Chapter 39 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Tree-Cavern.

The interior was dark, and it was some time before I could distinguish any object. Presently my eyes became accustomed to the sombre light, and I was enabled to trace the outlines of this singular tree-cavern.

Its dimensions somewhat astonished me. A dozen men could have been accommodated in it, and there was ample room for that number either sitting or standing. In fact, the whole pyramidal mass which supported the tree was nothing more than a thin shell, all the heart having perished by decay. The floor, by the falling of this débris of rotten wood, was raised above the level of the water, and felt firm and dry underfoot. Near its centre I could perceive the ashes and half-burnt embers of an extinct fire; and along one side was strewed a thick covering of dry tillandsia, that had evidently been used as a bed. An old blanket lying upon the moss gave further testimony that this was its purpose.

There was no furniture. A rude block,—a cypress knee that had been carried there—formed, the only substitute for a chair, and there was nothing to serve for a table. He who had made this singular cave his residence required no luxuries to sustain him. Necessaries, however, he had provided. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the light, I could make out a number of objects I had not at first seen. An earthen cooking-pot, a large water gourd, a tin cup, an old axe, some fishing-tackle, and one or two coarse rags of clothing. What interested me more than all these was the sight of several articles that were eatable. There was a good-sized “chunk” of cooked pork, a gigantic “pone” of corn-bread, several boiled ears of maize, and the better half of a roast fowl. All these lay together upon a large wooden dish, rudely carved from the wood of the tulip-tree—of such a fashion as I had often observed about the cabins of the negro quarter. Beside this dish lay several immense egg-shaped bodies of dark-green colour, with other smaller ones of a yellow hue. These were water and musk melons,—not a bad prospect for a dessert.

I had made this reconnoissance while my companion was engaged in fastening his pirogue to the tree. I had finished my survey as he entered.

“Now, mass’,” said he, “dis am ole Gabe’s nest; de dam man-hunter no found ’im yeer.”

“Why, you are quite at home here, Gabriel! How did you ever find such a place?”

“Lor’, mass’, knowd it long time. He not de fust darkie who hid in dis old cypress,—nor de fust time for Gabr’l neider. He runaway afore,—dat war when he libbed with Mass’ Hicks, ’fore ole mass’ bought him. He nebber had ’casion to run away from old Mass ’Sançon. He good to de brack folks, and so war Mass Antoine—he good too, but now de poor nigga can’t stan no longer; de new oberseer, he flog hard,—he flog till do blood come,—he use de cobbin board, an dat pump, an de red cowhide, an de wagon whip,—ebberything he use,—dam! I nebber go back,—nebber!”

“But how do you intend to live? you can’t always exist in this way. Where will you get your provisions?”

“Nebber fear, mass’ Edwad, always get nuff to eat; no fear for dat. Da poor runaway hab some friend on de plantations. Beside he steal nuff to keep ’im ’live—hya! hya!”


“Gabr’l no need steal now, ’ceptin’ de roasting yeers and de millyuns. See! what Zip fetch im! Zip come las night to de edge ob de woods an’ fetch all dat plunder. But, mass’, you ’skoose me. Forgot you am hungry. Hab some pork some chicken. Chloe cook ’em—is good—you eat.”

So saying he set the wooden platter with its contents before me; and the conversation was now interrupted, as both myself and my companion attacked the viands with right good-will.

The “millyuns” constituted a delicious dessert, and for a full half-hour we continued to fight against the appetite of hunger. We conquered it at length, but not until the store of the runaway had been greatly reduced in bulk.

After dinner we sat conversing for a long time. We were not without the soothing nicotian weed. My companion had several bunches of dry tobacco-leaf among his stores; and a corn-cob with a piece of cane-joint served for a pipe, through which the smoke was inhaled with all the aromatic fragrance of the costliest Havanna.

Partly from gratitude for the saving of my life, I had grown to feel a strong interest in the runaway, and his future prospects became the subject of our converse. He had formed no plan of escape—though some thoughts of an attempt to reach Canada or Mexico, or to get off in a ship by New Orleans, had passed through his mind.

A plan occurred to me, though I did not communicate it to him, as I might never be able to carry it out. I begged of him, however, not to leave his present abode until I could see him again, promising that I should do what I could to find him a kinder master.

He readily agreed to my proposal; and as it was now sunset, I made preparations for my departure from the lake.

A signal was agreed upon, so that when I should return to visit him, he could bring the pirogue to ferry me across; and this being arranged, we once more entered the canoe, and set out for the plantations.

We soon recrossed the lake; and, leaving the little boat safely moored by the fallen tree, started off through the woods. The path, with Gabriel for my guide, was now easy; and at intervals, as we went along, he directed my attention to certain blazes upon the trees, and other marks by which I should know it again.

In less than an hour after, we parted on the edge of the clearings—he going to some rendezvous already appointed—whilst I kept on to the village, the road to which now ran between parallel fences that rendered it impossible for me to go astray.