T. Maston was speaking, Michel Ardan, without interrupting him, had hastily put on his clothes; and, in less than two minutes, the two friends were making for the suburbs of Tampa Town with rapid strides.
It was during this walk that Maston told Ardan the state of the case. He told him the real causes of the hostility between Barbicane and Nicholl; how it was of old date, and why, thanks to unknown friends, the president and the captain had, as yet, never met face to face. He added that it arose simply from a rivalry between iron plates and shot, and, finally, that the scene at the meeting was only the long-wished-for opportunity for Nicholl to pay off an old grudge.
Nothing is more dreadful than private duels in America. The two adversaries attack each other like wild beasts. Then it is that they might well covet those wonderful properties of the Indians of the prairies-- their quick intelligence, their ingenious cunning, their scent of the enemy. A single mistake, a moment's hesitation, a single false step may cause death. On these occasions Yankees are often accompanied by their dogs, and keep up the struggle for hours.
"What demons you are!" cried Michel Ardan, when his companion had depicted this scene to him with much energy.
"Yes, we are," replied J. T. modestly; "but we had better make haste."
Though Michel Ardan and he had crossed the plains still wet with dew, and had taken the shortest route over creeks and ricefields, they could not reach Skersnaw in under five hours and a half.
Barbicane must have passed the border half an hour ago.
There was an old bushman working there, occupied in selling fagots from trees that had been leveled by his axe.
Maston ran toward him, saying, "Have you seen a man go into the wood, armed with a rifle? Barbicane, the president, my best friend?"
The worthy secretary of the Gun Club thought that his president must be known by all the world. But the bushman did not seem to understand him.
"A hunter?" said Ardan.
"A hunter? Yes," replied the bushman.
"About an hour."
"Too late!" cried Maston.
"Have you heard any gunshots?" asked Ardan.
"Not one! that hunter did not look as if he knew how to hunt!"
"What is to be done?" said Maston.
"We must go into the wood, at the risk of getting a ball which is not intended for us."
"Ah!" cried Maston, in a tone which could not be mistaken, "I would rather have twenty balls in my own head than one in Barbicane's."
"Forward, then," said Ardan, pressing his companion's hand.
A few moments later the two friends had disappeared in the copse. It was a dense thicket, in which rose huge cypresses, sycamores, tulip-trees, olives, tamarinds, oaks, and magnolias. These different trees had interwoven their branches into an inextricable maze, through which the eye could not penetrate. Michel Ardan and Maston walked side by side in silence through the tall grass, cutting themselves a path through the strong creepers, casting curious glances on the bushes, and momentarily expecting to hear the sound of rifles. As for the traces which Barbicane ought to have left of his passage through the wood, there was not a vestige of them visible: so they followed the barely perceptible paths along which Indians had tracked some enemy, and which the dense foliage darkly overshadowed.
After an hour spent in vain pursuit the two stopped in intensified anxiety.
"It must be all over," said Maston, discouraged. "A man like Barbicane would not dodge with his enemy, or ensnare him, would not even maneuver! He is too open, too brave. He has gone straight ahead, right into the danger, and doubtless far enough from the bushman for the wind to prevent his hearing the report of the rifles."
"But surely," replied Michel Ardan, "since we entered the wood we should have heard!"
"And what if we came too late?" cried Maston in tones of despair.
For once Ardan had no reply to make, he and Maston resuming their walk in silence.