Chapter 3 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

An Enigma.

After riding several miles farther, he arrived at a small village, situated in the same plain through which he had been journeying. There, as all along the route, he found the houses deserted and abandoned by their owners! Not a soul was to be seen—no one to offer him hospitality; and as nothing could be found in the empty houses—neither food to satisfy his hunger, nor water to quench his thirst—the traveller was compelled to ride on without halting. “Cosa estrana!” muttered he to himself, “what on earth can be the meaning of this complete depopulation?”

In addition to the desertion of the houses, another odd circumstance had struck his attention. Almost at every hut which he passed, he saw canoes and periaguas suspended from the branches of the trees, and raised many feet above the ground! In a part of the country where there is neither lake nor river—not so much as the tiniest stream—no wonder the sight astonished our traveller, considering that he was a stranger to the district, and had not yet encountered a single individual who might explain the ludicrous phenomenon.

Just as he was pondering over an explanation of these singularities, a sound fell upon his ear, that produced within him a feeling of joy. It was the hoof-stroke of a horse, breaking upon the profound solitude. It came from behind him; and betokened that some horseman was approaching in his rear, though still invisible on account of a turning in the road, which the young traveller had just doubled.

In a few seconds’ time the horseman appeared in sight; and galloping freely forward, soon came side by side with our traveller.

“Santos Dios!” saluted the new-comer, at the same time raising his hand to his hat.

“Santos Dios!” responded the young man, with a similar gesture.

The meeting of two travellers in the midst of a profound solitude is always an event, which leads to their regarding one another with a certain degree of curiosity; and such occurred in the present instance.

He who had just arrived was also a young man—apparently of twenty-four or twenty-five years; and this conformity of age was the only point in which the two travellers resembled each other. The new-comer was somewhat above medium stature, with a figure combining both elegance and strength. His features were regular and well defined; his eyes black and brilliant; his moustache thick and curving, and his complexion deeply embrowned with the sun. All these circumstances tended to show that he was a man of action; while a certain air of energy and command bespoke fiery passions, and the hot Arabian blood, which flows in the veins of many Spanish-Mexican families.

His horse was a bay-brown, whose slender limbs and sinewy form declared him also to be descended from an oriental race. The ease with which his rider managed him, and his firm graceful seat in the saddle, betokened a horseman of the first quality.

His costume was both costly and elegant. A vest of unbleached cambric suited well the heat of the climate. His limbs were covered with calzoneros of silk velvet of a bright purple colour; while boots of buff leather, armed with long glancing spurs, encased his feet. A hat of vicuña cloth, with its trimming of gold lace, completed a costume half-military, half-civilian. To strengthen its military character a rapier in a leathern sheath hung from his waist-belt, and a carbine, suspended in front, rested against the pommel of his saddle.

“Puez, amigo!” said the newly-arrived horseman, after a pause, and glancing significantly at the back of the traveller. “May I ask if you have far to go upon that horse?”

“No, thank goodness!” replied the other; “only to the hacienda of San Salvador; which, if I’m not mistaken, is scarce six leagues distant.”

“San Salvador? I think I’ve heard the name. Is it not near to an estate called hacienda of Las Palmas?”

“Within two leagues of it, I believe.”

“Ah! then we are following the same route,” said he in the laced cap; “I fear, however,” he continued, checking the ardour of his steed, “that there will soon be some distance between us. Your horse does not appear to be in any particular hurry?”

The last speech was accompanied by a significant smile.

“It is quite true,” rejoined the other, also smiling, as he spoke; “and more than once upon my journey I have had reason to blame the mistaken economy of my good father, who, instead of letting me have a proper roadster, has munificently furnished me with a steed that has escaped from the horns of all the bulls of the Valladolid Circus; the consequence of which is, that the poor beast cannot see even a cow on the distant horizon without taking to his heels in the opposite direction.”

“Carrambo! and do you mean to say you have come all the way from Valladolid on that sorry hack?”

“Indeed, yes, Señor—only I have been two months on the way.”

Just then the Rosinante of the circus, roused by the presence of the other horse, appeared to pique himself on a point of honour, and made an effort to keep up with his new companion. Thanks to the courtesy of the moustached cavalier, who continued to restrain the ardour of his fine steed, the two horses kept abreast, and the travellers were left free to continue the conversation.

“You have been courteous enough,” said the stranger, “to inform me that you are from Valladolid. In return, let me tell you that I am from Mexico, and that my name is Rafael Tres-Villas, captain in the Queen’s dragoons.”

“And mine,” rejoined the young traveller, “is Cornelio Lantejas, student in the University of Valladolid.”

“Well, Señor Don Cornelio, can you give me the solution of an enigma which has puzzled me for two days, and which I have been unable to ask any one else, for the reason that I have not met with a soul since I entered this accursed country. How do you explain this complete solitude—the houses, and villages without inhabitant, and skiffs and canoes suspended from the trees in a district where you may go ten leagues without finding a drop of water?”

“I cannot explain it at all, Señor Don Rafael,” replied the student; “it has equally astonished myself; and more than that—has caused me most horrible fear.”

“Fear!” echoed the captain of dragoons; “of what?”

“The truth is, Señor Capitan, I have a bad habit of being more afraid of dangers which I cannot comprehend, than those which I know. I fear that the insurrection has gained this province—though I was told to the contrary—and that the State of Oajaca was perfectly tranquil. Like enough the people have abandoned their dwellings to avoid falling into the hands of some party of insurgents that may be scouring the country?”

“Bah!” exclaimed the dragoon, with a contemptuous toss of his head. “Poor devils like them are not in the habit of fleeing from marauders. Besides, the country-people have nothing to fear from those who follow the banner of the insurrection. In any case, it was not for sailing through these sandy plains that the canoes and periaguas have been hung up to the trees? There’s some other cause, than the panic of the insurrection, that has breathed a spirit of vertigo into the people here; though, for the life of me, I can’t guess what it is.”

For a while the two travellers continued their journey in silence—each absorbed in speculating upon the singular mystery that surrounded them, and of which neither could give an explanation.