“You’ve lost the way, nephew?” said the planter, riding rapidly up.
“No uncle—not yet. I’ve only stopped to have a look. It must lie in this direction—down that valley. Let them drive on. We’re going all right—I’ll answer for it.”
Once more in motion—adown the slope—then along the valley—then up the acclivity of another ridge—and then there is a second stoppage upon its crest.
“You’ve lost the way, Cash?” said the planter, coming up and repeating his former observation.
“Damned if I don’t believe I have, uncle!” responded the nephew, in a tone of not very respectful mistrust. “Anyhow; who the devil could find his way out of an ashpit like this? No, no!” he continued, reluctant to betray his embarrassment as the carriole came up. “I see now. We’re all right yet. The river must be in this direction. Come on!”
On goes the guide, evidently irresolute. On follow the sable teamsters, who, despite their stolidity, do not fail to note some signs of vacillation. They can tell that they are no longer advancing in a direct line; but circuitously among the copses, and across the glades that stretch between.
All are gratified by a shout from the conductor, announcing recovered confidence. In response there is a universal explosion of whipcord, with joyous exclamations.
Once more they are stretching their teams along a travelled road—where a half-score of wheeled vehicles must have passed before them. And not long before: the wheel-tracks are of recent impress—the hoof-prints of the animals fresh as if made within the hour. A train of waggons, not unlike their own, must have passed over the burnt prairie!
Like themselves, it could only be going towards the Leona: perhaps some government convoy on its way to Fort Inge? In that case they have only to keep in the same track. The Fort is on the line of their march—but a short distance beyond the point where their journey is to terminate.
Nothing could be more opportune. The guide, hitherto perplexed—though without acknowledging it—is at once relieved of all anxiety; and with a fresh exhibition of conceit, orders the route to be resumed.
For a mile or more the waggon-tracks are followed—not in a direct line, but bending about among the skeleton copses. The countenance of Cassius Calhoun, for a while wearing a confident look, gradually becomes clouded. It assumes the profoundest expression of despondency, on discovering that the four-and-forty wheel-tracks he is following, have been made by ten Pittsburgh waggons, and a carriole—the same that are now following him, and in whose company he has been travelling all the way from the Gulf of Matagorda!
The Trail of the Lazo.
Beyond doubt, the waggons of Woodley Poindexter were going over ground already traced by the tiring of their wheels.
“Our own tracks!” muttered Calhoun on making the discovery, adding a fierce oath as he reined up.
“Our own tracks! What mean you, Cassius? You don’t say we’ve been travelling—”
“On our own tracks. I do, uncle; that very thing. We must have made a complete circumbendibus of it. See! here’s the hind hoof of my own horse, with half a shoe off; and there’s the foot of the niggers. Besides, I can tell the ground. That’s the very hill we went down as we left our last stopping place. Hang the crooked luck! We’ve made a couple of miles for nothing.”
Embarrassment is no longer the only expression upon the face of the speaker. It has deepened to chagrin, with an admixture of shame. It is through him that the train is without a regular guide. One, engaged at Indianola, had piloted them to their last camping place. There, in consequence of some dispute, due to the surly temper of the ex-captain of volunteers, the man had demanded his dismissal, and gone back.
For this—as also for an ill-timed display of confidence in his power to conduct the march—is the planter’s nephew now suffering under a sense of shame. He feels it keenly as the carriole comes up, and bright eyes become witnesses of his discomfiture.
Poindexter does not repeat his inquiry. That the road is lost is a fact evident to all. Even the barefooted or “broganned” pedestrians have recognised their long-heeled footprints, and become aware that they are for the second time treading upon the same ground.
There is a general halt, succeeded by an animated conversation among the white men. The situation is serious: the planter himself believes it to be so. He cannot that day reach the end of his journey—a thing upon which he had set his mind.
That is the very least misfortune that can befall them. There are others possible, and probable. There are perils upon the burnt plain. They may be compelled to spend the night upon it, with no water for their animals. Perhaps a second day and night—or longer—who can tell how long?
How are they to find their way? The sun is beginning to descend; though still too high in heaven to indicate his line of declination. By waiting a while they may discover the quarters of the compass.
But to what purpose? The knowledge of east, west, north, and south can avail nothing now: they have lost their line of march.
Calhoun has become cautious. He no longer volunteers to point out the path. He hesitates to repeat his pioneering experiments—after such manifest and shameful failure.
A ten minutes’ discussion terminates in nothing. No one can suggest a feasible plan of proceeding. No one knows how to escape from the embrace of that dark desert, which appears to cloud not only the sun and sky, but the countenances of all who enter within its limits.
A flock of black vultures is seen flying afar off. They come nearer, and nearer. Some alight upon the ground—others hover above the heads of the strayed travellers. Is there a boding in the behaviour of the birds?
Another ten minutes is spent in the midst of moral and physical gloom. Then, as if by a benignant mandate from heaven, does cheerfulness re-assume its sway. The cause? A horseman riding in the direction of the train!
An unexpected sight: who could have looked for human being in such a place? All eyes simultaneously sparkle with joy; as if, in the approach of the horseman, they beheld the advent of a saviour!
“He’s coming this way, is he not?” inquired the planter, scarce confident in his failing sight.
“Yes, father; straight as he can ride,” replied Henry, lifting the hat from his head, and waving it on high: the action accompanied by a shout intended to attract the horseman.
The signal was superfluous. The stranger had already sighted the halted waggons; and, riding towards them at a gallop, was soon within speaking distance.
He did not draw bridle, until he had passed the train; and arrived upon the spot occupied by the planter and his party.
“A Mexican!” whispered Henry, drawing his deduction from the habiliments of the horseman.
“So much the better,” replied Poindexter, in the same tone of voice; “he’ll be all the more likely to know the road.”
“Not a bit of Mexican about him,” muttered Calhoun, “excepting the rig. I’ll soon see. Buenos dias, cavallero! Esta V. Mexicano?” (Good day, sir! are you a Mexican?)
“No, indeed,” replied the stranger, with a protesting