Chapter 73 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Man-Hunter.

The hounds had fallen into the water—one dead, the other badly wounded. The latter could not have escaped, as one of his legs had been struck by the bullet, and his efforts to swim were but the throes of desperation. In a few minutes he must have gone to the bottom; but it was not his fate to die by drowning. It was predestined that his howling should be brought to a termination in a far different manner.

The voice of the dog is music to the ear of the alligator. Of all other animals, this is the favourite prey of the great saurian; and the howl of hound or cur will attract him from any distance where it may be heard.

Naturalists have endeavoured to explain this in a different way. They say—and such is the fact—that the howling of a dog bears a resemblance to the voice of the young alligator, and that the old ones are attracted towards the spot where it is heard—the mother to protect it, and the male parent to devour it!

This is a disputed point in natural history; but there can be no dispute that the alligator eagerly preys upon the dog whenever an opportunity offers—seizing the canine victim in his terrible jaws, and carrying it off to his aqueous retreat. This he does with an air of such earnest avidity, as to leave no doubt but that he esteems the dog a favourite morsel.

I was not surprised, then, to see half-a-dozen of these gigantic reptiles emerging from amid the dark tree-trunks, and hastily swimming towards the wounded hound.

The continued howling of the latter guided them; and in a few seconds they had surrounded the spot where he struggled, and were dashing forward upon their victim.

A shoal of sharks could not have finished him more expeditiously. A blow from the tail of one silenced his howling—three or four pair of gaunt jaws closed upon him at the same time—a short scuffle ensued—then the long bony heads separated, and the huge reptiles were seen swimming off again—each with a morsel in his teeth. A few bubbles and blotches of red froth mottling the inky surface of the water, were all that remained where the hound had lately been plunging.

Almost a similar scene occurred on the opposite side of the log—for the water was but a few feet in depth, and the dead hound was visible as he lay at the bottom. Several of the reptiles approaching on that side, had seen this one at the same time, and, rushing forward, they served him precisely as his companion had been served by the others. A crumb of bread could not have disappeared sooner among a shoal of hungry minnows, than did the brace of deer-hounds down the throats of these ravenous reptiles.

Singular as was the incident, it had scarce drawn my notice. I had far other things to think of.

After firing the pistol, I remained standing upon the tree, with my eyes fixed in the direction whence came the hounds.

I gazed intently among the tree-trunks, away up the dark vistas of the forest, I watched the cane-brake, to note the slightest motion in the reeds. I listened to every sound, while I stood silent myself, and enjoined silence upon my trembling companion.

I had but little hope then. There would be more dogs, no doubt—slower hounds following in the distance—and with them the mounted man-hunters. They could not be far behind—they could not fail to come up soon—the sooner that the report of my pistol would guide them to the spot. It would be of no use making opposition to a crowd of angry men. I could do nothing else than surrender to them.

My companion entreated me to this course; abjured me not to use my weapons—for I now held the second pistol in my hand. But I had no intention of using them should the crowd of men come up; I had only taken out the pistol as a precaution against the attack of the dogs—should any more appear.

For a good while I heard no sounds from the forest, and saw no signs of our pursuers. What could be detaining them? Perhaps the crossing of the bayou; or the tract of marsh. I knew the horsemen must there leave the trail; but were they all mounted?

I began to hope that Gabriel might yet be in time. If he had not heard the signal-whistle, he must have heard the reports of my pistol? But, on second thoughts, that might only keep him back. He would not understand the firing, and might fear to come with the pirogue!

Perhaps he had heard the first signal, and was now on his way. It was not too late to entertain such a supposition. Notwithstanding what had passed, we had been yet but a short while upon the spot. If on the way, he might think the shots were fired from my double-barrelled gun—fired at some game. He might not be deterred. There was still a hope he might come in time. If so, we would be able to reach his tree-cave in safety.

There was no trace of the dogs, save a blotch or two of blood upon the rough bark of the log, and that was not visible from the shore. Unless there were other dogs to guide them to the spot, the men might not in the darkness so easily discover these marks. We might yet baffle them!

With fresh hope I turned once more towards the water, and gazed in the direction in which I expected the pirogue to come. Alas! there was no sign of it. No sound came from the lake save the wild calling of the affrighted birds.

I turned once more to the land.

I saw the cane-brake in motion. The tall culms vibrated and crackled under the heavy tread of a man, who the next moment emerging into the open ground, advanced at a slinging trot towards the water!

He was alone and afoot—there were no dogs with him—but the long rifle poised upon his shoulder, and the hunting accoutrements around his body, told me at a glance he was the owner of the deer-hounds.

His black bushy beard, his leggings, and buckskin shirt, his red neckcloth and raccoon cap—but above all, the brutal ferocity of his visage, left me in no doubt as to who this character was. The description of the runaway answered him in every particular. He could be no other than Ruffin the man-hunter!