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Chapter 38 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Pirogue

We soon after entered the cyprière. There the surface was mostly without underwood. The black taxodiums, standing thickly, usurped the ground, their umbellated crowns covered with hoary epiphytes, whose pendulous drapery shut out the sun, that would otherwise have nourished on that rich soil a luxuriant herbaceous vegetation. But we were now within the limits of the annual inundation; and but few plants can thrive there.

After a while I could see we were approaching a stagnant water. There was no perceptible descent, but the dank damp odour of the swamp, the noise of the piping frogs, the occasional scream of some wading bird, or the bellowing of the alligator, admonished me that some constant water—some lake or pond—was near.

We were soon upon its margin. It was a large pond, though only a small portion of it came under the eye; for, as far as I could see, the cypress-trees grew up out of the water, their huge buttresses spreading out so as almost to touch each other! Here and there the black “knees” protruded above the surface, their fantastic shapes suggesting the idea of horrid water-demons, and lending a supernatural character to the scene. Thus canopied over, the water looked black as ink, and the atmosphere felt heavy and oppressive. The picture was one from which Dante might have drawn ideas for his “Inferno.”

On arriving near this gloomy pond, my guide came to a stop. A huge tree that had once stood near the edge had fallen, and in such a position that its top extended far out into the water. Its branches were yet undecayed, and the parasites still clung to them in thick tufts, giving the whole the appearance of a mass of hay loosely thrown together. Part of this was under water, but a still larger portion remained above the surface, high and dry. It was at the root of this fallen tree that my guide had halted.

He remained but a moment, waiting only till I came up.

As soon as I had reached the spot, he mounted upon the trunk; and, beckoning me to follow him, walked along the log in the direction of its top. I climbed up, and balancing myself as well as I could, followed him out into the water.

On reaching the head of the tree, we entered among the thick limbs; and, winding around these, kept still farther towards the top branches. I expected that there we should reach our resting-place.

At length my companion came to a stop, and I now saw, to my astonishment, a small “pirogue” resting upon the water, and hidden under the moss! So completely was it concealed, that it was not possible to have seen it from any point except that where we now stood.

“This, then,” thought I, “is the object for which we have crawled out upon the tree.”

The sight of the pirogue led me to conjecture that we had farther to go. The black now loosed the canoe from its moorings, and beckoned me to get in.

I stepped into the frail craft and sat down. My companion followed, and, laying hold of the branches, impelled the vessel outward till it was clear of the tops of the tree. Then, seizing the paddle, under its repeated strokes we passed silently over the gloomy surface of the water.

For the first two or three hundred yards our progress was but slow. The cypress knees, and huge “buttocks” of the trees, stood thickly in the way, and it was necessary to observe some caution in working the pirogue through among them. But I saw that my companion well understood the manège of his craft, and wielded a “paddle” with the skill of a Chippewa. He had the reputation of being a great “’coon-hunter” and “bayou fisherman;” and in these pursuits no doubt he had picked up his canoe-craft.

It was the most singular voyage I had ever made. The pirogue floated in an element that more resembled ink than water. Not a ray of sun glanced across our path. The darkness of twilight was above and around us.

We glided along shadowy aisles, and amidst huge black trunks that rose like columns supporting a canopy of close-woven fronds. From this vegetable root hung the mournful bromelia, sometimes drooping down to the very surface of the water, so as to sweep our faces and shoulders as we passed under it.

We were not the only living things. Even this hideous place had its denizens. It was the haunt and secure abode of the great saurian, whose horrid form could be distinguished in the gloom, now crawling along some prostrate trunk, now half mounted upon the protruding knees of the cypresses, or swimming with slow and stealthy stroke through the black liquid. Huge water-snakes could be seen, causing a tiny ripple as they passed from tree to tree, or lying coiled upon the projecting buttocks. The swamp-owl hovered on silent wing, and large brown bats pursued their insect prey. Sometimes these came near, fluttering in our very faces, so that we could perceive the mephitic odour of their bodies, while their horny jaws gave forth a noise like the clinking of castanets.

The novelty of the scene interested me; but I could not help being impressed with a slight feeling of awe. Classic memories, too, stirred within me. The fancies of the Roman poet were here realised. I was upon the Styx, and in my rower I recognised the redoubtable Charon.

Suddenly a light broke through the gloom. A few more strokes of the paddle, and the pirogue shot out into the bright sunlight. What a relief!

I now beheld a space of open water,—a sort of circular lake. It was in reality the lake, for what we had been passing over was but the inundation; and at certain seasons this portion covered with forest became almost dry. The open water, on the contrary, was constant, and too deep even for the swamp-loving cypress to grow in it.

The space thus clear of timber was not of very large extent,—a surface of half-a-mile or so. On all sides it was enclosed by the moss-draped forest that rose around it, like a grey wall; and in the very centre grew a clump of the same character, that in the distance appeared to be an island.

This solitary tarn was far from being silent. On the contrary, it was a scene of stirring life. It seemed the rendezvous for the many species of wild winged creatures that people the great marais of Louisiana. There were the egrets, the ibises—both white and scarlet—the various species of Ardeidae, the cranes, and the red flamingoes. There, too, was the singular and rare darter, swimming with body immersed, and snake-like head just appearing above the water; and there were the white unwieldy forms of the tyrant pelicans standing on the watch for their finny prey. Swimming birds speckled the surface; various species of Anatidae—swans, geese, and ducks,—while the air was filled with flights of gulls and curlews, or was cut by the strong whistling wings of the mallards.

Other than waterfowl had chosen this secluded spot for their favourite dwelling-place. The osprey could be seen wheeling about in the air, now shooting down like a star upon the unfortunate fish that had approached too near the surface, and anon yielding up his prey to the tyrant Haliaetus. Such were the varied forms of feathered creatures that presented themselves to my eye on entering this lonely lake of the woods.

I looked with interest upon the scene. It was a true scene of nature, and made a vivid impression upon me at the moment. Not so with my companion, to whom it was neither novel nor interesting. It was an old picture to his eyes, and he saw it from a different point of view. He did not stay to look at it, but, lightly dipping his paddle, pressed the pirogue on in the direction of the island.

A few strokes carried us across the open water, and the canoe once more entered under the shadow of trees. But to my surprise, there was no island! What I had taken for an island was but a single cypress-tree, that grew upon a spot where the lake was shallow. Its branches extending on every side were loaded with the hoary parasites that drooped down to the very surface of the water, and shadowed a space of half an acre in extent. Its trunk rested upon a base of enormous dimensions. Huge buttresses flanked it on every side, slanting out into the water and rising along its stem to a height of many yards, the whole mass appearing as large as an ordinary cabin. Its sides were indented with deep bays; and, as we approached under the screen, I could perceive a dark cavity which showed that this singular “buttock” was hollow within.

The bow of the pirogue was directed into one of the bays, and soon struck against the tree. I saw several steps cut into the wood, and leading to the cavity above. My companion pointed to these steps. The screaming of the startled birds prevented me from hearing what he said, but I saw that it was a sign for me to mount upward. I hastened to obey his direction; and, climbing out of the canoe, sprawled up the sloping ridge.

At the top was the entrance, just large enough to admit the body of a man; and, pressing through this, I stood inside the hollow tree.

We had reached our destination—I was in the lair of the runaway!

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