Chapter 2 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

An Irksome Journey.

In a morning of the month of October, a solitary traveller was pursuing his route across the vast plains which extend from the limits of the state of Vera Cruz through that of Oajaca. It is scarcely necessary to say that the traveller was on horseback—in a country where no one ever thinks of journeying on foot. He was armed also, as well as mounted; but both horse and weapon were of such an indifferent character as to be ill suited for an encounter with an enemy of any kind. This, too, in a country just then in a state of revolution, where the traveller might expect to meet with an enemy at any moment—either a political adversary, or one of those professional bandits with whom Mexico at this time abounded, and who robbed all alike, irrespective of party.

The only weapon our traveller possessed was an old curved sabre; but it was doubtful whether it could be drawn from its iron scabbard, which appeared as rusty as if it had lain for years at the bottom of a river. It was carried obliquely along the flap of the saddle, and under the thigh of the horseman—the common mode in Mexico—thus transferring the weight of the weapon from the hip of the rider to the ribs of his horse.

The steed of our traveller showed evident signs of having been at one time the property of some picador de toros: as was manifested by the numerous scars that traversed his flanks and counter; but whatever good qualities he may have once possessed, he was evidently now one of the sorriest of jades—worth no more than the value of his own skin. Notwithstanding the repeated strokes of the spur, which his rider administered without stint, it was impossible to force him into anything more rapid than a shambling walk, and at this slow pace was he proceeding, evidently to the great chagrin of the impatient traveller.

The costume of the horseman thus ill mounted consisted of a sort of jacket of white cotton stuff, with open calzoneros of olive-coloured velveteen. On his feet were short boots of goat-skin—dressed in imitation of cordovar leather—and covering his head was a broad-brimmed hat of common palmetto plait. Though not positively shabby, his garments had the appearance of having been a long time in wear, out of regard to economy. There was something, however, in their cut and texture that bespoke the wearer to belong to a class above that of the mere peasant.

He was a young man—apparently two or three and twenty—of slender figure and rather thin in flesh. His countenance bespoke gentleness of disposition, amounting almost to simplicity; and this would have been the impression produced upon an observer, but for a pair of lively spiritual eyes that sparkled in sockets somewhat sunken. These, combined with a well-formed mouth, and lips of a sarcastic cut, relieved the otherwise too ingenuous expression of his features, and proved that the young man was capable, when occasion required, of exhibiting a considerable power of repartee and acute observation. Just then the predominant expression upon his features was that of chagrin, mixed with a certain degree of uneasiness.

The scenes through which he was passing were of a character to cause apprehension—especially to one journeying alone. On all sides extended a vast plain of sterile soil—the brown earth but thinly covered with a growth of cactus and wild aloes, under the shadow of which appeared a sparse herbage, wild, and of yellowish hue. The aspect was monotonous and dreary beyond expression; while here and there vast clouds of dust rose in whirlwinds, and moved like spectres over the plain. The straggling huts encountered at long intervals on the way were all empty—apparently abandoned by their owners! This strange circumstance combined with the heat of a tropic sun, the absence of all signs of water, the profound silence that reigned over these solitary steppes, had created a sense of discouragement in the mind of the young traveller, amounting almost to fear.

Notwithstanding a liberal use of the spur, his horse could not be induced to depart from a walk. If by a desperate effort he was once or twice forced into a trot it was only to return again to his old gait as soon as the spur was taken from his flanks. The painful exertions of the rider had no other result than to cause the perspiration to flow profusely over his face, rendering it necessary for him every now and then to make use of his pocket-kerchief.

“Maldito cavallo!” (Good-for-nothing beast!) he exclaimed at intervals as his patience became exhausted; but the horse, fatigued with a long journey, was as insensible to the insults of his rider’s speech as he had been to the strokes of his spur, and moved not a whit the faster.

Wearied with these idle efforts to increase the speed of the animal, the young traveller turned in his saddle and looked back. His object was to compare the route he had come with that which lay before him—in order to form some calculation as to the distance yet to be travelled before he could reach the other side of the desert plain.

The observation did not appear to gratify him. On the contrary, his countenance became clouded with a still deeper shade of chagrin; and, abandoning himself to a complete despair, he made no further attempt to urge forward his unwilling roadster, but left the sorry brute to his creeping pace.

For several hours the traveller kept on his slow course—his spirit alternately exasperated and depressed.

Mid-day had arrived, and the tropic sun, glaring down vertically from a cloudless sky, was causing a degree of heat almost intolerable. The breeze had ceased to cool the atmosphere; and even the dry leaves of the trees hung motionless from the boughs. At every moment the horse, crawling painfully forward, threatened to become motionless as they.

Suffering from thirst, and wearied with the journey he had already made, the young traveller at length dismounted, and threw his bridle-rein over the neck of his horse. He had no fear that the animal would take advantage of the freedom thus given him. There was not the slightest danger of its running away.

Leaving the steed to himself, therefore, the rider walked towards a clump of nopals—in hopes of finding some fruit upon them, by which he might relieve his thirst.

As good luck would have it, he was not deceived in his expectation. The nopals were in fruit; and having plucked a number of these “Indian figs,” and stripped them of their spinous skins, he was enabled, by swallowing a quantity of the sweetish pulp, to allay in some measure the excessive thirst that had been hitherto torturing him. Thus satisfied, he once more mounted into his saddle, and continued his interrupted journey.