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Chapter 65 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Pawpaw Thicket

Our progress along this by-road was slow. There was no white dust upon the path to guide us. We had to grope our way as well as we could between the zigzag fences. Now and then our horses stumbled in the deep ruts made by the wood-wagons, and it was with difficulty we could force them forward.

My companion seemed to manage better than I, and whipped his horse onward as if he were more familiar with the path, or else more reckless! I wondered at this without making any remark.

After half-an-hour’s struggling we reached the angle of the rail-fence, where the enclosure ended and the woods began. Another hundred yards brought us under the shadow of the tall timber; where we reined up to take breath, and concert what was next to be done.

I remembered that there was a pawpaw thicket near this place.

“If we could find it,” I said to my companion, “and leave our horses there?”

“We may easily do that,” was the reply; “though ’tis scarce worth while searching for a thicket—the darkness will sufficiently conceal them.—Ha! not so—Voilà l’éclair!”

As D’Hauteville spoke, a blue flash lit up the whole canopy of heaven. Even the gloomy aisles of the forest were illuminated, so that we could distinguish the trunks and branches of the trees to a long distance around us. The light wavered for some seconds, like a lamp about being extinguished; and then went suddenly out, leaving the darkness more opaque than before.

There was no noise accompanying this phenomenon—at least none produced by the lightning itself. It caused some noise, however, among the wild creatures of the woods. It woke the white-headed haliaetus, perched upon the head of the tall taxodium, and his maniac laugh sounded harsh and shrill. It woke the grallatores of the swamp—the qua-bird, the curlews, and the tall blue herons—who screamed in concert. The owl, already awake, hooted louder its solemn note; and from the deep profound of the forest came the howl of the wolf, and the more thrilling cry of the cougar.

All nature seemed startled by this sudden blaze of light that filled the firmament. But the moment after all was darkness and silence as before. “The storm will soon be on?” I suggested. “No,” said my companion, “there will be no storm—you hear no thunder—when it is thus we shall have no rain—a very black night, with lightning at intervals—nothing more. Again!”

The exclamation was drawn forth by a second blaze of lightning, that like the first lit up the woods on all sides around us, and, as before, unaccompanied by thunder. Neither the slightest rumble nor clap was heard, but the wild creatures once more uttered their varied cries.

“We must conceal the horses, then,” said my companion; “some straggler might be abroad, and with this light they could be seen far off. The pawpaw thicket is the very place. Let us seek it! It lies in this direction.”

D’Hauteville rode forward among the tree-trunks. I followed mechanically. I felt satisfied he know the ground better than I! He must have been here before, was my reflection.

We had not gone many steps before the blue light blazed a third time; and we could see, directly in front of us, the smooth shining branches and broad green leaves of the Asiminas, forming the underwood of the forest.

When the lightning flashed again, we had entered the thicket.

Dismounting in its midst, we hastily tied our bridles to the branches; and then, leaving our horses to themselves, we returned towards the open ground.

Ten minutes’ walking enabled us to regain the zigzag railing that shut in the plantation of Gayarre.

Directing ourselves along this, in ten minutes after we arrived opposite the house—which by the electric blaze we could distinguish shining among the tall cotton-wood trees that grew around it. At this point we again made a stop to reconnoitre the ground, and consider how we should proceed.

A wide field stretched from the fence almost to the walls. A garden enclosed by palings lay between the field and the house; and on one side we could perceive the roofs of numerous cabins denoting the negro quarter. At some distance in the same direction, stood the sugar-mill and other outbuildings, and near these the house of Gayarre’s overseer.

This point was to be avoided. Even the negro quarter must be shunned, lest we might give alarm. The dogs would be our worst enemies. I knew that Gayarre kept several. I had often seen them along the roads. Large fierce animals they were. How were they to be shunned? They would most likely be rambling about the outbuildings or the negro cabins; therefore, our safest way would be to approach from the opposite side.

If we should fail to discover the apartment of Aurore, then it would be time to make reconnaissance in the direction of the “quarter,” and endeavour to find the boy Caton.

We saw lights in the house. Several windows—all upon the ground-floor—were shining through the darkness. More than one apartment therefore was occupied.

This gave us hope. One of them might be occupied by Aurore.

“And now, Monsieur!” said D’Hauteville, after we had discussed the various details, “suppose we fail? suppose some alarm be given, and we be detected before—?”

I turned, and looking my young companion full in the face, interrupted him in what he was about to say. “D’Hauteville!” said I, “perhaps, I may never be able to repay your generous friendship. It has already exceeded all bounds—but life you must not risk for me. That I cannot permit.”

“And how risk life, Monsieur?”

“If I fail—if alarm be given—if I am opposed, voilà—!”

I opened the breast of my coat, exposing to his view my pistols.

“Yes!” I continued; “I am reckless enough. I shall use them if necessary. I shall take life if it stand in the way. I am resolved; but you must not risk an encounter. You must remain here—I shall go to the house alone.”

“No—no!” he answered promptly; “I go with you.”

“I cannot permit it, Monsieur. It is better for you to remain here. You can stay by the fence until I return to you—until we return, I should say, for I come not back without her.”

“Do not act rashly, Monsieur!”

“No, but I am determined. I am desperate. We must not go farther.”

“And why not? I, too, have an interest in this affair.”

“You?” I asked, surprised at the words as well as the tone in which they were spoken. “You an interest?”

“Of course,” coolly replied my companion. “I love adventure. That gives me an interest. You must permit me to accompany you—I must go along with you!”

“As you will then, Monsieur D’Hauteville. Fear not. I shall act with prudence. Come on!”

I sprang over the fence, followed by my companion; and, without another word having passed between us, we struck across the field in the direction of the house.

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