Prologue - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

During one of many journeyings through the remote provinces of the Mexican republic, it was my fortune to encounter an old revolutionary officer, in the person of Captain Castaños. From time to time as we travelled together, he was good enough to give me an account of some of the more noted actions of the prolonged and sanguinary war of the Independence; and, among other narratives, one which especially interested me was the famed battle of the Puente de Calderon, where the Captain himself had fought during the whole length of a summer’s day!

Of all the leaders of the Mexican revolution, there was none in whose history I felt so much interest as in the priest-soldier, Morelos—or, as he is familiarly styled in Mexican annals, the “illustrious Morelos”—and yet there was none of whose private life I could obtain so few details. His public career having become historic, was, of course, known to every one who chose to read of him. But what I desired was a more personal and intimate knowledge of this remarkable man, who from being the humble curate of an obscure village in Oajaca, became in a few short months the victorious leader of a well-appointed army, and master of all the southern provinces of New Spain.

“Can you give me any information regarding Morelos?” I asked of Captain Castaños, as we were journeying along the route between Tepic and Guadalaxara.

“Ah! Morelos? he was a great soldier,” replied the ex-captain of guerilleros. “In the single year of 1811, he fought no less than twenty-six battles with the Spaniards. Of these he won twenty-two; and though he lost the other four, each time he retreated with honour—”

“Hum! I know all that already,” said I, interrupting my fellow-traveller. “You are narrating history to me, while I want only chronicles. In other words, I want to hear those more private and particular details of Morelos’ life which the historians have not given.”

“Ah! I understand you,” said the captain, “and I am sorry that I cannot satisfy your desires: since, during the war I was mostly engaged in the northern provinces, and had no opportunity of knowing much of Morelos personally. But if my good friend, Don Cornelio Lantejas, is still living at Tepic, when we arrive there, I shall put you in communication with him. He can tell you more about Morelos than any other living man: since he was aide-de-camp to the General through all his campaigns, and served him faithfully up to the hour of his death.”

Our conversation here ended, for we had arrived at the inn where we intended to pass the night—the Venta de la Sierra Madre.

Early on the following morning, before any one had yet arisen, I left my chamber—in a corner of which, rolled in his ample manga, Captain Castaños was still soundly asleep. Without making any noise to disturb him, I converted my coverlet into a cloak—that is, I folded my serape around my shoulders, and walked forth from the inn. Other travellers, along with the people of the hostelry inside, with the domestics and muleteers out of doors, were still slumbering profoundly, and an imposing silence reigned over the mountain platform on which the venta stood.

Nothing appeared awake around me save the voices of the sierras, that never sleep—with the sound of distant waterfalls, as they rushed through vast ravines, keeping up, as it were, an eternal dialogue between the highest summits of the mountains and the deepest gulfs that yawned around their bases.

I walked forward to the edge of the table-like platform on which the venta was built; and halting there stood listening to these mysterious conversations of nature. And at once it appeared to me that other sounds were mingling with them—sounds that suggested the presence of human beings. At first they appeared like the intonations of a hunter’s horn—but of so harsh and hoarse a character, that I could scarcely believe them to be produced by such an instrument. As a profound silence succeeded, I began to think my senses had been deceiving me; but once more the same rude melody broke upon my ears, in a tone that, taken in connexion with the place where I listened to it, impressed me with an idea of the supernatural. It had something of the character of those horns used by the shepherds of the Swiss valleys; and it seemed to ascend out of the bottom of a deep ravine that yawned far beneath my feet.

I stepped forward to the extreme edge of the rock, and looked downwards. Again the hoarse cornet resounded in my ears; and this time so near, that I no longer doubted as to its proceeding from some human agency. In fact, the moment after, a man’s form appeared ascending from below, along the narrow pathway that zigzagged up the face of the cliff.

I had scarce time to make this observation, when the man, suddenly turning the angle of the rock, stood close by my side, where he halted apparently to recover his breath.

His costume at once revealed to me that he was an Indian; though his garments, his tall stature, and haughty mien, lent to him an aspect altogether different from that of most of the Indians I had hitherto encountered in Mexico. The proud air with which he bore himself, the fiery expression of his eye, his athletic limbs, and odd apparel, were none of them in keeping with the abject mien which now characterises the descendants of the ancient masters of Anahuac. In the grey light of the morning, I could see suspended from his shoulders the instrument that had made the mysterious music—a large sea-shell—a long, slender, curved conch, that hung glistening under his arm.

Struck with the singular appearance of this man, I could not help entering into conversation with him; though he appeared as if he would have passed me without speaking a word.

“You are early abroad, friend?” I remarked.

“Yes, master,” he replied; “early for a man as old as I am.”

I could not help regarding this as a jest; for over the shoulders of the Indian fell immense masses of jet black hair, which seemed to give contradiction to the statement of his being an old man.

I looked more narrowly into his countenance. His bronzed skin appeared to cling closely to his angular features, but there were none of those deep furrows that betray the presence of advanced age.

“How old are you?” I asked at length.

“That I cannot tell, cavallero,” replied he. “I tried from the time I was able to distinguish the dry season from that of the rains to keep an account of my age; and I succeeded in doing so up till I was fifty. After that, for particular reasons, I did not care to know it, and so I left off counting.”

“You say you are more than fifty years old?” and as I put this inquiry I glanced at the long purple black tresses that hung over his shoulders.

“Nearly half as much more,” was the reply. “You are looking at the colour of my hair. There are ravens who have seen a hundred seasons of rain without having a feather whitened. Ah! what matters the course of years to me? A raven croaked upon the roof of my father’s cabin when I was born, at the same instant that my father had traced upon the floor the figure of one of these birds. Well, then! of course I shall live as long as that raven lives. What use then to keep a reckoning of years that cannot be numbered?”

“You think, then, that your life is in some way attached to that of the raven that perched on the paternal roof when you came into the world?”

“It is the belief of my ancestors, the Zapoteques, and it is also mine,” seriously responded the Indian.

It was not my desire to combat the superstitions of the Zapoteques; and, dropping the subject, I inquired from him his purpose in carrying the conch—whether it was for whiling away his time upon the journey, or whether there was not also connected with it some other belief of his ancestors?

The Indian hesitated a moment before making reply.

“It is only a remembrance of my country,” he said, after a short silence. “When I hear the echoes of the Sierra repeat the sounds of my shell, I can fancy myself among the mountains of Tehuantepec, where I used to hunt the tiger—in pursuing my profession of tigrero. Or at other times I may fancy it to be the signals of the pearl-seekers in the Gulf, when I followed the calling of a buzo (diver); for I have hunted the sea tigers who guard the banks of pearls under the water, as I have those that ravage the herds of cattle upon the great savannas. But time passes, cavallero; I must say good day to you. I have to reach the hacienda of Portezuelo by noon, and it’s a long journey to make in the time. Puez, adios, cavallero!”

So saying, the Indian strode off with that measured step peculiar to his race; and was soon lost to my sight, as he descended into the ravine on the opposite side of the plateau.

As I returned towards the inn I could hear the prolonged notes of his marine trumpet rising up out of the chasm, and reverberating afar off against the precipitous sides of the Sierra Madre.

“What the devil is all this row about?” inquired Captain Ruperto Castaños, as he issued forth from the venta.

I recounted to him the interview I had just had; and the singular communications I had received from the Indian.

“It don’t astonish me,” said he; “the Zapoteques are still more pagan than Christian, and given to superstitious practices to a greater degree than any other Indians in Mexico. Our Catholic curas in their villages are there only for the name of the thing, and as a matter of formality. The business of the worthy padres among them must be a perfect sinecure. I fancy I understand what the fellow meant, well enough. Whenever a Zapoteque woman is about to add one to the number of their community, the expectant father of the child assembles all his relations in his cabin; and, having traced out the figures of certain animals on the floor, he rubs them out one after another in their turn. That which is being blotted out, at the precise moment when the child is born, is called its tona. They believe that, ever after, the life of the newborn is connected in some mysterious manner with that of the animal which is its tona; and that when the latter dies so will the former! The child thus consecrated to the tona, while growing up, seeks out some animal of the kind, takes care of it, and pays respect to it, as the negroes of Africa do to their fetish.”

“It is to be presumed, then, that the Indian father will make choice only of such animals as may be gifted with longevity?”

The captain made no reply to my suggestion, farther than to say that the Zapoteque Indians were a brave race, easily disciplined, and out of whom excellent soldiers had been made during the war of the Revolution.

After a hasty desayuno at the venta, my travelling companion and I resumed our journey; and, crossing the second great chain of the Mexican Andes, at the end of six days of fatiguing travel we reached the ancient town of Tepic.

Here it was necessary for me to remain some time, awaiting the arrival of important letters which I expected to receive from the capital of Mexico.

During the first week of my stay at Tepic, I saw but very little of my fellow-voyager—who was all the time busy with his own affairs, and most part of it absent from the little fonda where we had taken up our abode. What these affairs might be, God only knows; but I could not help thinking that the worthy ex-captain of guerilleros carried on his commercial transactions, as in past times he had his military ones—a little after the partisan fashion, and not altogether in accordance with legal rules.

After all, it was no affair of mine. What most concerned me, was that with all his running about he had not yet been able to meet with his friend, Don Cornelio Lantejas—whom no one in Tepic seemed to know anything of—and I was beginning to suspect that the existence of this individual was as problematical as the business of the captain himself, when a lucky chance led to the discovery of the ex-aide-de-camp of Morelos.

“Don Ruperto appears to have gone crazy,” said Doña Faustina, our hostess of the fonda, one morning as I seated myself to breakfast.

“Why, Doña Faustina?” I inquired.

“Because, Cavallero,” replied she, evidently piqued at the captain’s disregard of her hospitable board, “he is hardly ever here at meal times, and when he does show himself, it is so late that the tortillas enchiladas are quite cold, and scarce fit to eat.”

“Ah, señora!” replied I, by way of excusing the irregularity of the captain’s habits, “that is not astonishing. An old soldier of the Revolution is not likely to be very punctual about his time of eating.”

“That is no reason at all,” rejoined the hostess. “We have here, for instance, the good presbitero, Don Lucas de Alacuesta, who was an insurgent officer through the whole campaign of the illustrious Morelos, and yet he is to-day a very model of regularity in his habits.”

“What! an officer of Morelos, was he?”

“Certainly; all the world knows that.”

“Do you chance to know another old officer of Morelos, who is said to live here in Tepic, Don Cornelio Lantejas?”

“Never heard of him, Señor.”

At this moment Don Ruperto’s voice sounded outside, announcing his return from one of his matutinal expeditions.

“To the devil with your tortillas and black beans!” cried he, rushing into the room, and making answer to the reproaches of his hostess. “No, Doña Faustina—I have breakfasted already; and what is more, I shall dine to-day as a man should dine—with viands at discretion, and wine, as much as I can drink, of the best vintage of Xeres! I have breakfasted to-day, good clerical fashion. Who with, do you think?” asked he, turning to me.

“Don Lucas de Alacuesta, perhaps?”

“Precisely; otherwise Don Cornelio Lantejas, who, on changing his profession, has made a slight alteration in his name; and who, but for a lucky chance, I should never have found till the day of judgment, since the worthy presbitero hardly ever stirs out from his house. Who would have believed that an old soldier of the Independence should so change his habits? In fact, however, we have had so many priests turned officers during the Revolution, that it is only natural one officer should become a priest, by way of compensation.”

In continuation, Don Ruperto announced to me, that we were both invited to dine with his old acquaintance; and further, that the latter had promised to place at my disposition such souvenirs of the illustrious Morelos as I desired to be made acquainted with.

I eagerly accepted the invitation; and in three hours after under the conduct of the captain, I entered the domicile of the worthy padre, Don Lucas de Alacuesta. It was a large house, situated near the outskirts of the town, with an extensive garden, enclosed by a high wall, rendered still higher by a stockade of the organ cactus that grew along its top.

We found our host awaiting us—a thin little man, of some fifty years of age, nimble in his movements, and extremely courteous and affable. He appeared to be one who occupied himself, much less with the affairs of his parish, than with the cultivation of his garden, and the preservation of entomological specimens—of which he possessed a bountiful collection.

Nothing either in his speech or features, as in those of Captain Castaños, recalled the ex-militario, who had borne a conspicuous part in the long and bloody campaigns of the revolutionary war.

It is not necessary to give any details of the dinner—which was after the fashion of the Mexican cuisine, and excellent of its kind. Neither shall I repeat the conversation upon general topics; but enter at once upon those scenes described by the ex-aide-de-camp of Morelos, and that of which our drama has been constructed.