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Chapter 32 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Stung by a Snake

The pain was not a dream; the blood upon my wrist was no illusion. Both were real. I was bitten by a rattlesnake!

Terror-stricken I sprang to my feet; and, with an action altogether mechanical, passed my hand over the wound, and wiped away the blood. It was but a trifling puncture, such as might have been made by the point of a lancet, and only a few drops of blood oozed from it.

Such a wound need not have terrified a child, so far as appearance went; but I, a man, was terrified, for I knew that that little incision had been made by a dread instrument—by the envenomed fang of a serpent—and in one hour I might be dead!

My first impulse was to pursue the snake and destroy it; but before I could act upon that impulse the reptile had escaped beyond my reach. A hollow log lay near—the trunk of a large tulip-tree, with the heart-wood decayed and gone. The snake had made for this—no doubt its haunt—and before I could come up with it, I saw the long slimy body, with its rhomboid spots, disappear within the dark cavity. Another “sker-r-rr” reached my ears as it glided out of sight. It seemed a note of triumph, as if uttered to tantalise me!

The reptile was now beyond my reach, but its destruction would not have availed me. Its death could not counteract the effect of its poison already in my veins. I knew that well enough, but for all I would have killed it, had it been in my power to do so. I felt angry and vengeful.

This was but my first impulse. It suddenly became changed to a feeling of terror. There was something so weird in the look of the reptile, something so strange in the manner of its attack and subsequent escape, that, on losing sight of it, I became suddenly impressed with a sort of supernatural awe—a belief that the creature was possessed of a fiendish intelligence!

Under this impression I remained for some moments in a state of bewilderment.

The sight of the blood, and the stinging sensation of the wound, soon brought me to my senses again, and admonished me of the necessity of taking immediate steps to procure an antidote to the poison. But what antidote?

What knew I of such things? I was but a classical scholar. True, I had lately given some attention to botanical studies; but my new knowledge extended only to the trees of the forest, and none of these with which I was acquainted possessed alexipharmic virtues. I knew nothing of the herbaceous plants, the milk-worts, and aristolochias, that would now have served me. The woods might have been filled with antidotal remedies, and I have died in their midst. Yes, I might have lain down upon a bed of Seneca root, and, amidst terrible convulsions, have breathed my last breath, without knowing that the rhizome of the humble plant crushed beneath my body would, in a few short hours, have expelled the venom from my veins, and given me life and health.

I lost no time in speculating upon such a means of safety. I had but one thought—and that was to reach Bringiers at the earliest possible moment. My hopes rested upon Reigart.

I hastily took up my gun; and, plunging once more under the dark shadows of the cypress-trees, I hurried on with nervous strides. I ran as fast as my limbs would carry me; but the shock of terror I had experienced seemed to have enfeebled my whole frame, and my knees knocked against each other as I went.

On I struggled, regardless of my weakness, regardless of everything but the thought of reaching Bringiers and Reigart. Over fallen trees, through dense cane-brakes, through clumps of palmettoes and pawpaw thickets, I passed, dashing the branches from my path, and lacerating my skin at every step. Onward, through sluggish rivulets of water, through tough miry mud, through slimy pools, filled with horrid newts, and the spawn of the huge rana pipiens, whose hoarse loud croak at every step sounded ominous in my ear. Onward!

“Ho! whither am I going? Where is the path? where the tracks of my former footsteps? Not here—not there. Good God! I have lost them!—lost! lost!”

Quick as lightning came these thoughts. I looked around with eager glances. On every side I scanned the ground. I saw no path, no tracks, but those I had just made. I saw no marks that I could remember. I had lost my way. Beyond a doubt I was lost!

A thrill of despair ran through me—the blood curdled cold in my veins at the thought of my peril.

No wonder. If lost in the forest, then was I lost indeed. A single hour might be enough. In that time the poison would do its work. I should be found only by the wolves and vultures. O God!

As if to make my horrid fate appear more certain, I now remembered to have heard that it was the very season of the year—the hot autumn—when the venom of the crotalus is most virulent, and does its work in the shortest period of time. Cases are recorded where in a single hour its bite has proved fatal.

“Merciful heaven!” thought I, “in another hour I shall be no more!” and the thought was followed by a groan.

The danger nerved me to renewed efforts. I turned back on my tracks. It seemed the best thing I could do; for in the gloomy circle around, there was no point that indicated my approach to the open ground of the plantations. Not a bit of sky could I discover,—that welcome beacon to the wood-ranger, denoting the proximity of the clearings. Even the heaven above was curtained from my view; and when I appealed to it in prayer, my eyes rested only upon the thick black foliage of the cypress-trees, with their mournful drapery of tillandsia.

I had no choice but to go back, and endeavour to find the path I had lost, or wander on trusting to mere chance.

I chose the former alternative. Again I broke through the cane-brakes and palmetto-thickets—again I forded sluggish bayous, and waded across muddy pools.

I had not proceeded more than a hundred yards on the back track, when that also became doubtful. I had passed over a reach of ground higher and drier than the rest. Here no footprints appeared, and I knew not which way I had taken. I tried in several directions, but could not discover my way. I became confused, and at length completely bewildered. Again was I lost!

To have been lost in the forest under ordinary circumstances would have mattered little,—an hour or two of wandering—perhaps a night spent under the shade of some tree, with the slight inconvenience of a hungry stomach. But how very different was my prospect then, with the fearful thoughts that were pressing upon me! The poison was fast inoculating my blood. I fancied I already felt it crawling through my veins!

One more struggle to find the clearings!

I rushed on, now guided by chance. I endeavoured to keep in a straight line, but to no purpose. The huge pyramidal buttresses of the trees, so characteristic of these coniferae, barred my way; and, in passing around them, I soon lost all knowledge of my direction.

I wandered on, now dragging wearily across the dull ditches, now floundering through tracts of swamp, or climbing over huge prostrate logs. In my passage I startled the thousand denizens of the dank forest, who greeted me with their cries. The qua-bird screamed; the swamp-owl hooted; the bullfrog uttered his trumpet-note; and the hideous alligator, horribly bellowing from his gaunt jaws, crawled sulkily out of my way, at times appearing as if he would turn and assail me!

“Ho! yonder is light!—the sky!”

It was but a small patch of the blue heaven—a disc, not larger than a dining-plate. But, oh! you cannot understand with what joy I greeted that bright spot. It was the lighthouse to the lost mariner.

It must be the clearings? Yes, I could see the sun shining through the trees, and the horizon open as I advanced. No doubt the plantations were before me. Once there I should soon cross the fields, and reach the town. I should yet be safe. Reigart would surely know how to extract the poison, or apply some antidote?

I kept on with bounding heart and straining eyes—on, for the bright meteor before me.

The blue spot grew larger—other pieces of sky appeared—the forest grew thinner as I advanced—I was drawing nearer to its verge.

The ground became firmer and drier at every step, and the timber of a lighter growth. The shapeless cypress “knees” no longer impeded my progress. I now passed among tulip-trees, dogwoods, and magnolias. Less densely grew the trunks, lighter and less shadowy became the foliage above; until at length I pushed through the last selvage of the underwood, and stood in the open sunshine.

A cry of agony rose upon my lips. It was wrung from me by despair. I had arrived at my point of starting—I was once more within the glade!

I sought not to go farther. Fatigue, disappointment, and chagrin, had for the moment paralysed my strength. I staggered forward to a prostrate trunk,—the very one which sheltered my reptile assassin!—and sat down in a state of irresolution and bewilderment.

It seemed as though I were destined to die in that lovely glade—amidst those bright flowers—in the midst of that scene I had so lately admired, and upon the very spot where I had received my fatal wound!

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