Chapter 33 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Runaway.

Man rarely yields up his life without an extreme effort to preserve it. Despair is a strong feeling, but there are those whose spirit it cannot prostrate. In later life mine own would not have given way to such circumstances as surrounded me at that time; but I was then young, and little experienced in peril.

The paralysis of my thoughts did not continue long. My senses returned again; and I resolved to make a new effort for the salvation of my life.

I had conceived no plan, further than to endeavour once more to escape out of the labyrinth of woods and morass in which I had become entangled, and make as before for the village. I thought I knew the direction in which it lay, by observing the side at which I had first entered the glade. But, after all, there was no certainty in this. It was mere conjecture. I had entered the glade with negligent steps. I had strayed all around it before lying down to sleep. Perhaps I had gone around its sides before entering it—for I had been wandering all the morning.

While these reflections were passing rapidly through my mind, and despair once more taking possession of my spirits, I all at once remembered having heard that tobacco is a powerful antidote to snake-poison. Strange the idea had not occurred to me before. But, indeed, there was nothing wonderful that it did not, as up to that moment I had only thought of making my way to Bringiers. With no reliance upon my own knowledge, I had thought only of a doctor. It was only when I became apprehensive of not being able to get to him, that I began to think of what resources lay within my reach. I now remembered the tobacco.

Quick as the thought my cigar-case was in my fingers. To my joy one cigar still remained, and drawing it out I proceeded to macerate the tobacco by chewing. This I had heard was the mode of applying it to the snakebite.

Dry as was my mouth at first, the bitter weed soon supplied me with saliva, and in a few moments I had reduced the leaves to a pulp, though nauseated—almost poisoned by the powerful nicotine.

I laid the moistened mass upon my wrist, and at the same time rubbed it forcibly into the wound. I now perceived that my arm was sensibly swollen—even up to the elbow—and a singular pain began to be felt throughout its whole length! O God! the poison was spreading, surely and rapidly spreading! I fancied I could feel it like liquid fire crawling and filtering through my veins!

Though I had made application of the nicotine, I had but little faith in it. I had only heard it casually talked of as a remedy. It might, thought I, be one of the thousand fancies that people love to indulge in; and I had only used it as a “forlorn hope.”

I bound the mass to my wrist—a torn sleeve serving for lint; and then, turning my face in the direction I intended to take, I started off afresh.

I had scarce made three strides when my steps were suddenly arrested. I stopped on observing a man on the edge of the glade, and directly in front of me.

He had just come out of the underwood, towards which I was advancing, and, on perceiving me, had suddenly halted—perhaps surprised at the sight of one of his own kind in such a wild place.

I hailed his appearance with a shout of joy. “A guide!—a deliverer!” thought I.

What was my astonishment—my chagrin—my indignation—when the man suddenly turned his back upon me; and, plunging into the bushes, disappeared from my sight!

I was astounded at this strange conduct. I had just caught a glimpse of the man’s face as he turned away. I had seen that he was a negro, and I had noticed that he appeared to be frightened. But what was there about me to terrify him?

I called out to him to stop—to come back. I shouted in tones of entreaty—of command—of menace. In vain. He made neither stop nor stay. I heard the branches crackle as he broke through the thicket—each moment the noise appearing more distant.

It was my only chance for a guide. I must not lose it; and, bracing myself for a run, I started after him.

If I possess any physical accomplishment in which I have confidence it is my fleetness of foot. At that time an Indian runner could not have escaped me, much less a clumsy, long-heeled negro. I knew that if I could once more got my eyes upon the black, I would soon overhaul him; but therein lay the difficulty. In my hesitation I had given him a long start; and he was now out of sight in the depth of the thicket.

But I could hear him breaking through the bushes like a hog; and, guiding myself by the sound, I kept up the pursuit.

I was already somewhat jaded by my previous exertions; but the conviction that my life depended on overtaking the negro kindled my energies afresh, and I ran like a greyhound. Unfortunately it was not a question of simple speed, else the chase would soon have been brought to an end. It was in getting through the bushes, and dodging round the trunks of the trees, that the hindrance lay; and I had many a struggle among the branches, and many a zigzag turn to make, before I could get my eyes upon the object I was in pursuit of.

However, I at length succeeded in doing so. The underwood came to an end. The misshapen cypress trunks alone stood up out of the miry, black soil; and far off, down one of their dark aisles, I caught sight of the negro, still running at the top of his speed. Fortunately his garments were light-coloured, else under the sombre shadow I could not have made him out. As it was, I had only a glimpse of him, and at a good distance off.

But I had cleared the thicket, and could run freely. Swiftness had now everything to do with the race; and in less than five minutes after I was close upon the heels of the black, and calling to him to halt.

“Stop!” I shouted. “For God’s sake, stop!”

No notice was taken of my appeals. The negro did not even turn his head, but ran on, floundering through the mud.

“Stop!” I repeated, as loudly as my exhausted breath would permit. “Stop, man! why do you run from me? I mean you no harm.”

Neither did this speech produce any effect. No reply was given. If anything, I fancied that he increased his speed; or rather, perhaps, he had got through the quagmire, and was running upon firm ground while I was just entering upon the former.

I fancied that the distance between us was again widening; and began to fear he might still elude me. I felt that my life was on the result. Without him to guide me from the forest, I would miserably perish. He must guide me. Willing or unwilling, I should force him to the office.

“Stop,” I again cried out; “halt, or I fire!”

I had raised my gun. Both barrels were loaded. I had spoken in all seriousness. I should in reality have fired—not to kill, but to detain him. The shot might injure him, but I could not help it. I had no choice—no other means of saving my own life.

I repeated the awful summons:—

“Stop—or I fire!”

This time my tone was earnest. It left no doubt of my intention; and this seemed to be the impression it produced upon the black; for, suddenly halting in his tracks, he wheeled about, and stood facing me.

“Fire! and be dam!” cried he; “have a care, white man—don’t you miss. By Gor-amighty! if ya do, your life’s mine. See dis knife! fire now and be dam!”

As he spoke he stood full fronting me, his broad chest thrown out as if courageously to receive the shot, and in his uplifted hand I saw the shining blade of a knife!

A few steps brought me close up; and in the man that stood before me I recognised the form, and ferocious aspect of Gabriel the Bambarra!