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Chapter 70 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Hounds on our Trail

O God! after us with hounds!

Either after us, or about to be, was the hypothetic form of my conjecture.

I could proceed no farther upon our path till I had become satisfied.

Leaving Aurore among the palmettoes. I ran directly forward to the fence, which was also the boundary of the woods. On reaching this, I grasped the branch of a tree, and swung myself up to such an elevation as would enable me to see over the tops of the cane. This gave me a full view of the house shining under the sun that had now risen in all his splendour.

At a glance I saw that I had guessed aright. Distant as the house was, I could plainly see men around it, many of them on horseback. Their heads were moving above the canes; and now and then the deep bay of hounds told that several dogs were loose about the enclosure. The scene was just as if a party of hunters had assembled before going out upon a deer “drive;” and but for the place, the time, and the circumstances that had already transpired, I might have taken it for such. Far different, however, was the impression it made upon me. I knew well why was that gathering around the house of Gayarre. I knew well the game they were about to pursue. I lingered but a moment upon my perch—long enough to perceive that the hunters were all mounted and ready to start.

With quick-beating pulse I retraced my steps; and soon rejoined my companion, who stood awaiting me with trembling apprehension.

I did not need to tell her the result of my reconnoissance: she read it in my looks. She, too, had heard the baying of the dogs. She was a native, and knew the customs of the land: she knew that hounds were used to hunt deer and foxes and wild-cats of the woods; but she knew also that on many plantations there were some kept for a far different purpose—sleuth-dogs, trained to the hunting of men!

Had she been of slow comprehension, I might have attempted to conceal from her what I had learnt; but she was far from that, and with quick instinct she divined all.

Our first feeling was that of utter hopelessness. There seemed no chance of our escaping. Go where we would, hounds, trained to the scent of a human track, could not fail to follow and find us. It would be of no use hiding in the swamp or the bush. The tallest sedge or the thickest underwood could not give us shelter from pursuers like these.

Our first feeling, then, was that of hopelessness—quickly followed by a half-formed resolve to go no farther, to stand our ground and be taken. We had not death to fear; though I knew that if taken I might make up my mind to some rough handling. I knew the feeling that was abroad in relation to the Abolitionists—at that time raging like a fever. I had heard of the barbarous treatment which some of these “fanatics”—as they were called—had experienced at the hands of the incensed slave-owners. I should no doubt be reckoned in the same category, or maybe, still worse, be charged as a “nigger-stealer.” In any case I had to fear chastisement, and of no light kind either.

But my dread of this was nothing when compared with the reflection that, if taken, Aurore must go back to Gayarre!

It was this thought more than any other that made my pulse beat quickly. It was this thought that determined me not to surrender until after every effort to escape should fail us.

I stood for some moments pondering on what course to pursue. All at once a thought came into my mind that saved me from despair. That thought was of Gabriel the runaway.

Do not imagine that I had forgotten him or his hiding-place all this time. Do not fancy I had not thought of him before. Often, since we had entered the woods, had he and his tree-cave arisen in my memory; and I should have gone there for concealment, but that the distance deterred me. As we intended to return to the Levee Road after sunset, I had chosen the glade for our resting-place, on account of its being nearer.

Even then, when I learnt that hounds would be after us, I had again thought of making for the Bambarra’s hiding-place; but had dismissed the idea, because it occurred to me that the hounds could follow us anywhere, and that, by taking shelter with the runaway, we should only guide his tyrants upon him.

So quick and confused had been all these reflections, that it had never occurred to me that the hounds could not trail us across water. It was only at that moment when pondering how I could throw them off the track—thinking of the snake-charmer and his pine-cones—that I remembered the water.

Sure enough, in that still lay a hope; and I could now appreciate the remarkable cunning with which the lair of the runaway had been chosen. It was just the place to seek refuge from “de dam blood-dogs.”

The moment I thought of it, I resolved to flee thither.

I would be sure to know the way. I had taken especial pains to remember it; for even on the day of my snake-adventure, some half-defined thoughts—something more like a presentiment than a plan—had passed through my mind, vaguely pointing to a contingency like the present. Later events, and particularly my design of escaping to the city at once, had driven these thoughts out of my mind. For all that, I still remembered the way by which the Bambarra had guided me, and could follow it with hurried steps—though there was neither road nor path, save the devious tracks made by cattle or the wild animals of the forest.

But I was certain I knew it well. I should remember the signs and “blazes” to which the guide had called my attention. I should remember where it crossed the “big bayou” by the trunk of a fallen tree that served as a foot-bridge. I should remember where it ran through a strip of marsh impassable for horses, through the cane-brake, among the great knees and buttocks of the cypresses, down to the edge of the water. And that huge tree, with its prostrate trunk projecting out into the lake, and its moss-wrapped branches—that cunning harbour for the little pirogue—I should be sure to remember.

Neither had I forgotten the signal, by which I was to warn the runaway whenever I should return. It was a peculiar whistle he had instructed me to give, and also the number of times I was to utter it.

I had not waited for all these reflections. Many of them were after-thoughts, that occurred along the way. The moment I remembered the lake, I resolved upon my course; and, with a word of cheer to my companion, we again moved forward.

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