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Chapter 71 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Signal

The change in our plans made no change in the direction. We continued on in the same course. The way to the lake passed by the glade, where we had purposed going—indeed, through the middle of it lay the nearest path to the lair of the runaway.

Not far from the north-east angle of Gayarre’s plantation, was the spot where I had parted with the black on the night of my adventure with him. It was at this point the path entered the woods. The blaze upon a sweet-gum-tree, which I remembered well, showed me the direction. I was but too glad to turn off here, and leave the open woods; the more so that, just as we had reached the turning-point, the cry of the hounds came swelling upon the air, loud and prolonged. From the direction of the sound, I had no doubt but that they were already in the cane-field, and lifting our trail of the preceding night.

For a few hundred yards farther the timber was thin. The axe had been flourished there, as the numerous “stumps” testified. It was there the “firewood” was procured for the use of the plantation, and “cords” of it, already cut and piled, could be seen on both sides of our path. We passed among these with trembling haste. We feared to meet with some of the woodcutters, or the driver of a wood-wagon. Such an encounter would have been a great misfortune; as, whoever might have seen us would have guided our pursuers on the track.

Had I reasoned calmly I would not have felt uneasiness on this head. I might have known, that if the dogs succeeded in tracking us thus far, they would need no direction from either wagoner or wood-chopper. But in the hurry of the moment I did not think of this; and I felt relief when we had passed through the tract of broken woods, and were entering under the more sombre shadow of the virgin forest.

It was now a question of time—a question of whether we should be able to reach the lake, summon the Bambarra with his pirogue, and be paddled out of sight, before the dogs should trail us to the edge of the water. Should we succeed in doing so, we should then have a fair prospect of escape. No doubt the dogs would guide our pursuers to the place of our embarkation—the fallen tree—but then both dogs and men would be at fault. That gloomy lake of the woods was a rare labyrinth. Though the open water was a surface of small extent, neither it, nor the island-like motte of timber in its centre, was visible from the place of embarkation; and, besides the lake itself, the inundation covered a large tract of the forest. Even should our pursuers be certain that we had escaped by the water, they might despair of finding us in the midst of such a maze—where the atmosphere at that season of fall foliage had the hue of a dark twilight.

But they would hardly be convinced of our escape in that way. There was no trace left where the pirogue was moored—no mark upon the tree. They would scarce suspect the existence of a canoe in such an out-of-the-way spot, where the water—a mere stagnant pond—had no communication either with the river or the adjacent bayous. We were leaving no tracks—I took care of that—that could be perceived under the forest gloom; and our pursuers might possibly conclude that the dogs had been running upon the trail of a bear, a cougar, or the swamp wild-cat (Lynx rufus)—all of which animals freely take the water when pursued. With such probabilities I was cheering myself and my companion, as we kept rapidly along our course!

My greatest source of apprehension was the delay we should have to make, after giving the signal to the runaway. Would he hear it at once? Would he attend to it in due haste? Would he arrive in time? These were the points about which I felt chiefly anxious. Time was the important consideration; in that lay the conditions of our danger. Oh! that I had thought of this purpose before!—oh! that we had started earlier!

How long would it take our pursuers to come up? I could scarce trust myself to think of a reply to this question. Mounted as they were, they would travel faster than we: the dogs would guide them at a run!

One thought alone gave me hope. They would soon find our resting-place of the night; they would see where we had slept by the pawpaw-leaves and the moss; they could not fail to be certain of all that; but would they so easily trail us thence? In our search after the horses, we had tracked the woods in all directions. I had gone back to the bye-road, and some distance along it. All this would surely baffle the dogs for a while; besides, D’Hauteville, at starting, had left the pawpaw thicket by a different route from that we had taken. They might go off on his trail. Would that they might follow D’Hauteville.

All these conjectures passed rapidly through my mind as we hurried along. I even thought of making an attempt to throw the hounds off the scent. I thought of the ruse practised by the Bambarra with the spray of the loblolly pine; but, unfortunately, I could not see any of these trees on our way, and feared to lose time by going in search of one. I had doubts, too, of the efficacy of such a proceeding, though the black had solemnly assured me of it. The common red onion, he had afterwards told me would be equally effective for the like purpose! But the red onion grew not in the woods, and the pin de l’encens I could not find.

For all that I did not proceed without precautions. Youth though I was, I was an old hunter, and had some knowledge of “woodcraft,” gathered in deerstalking, and in the pursuit of other game, among my native hills. Moreover, my nine months of New-world life had not all been passed within city walls; and I had already become initiated into many of the mysteries of the great American forest.

I did not proceed, then, in mere reckless haste. Where precautions could be observed, I adopted them.

A strip of marsh had to be crossed. It was stagnant water, out of which grew flags, and the shrub called “swamp-wood” (Bois de marais). It was knee-deep, and could he waded. I knew this, for I had crossed it before. Hand in hand we waded through, and got safe to the opposite side; but on entering I took pains to choose a place, where we stepped at once from the dry ground into the water. On going out, I observed a like precaution—so that our tracks might not appear in the mud.

Perhaps I should not have taken all this trouble, had I known that, there were “hunters” among those who pursued us. I fancied the crowd I had seen were but planters, or people of the town—hurriedly brought together by Gayarre and his friends. I fancied they might not have much skill in tracking, and that my simple trick might be sufficient to mislead them.

Had I known that at their head was a man, of whom Gabriel had told me much—a man who made negro-hunting his profession, and who was the most noted “tracker” in all the country—I might have saved myself both the time and the trouble I was taking. But I knew not that this ruffian and his trained dogs were after us, and I did my utmost to throw my pursuers off.

Shortly after passing the marsh, we crossed the “big bayou” by means of its tree-bridge. Oh! that I could have destroyed that log, or hurled it from its position. I consoled myself with the idea, that though the dogs might follow us over it, it would delay the pursuers awhile, who, no doubt, were all on horseback.

We now passed through the glade, but I halted not there. We stopped not to look upon its bright flowers—we perceived not their fragrance. Once I had wished to share this lovely scene in the company of Aurore. We were now in its midst, but under what circumstances! What wild thoughts were passing through my brain, as we hurried across this flowery tract under bright sunshine, and then plunged once more into the sombre atmosphere of the woods!

The path I remembered well, and was able to pursue it without hesitancy. Now and then only did I pause—partly to listen, and partly to rest my companion, whose bosom heaved quick and high with the rude exertion. But her glance testified that her courage was firm, and her smile cheered me on.

At length we entered among the cypress-trees that bordered the lake; and, gliding around their massive trunks, soon reached the edge of the water.

We approached the fallen tree; and, climbing up, advanced along its trunk until we stood among its moss-covered branches.

I had provided myself with an instrument—a simple joint of the cane which grew plenteously around, and which with my knife I had shaped after a fashion I had been already taught by the Bambarra. With this I could produce a sound, that would be heard at a great distance off, and plainly to the remotest part of the lake.

Taking hold of the branches, I now bent down, until my face almost touched the surface of the water, and placing the reed to my lips, I gave utterance to the signal.

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