in the secret places of his own mind Jean knew he would not wait for the remote time when he was big enough, a man grown. He could wait no longer than it required to save money for a good rifle, not the cumbersome old gun the cabin afforded . . . and the money was almost half saved.
It had been midafternoon when he found the track of the stranger, and Rob would have reached the Honey Tree. If so, he would be waiting there when the stranger arrived, as the man had chosen a route that could not miss the clearing around the tree. Rob would be there and he would see the stranger and be seen by him.
Jean's trap line was long and Rob had agreed to work half of it so they could hurry back to the village to listen to Captain Hutchins, who was in the village for a last visit before going across the Great Plains to the lands on the Pacific. He would be in the tavern that night talking of the fur trade and of his plans. Both boys knew about Captain Hutchins. He had made a fortune manufacturing shoes for the Army, as well as in the shipping business, and he was taking his capital west.
Jean had worked his trap line swiftly, finding little. It was time he moved his traps deeper into the swamp.
When he reached a low hummock of firm ground he followed along its ridge, almost running, scrambling through the brush, hurrying to meet Rob. The Honey Tree was only a little farther on.
Quite suddenly he saw the footprints again. The man had taken the same route Jean had chosen, but when in the sight of the Honey Tree he had veered sharply away and leaped back across the tiny stream: Jean could see where his feet had landed after the jump, and where he had slipped in climbing the wet bank.
Looking through the trees from where the stranger had suddenly turned, Jean saw Rob sitting on a deadfall waiting for him.
The tracks were very fresh; the stranger could be only minutes ahead of him. Obviously, the man had seen Rob and turned quickly away. Why should a man be afraid of being seen by a boy?
Jean walked into the clearing. "Hit," he said.