Chapter 4 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Hungry Travellers.

The dragoon was the first to resume the conversation.

“You, Señor Don Cornelio,” said he, “you who have come from Valladolid, perhaps you can give me some later news, than I have received about the march of Hidalgo and his army?”

“Not any, I fear,” replied the student; “you forget, Señor, that, thanks to the slow pace of my old horse, I have been two months on the route? When I left Valladolid, nobody had any more thought of an insurrection than of a new deluge. All I know of it is what I have heard from public rumour—that is, so much as could be divulged without fear of the Holy Inquisition. If, moreover, we are to believe the mandate of the Lord Bishop of Oajaca, the insurrection will not find many supporters in his diocese.”

“And for what reason?” asked the captain of dragoons, with a certain hauteur, which proved, without committing himself to any disclosure of his political opinions, that the insurgent cause would not find an enemy in him. “What reason does the bishop assign?”

“What reason?” replied the student. “Simply because my Lord Bishop Bergosa y Jordan will excommunicate them. He affirms, moreover, that every insurgent will be recognisable by his horns and cloven hoofs, which before long they will all have from the hands of the devil!”

Instead of smiling at the childish credulity of the young student, the dragoon shook his head with an air of discontent, while the hairs of his black moustachios curled with indignation.

“Yes,” said he, as if speaking to himself, “thus is it that our priests fight with the weapons of calumny and falsehood, perverting the minds of the Creoles with fanatical superstition! So, Señor Lantejas,” he continued in a louder tone, addressing himself to the student, “you are afraid to enrol yourself in the ranks of the insurgents, lest you might obtain these diabolical ornaments promised by the bishop?”

“Heaven preserve me from doing such a thing!” replied the student. “Is it not an article of faith? And who should know better than the respectable Lord Bishop of Oajaca? Besides,” continued he, hastening his explanation, as he saw the angry flash of his companion’s eye, “I am altogether of a peaceable disposition, and about to enter into holy orders. Whatever party I might take, it would be with prayer alone I should seek to make it triumph. The Church has a horror of blood.”

While the student was thus delivering himself, the dragoon regarded him with a side glance; which seemed to say: that it mattered little which side he might take, as neither would be much benefited by such a sorry champion.

“Is it for the purpose of passing your thesis that you have come to Oajaca?”

“No,” replied Lantejas, “my errand into this country is altogether different. I am here in obedience to the commands of my father, whose brother is the proprietor of the rich estate of San Salvador. I am to remind my uncle that he is a widower—rich—and without children; and that he has half-a-dozen nephews to provide for. That is my business at San Salvador. What can I do? My honoured father is more attached to the good things of this life than is perhaps right; and I have been obliged to make this journey of two hundred leagues, for the purpose of sounding our relative’s disposition in regard to us.”

“And ascertaining the value of his property as well?”

“Oh! as to that, we know exactly how much it is worth; though none of us has ever been on the estate.”

This answer of the young student did more honour to his heart than to his discretion.

“Well,” continued he, after a pause, “I may safely say, that never did nephew present himself before an uncle in a more famished condition than I shall do. Thanks to the inexplicable desertion of all the houses and villages through which I have passed—and the care which their owners have taken to carry with them even the leanest chicken—there is not a jackal in the country hungrier than I at this minute.”

The dragoon was in pretty much the same case. For two days he had been travelling without seeing a soul, and though his horse had picked up a little forage along the road, he had been unable to obtain food for himself—other than such wild fruits and berries as he could gather by the way.

The sympathy for a like suffering at once dissipated any ill-blood which the difference in their political sentiments might have stirred up; and harmony was restored between them.

The captain in his turn informed his new compagnon du voyage, that, since the imprisonment of the Viceroy, Iturrigaray, his own father, a Spanish gentleman, had retired to his estate of Del Valle, where he was now proceeding to join him. He was not acquainted with this estate, having never been upon it since he was a mere child; but he knew that it was not far from the hacienda of Las Palmas, already mentioned. Less communicative than Don Cornelio, he did not inform the student of another motive for his journey, though there was one that interested him far more than revisiting the scenes of his childhood.

As the travellers rode on, the evanescent ardour of Don Cornelio’s roadster insensibly cooled down; while the student himself, fatigued by the incessant application of whip and spur, gradually allowed to languish a conversation, that had enabled them to kill a long hour of their monotonous journey.

The sun was now declining towards the western horizon, and the shadows of the two horsemen were beaming elongated upon the dusty road, while from the tops of the palm-trees the red cardinals and parroquets had commenced to chaunt their evening song.

Thirst—from which both the travellers suffered even more than from hunger—was still increasing upon them; and at intervals the dragoon captain cast a look of impatience toward the horse of his companion. He could not help observing that the poor brute, for the want of water, was every moment slackening his pace.

On his side, Don Cornelio perceived, that, from a generous motive, his travelling companion was resisting the temptation to ride forward. By putting his fine horse into a gallop, the latter could in a short time reach the hacienda—now less than three leagues distant. Under the apprehension of losing his company, therefore, the student redoubled his efforts to keep his old circus hack abreast with the bay-brown of the dragoon.

The journey thus continued for half an hour longer; when it became evident to both travellers that the escapado of the bull-ring was every moment growing more unable to proceed.

“Señor student,” said the dragoon, after a long spell of silence, “have you ever read of those shipwrecks, where the poor devils, to avoid starvation, cast lots to see which shall be eaten by the others?”

“Alas! yes, I have,” answered Lantejas, with a slight trembling in his speech; “but I hope with us it will not come to that deplorable extremity.”

“Carrambo!” rejoined the dragoon with a grave air, “I feel at this moment hungry enough to eat a relative—even if he were rich and I his heir, as you of your uncle, the haciendado of San Salvador!”

“But we are not at sea, Señor captain, and in a boat from which there is no chance of escape?”

The dragoon fancied that he might amuse himself a little at the expense of the young student of divinity—of whose excessive credulity he had already had proofs. Perhaps he meant also to revenge himself on this foolish credulity, upon which the fulmination of the Bishop Bergosa—already celebrated throughout Mexico—had made such an impression. His chief motive, however, was to demonstrate to his travelling companion the necessity for their parting company; in order, that, by riding forward himself, he might be able to send back succour to his fellow-traveller. He was no little surprised, therefore, to perceive that his pleasantry was taken in actually a serious light; and therefore had determined to desist from making any further innuendos.

“I hope, Señor captain,” said Don Cornelio, “I hope neither of us will ever be in such extremities.”

Then casting a glance over the arid waste that stretched before them, a new idea seemed to strike the student; and with a haste that bespoke his agitation he continued—

“As for me, if I were mounted on a horse equal in strength and vigour to yours, I should gallop either to the hacienda of Las Palmas or San Salvador, without drawing bridle; and from there send assistance to the fellow-traveller I had left behind.”

“Ah! is that your advice?”

“I could not think of giving any other.”

“Good, then!” cried the dragoon; “I shall follow it; for to be candid, I felt a delicacy in parting company with you.”

As Don Rafael spoke, he held out his hand to the student.

“Señor Lantejas,” said he, “we part friends. Let us hope we may never meet as enemies! Who can foresee the future? You appear disposed to look with an evil eye on those attempts at emancipation of a country, that has been enslaved for three hundred years. As for myself, it is possible I may offer my arm—and, if need be, my life—to aid her in conquering her liberty. Hasta luego! I shall not forget to send you assistance.”

Saying this, the officer clasped warmly the chill attenuated fingers of the student of theology, gave the reign to his horse, that needed no spur, and disappeared the moment after amidst a cloud of dust.

“God be praised!” said Lantejas, breathing freely; “I do believe the famished Lestrygon would have been quite capable of devouring me! As for my being found on a field of battle in front of this Goliath, or any other, there’s not much danger. I defy the devil with all his horns to make a soldier of me, either for the insurrection or against it.”

The student proceeded on his solitary route—congratulating himself on having escaped, from what his credulous fancy had believed to be a danger.

Some time had passed, and the red clouds of sunset were tinting the horizon, when he saw before him the form of a man, whose gait and complexion proved him to be an Indian. In hopes of obtaining some provisions from this man, or, at all events, an explanation of the singular circumstances already mentioned, the student urged his horse into a more rapid pace, heading him towards the Indian.

He saw that the latter was driving two cows before him, whose distended udders proved them to be milch cattle. This increased the desire of the horseman, hungry and thirsty as he was, to join company with the cowherd.

“Hola! José!” cried he, at the top of his voice.

An Indian will always respond to the name José, as an Irishman to that of Pat or Paddy. On hearing it, the cow-driver looked round in alarm. At that moment the escapado of the bull-ring caught sight of the two cows, and suddenly broke off into a gallop—unfortunately, however, in a direction the very opposite to that which his rider desired him to take!

Notwithstanding this, the student still continued to shout to the cowherd, in hopes of bringing him to comprehend his dilemma. But the odd spectacle of a horseman calling to him to approach, while he himself kept riding off in the opposite direction, so astounded the Indian that, uttering a cry of affright, he also took to his heels, followed in a long shambling trot by the two cows!

It was not until all three were out of sight, that the student could prevail on his affrighted steed to return into the proper path.

“In the name of the Holy Virgin!” soliloquised he, “what has got into the people of this country? Every one of them appears to have gone mad!”

And once more setting his horse to the road, he proceeded onward—now, however, hungrier and more disconsolate than ever.

Just as night was coming down, he arrived at a place where two or three small huts stood by the side of the road. These, like all the others, he found deserted. At sight of them, however, the old horse came to a dead stop, and refused to proceed. His rider, equally fatigued, resolved upon remaining by the huts, until the assistance promised by the dragoon captain should arrive.

In front of one of the huts stood two tall tamarind trees—between which a hammock was suspended, at the height of seven or eight feet from the ground. It was a capacious one, made of the strong plaited thread of the maguey. It seemed to invite the wearied traveller to repose—as if placed there on purpose for him.

As the heat was still suffocating, instead of entering one of the huts, he unsaddled his horse, permitted the animal to go at will, and by the trunk of one of the tamarinds climbed up into the hammock. There, stretching himself, he lay a good while listening attentively, in hopes of hearing some sound that might announce the approach of the promised succour.

It was now dark night. All nature had gone to sleep; and the profound silence was unbroken by any sound that resembled the tramp of a horse. Nothing was heard to indicate the approach of the expected relief.

As the student continued to listen, however, he became sensible of sounds, of a singular and mysterious character. There was a continuous noise, like the rumbling of distant thunder, or the roaring of the ocean during a storm. Although the air was calm around him, he fancied he could hear a strong wind blowing at a distance, mingled with hoarse bellowings of unearthly voices!

Affrighted by these inexplicable noises—which seemed the warning voices of an approaching tempest—he lay for a while awake; but fatigue overcoming him, he sunk at length into a profound sleep.