Chapter 67 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Lost Mustangs.

The lightning continued to play at intervals, and we had no difficulty in finding our way. We recrossed near the same place where we had entered the field; and, guiding ourselves along the fence, hurried on towards the thicket of pawpaws, where we had left our horses.

My design was to take to the road at once, and endeavour to reach the city before daybreak. Once there, I hoped to be able to keep concealed—both myself and my betrothed—until some opportunity offered of getting out to sea, or up the river to one of the free states. I never thought of taking to the woods. Chance had made me acquainted with a rare hiding-place, and no doubt we might have found concealment there for a time. The advantage of this had crossed my mind, but I did not entertain the idea for a moment. Such a refuge could be but temporary. We should have to flee from it in the end, and the difficulty of escaping from the country would be as great as ever. Either for victim or criminal there is no place of concealment so safe as the crowded haunts of the populous city; and in New Orleans—half of which consists of a “floating” population—incognito is especially easily to be preserved.

My design, therefore—and D’Hauteville approved it—was to mount our horses, and make direct for the city.

Hard work I had cut out for our poor animals, especially the one that should have to “carry double.” Tough hacks they were, and had done the journey up cleverly enough, but it would stretch all their muscle to take us back before daylight.

Aided by the flashes, we wound our way, amid the trunks of the trees, until at length we came within sight of the pawpaw thicket—easily distinguished by the large oblong leaves of the asiminiers, which had a whitish sheen under the electric light. We hurried forward with joyful anticipation. Once mounted, we should soon get beyond the reach of pursuit.

“Strange the horses do not neigh, or give some sign of their presence! One would have thought our approach would have startled them. But no, there is no whimper, no hoof-stroke; yet we must be close to them now. I never knew of horses remaining so still? What can they be doing? Where are they?”

“Ay, where are they?” echoed D’Hauteville; “surely this is the spot where we left them?”

“Here it certainly was! Yes—here—this is the very sapling to which I fastened my bridle. See! here are their hoof-prints. By Heaven! the horses are gone!”

I uttered this with a full conviction of its truth. There was no room left for doubt. There was the trampled earth where they had stood—there the very tree to which we had tied them. I easily recognised it—for it was the largest in the grove.

Who had taken them away? This was the question that first occurred to us. Some one had been dogging us? Or had it been some one who had come across the animals by accident? The latter supposition was the less probable. Who would have been wandering in the woods on such a night? or even if any one had, what would have taken them into the pawpaw thicket? Ha! a new thought came into my head—perhaps the horses had got loose of themselves?

That was likely enough. Well, we should be able to tell as soon as the lightning flashed again, whether they had set themselves free; or whether some human hand had undone the knotted bridles. We stood by the tree waiting for the light. It did not tarry long; and when it came it enabled us to solve the doubt. My conjecture was correct; the horses had freed themselves. The broken branches told the tale. Something—the lightning—or more likely a prowling wild beast, had stampeded them; and they had broken off into the woods.

We now reproached ourselves for having so negligently fastened them—for having tied them to a branch of the asiminier, whose soft succulent wood possesses scarcely the toughness of an ordinary herbaceous plant. I was rather pleased at the discovery that the animals had freed themselves. There was a hope they had not strayed far. We might yet find them near at hand, with trailing bridles, cropping the grass.

Without loss of time we went in search of them—D’Hauteville took one direction, I another, while Aurore remained in the thicket of the pawpaws.

I ranged around the neighbourhood, went back to the fence, followed it to the road, and even went some distance along the road. I searched every nook among the trees, pushed through thickets and cane-brakes, and, whenever it flashed, examined the ground for tracks. At intervals I returned to the point of starting, to find that D’Hauteville had been equally unsuccessful.

After nearly an hour spent in this fruitless search, I resolved to give it up. I had no longer a hope of finding the horses; and, with despairing step, I turned once more in the direction of the thicket. D’Hauteville had arrived before me.

As I approached, the quivering gleam enabled me to distinguish his figure. He was standing beside Aurore. He was conversing familiarly with her. I fancied he was polite to her, and that she seemed pleased. There was something in this slight scene that made a painful impression upon me.

Neither had he found any traces of the missing steeds. It was no use looking any longer for them; and we agreed to discontinue the search, and pass the night in the woods.

It was with a heavy heart that I consented to this; but we had no alternative. Afoot we could not possibly reach New Orleans before morning; and to have been found on the road after daybreak would have insured our capture. Such as we could not pass without observation; and I had no doubt that, at the earliest hour, a pursuing party would take the road to the city.

Our most prudent plan was to remain all night where we were, and renew our search for the horses as soon as it became day. If we should succeed in finding them, we might conceal them in the swamp till the following night, and then make for the city. If we should not recover them, then, by starting at an earlier hour, we might attempt the journey on foot.

The loss of the horses had placed us in an unexpected dilemma. It had seriously diminished our chances of escape, and increased the peril of our position.

Peril I have said, and in such we stood—peril of no trifling kind. You will with difficulty comprehend the nature of our situation. You will imagine yourself reading the account of some ordinary lover’s escapade—a mere runaway match, à la Gretna Green.

Rid yourself of this fancy. Know that all three of us had committed an act for which we were amenable. Know that my crime rendered me liable to certain and severe punishment by the laws of the land; that a still more terrible sentence might be feared outside the laws of the land. I knew all this—I knew that life itself was imperilled by the act I had committed!

Think of our danger, and it may enable you to form some idea of what were our feelings after returning from our bootless hunt after the horses.

We had no choice but stay where we were till morning.

We spent half-an-hour in dragging the tillandsia from the trees, and collecting the soft leaves of the pawpaws. With these I strewed the ground; and, placing Aurore upon it, I covered her with my cloak.

For myself I needed no couch. I sat down near my beloved, with my back against the trunk of a tree. I would fain have pillowed her head upon my breast, but the presence of D’Hauteville restrained me. Even that might not have hindered me, but the slight proposal which I made had been declined by Aurore. Even the hand that I had taken in mine was respectfully withdrawn!

I will confess that this coyness surprised and piqued me.