Chapter 5 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Black and Red.

On that same evening, and about an hour before sunset, two men made their appearance on the banks of a small river that traversed the country not far from the group of huts where the traveller had halted—at a point about halfway between them and the hacienda Las Palmas.

At the place where the two men appeared upon its banks, the river in question ran through the middle of a narrow valley; flowing so gently along, that its unrippled surface mirrored the blue sky. At this place the water filled its channel up to the level of the banks, that were treeless, and covered with a sward of grass. Farther down trees grew along the edge of the stream—tall oaks and cotton woods, whose branches were interlaced by flowering llianas. Still farther down, the river entered between high banks of wilder appearance, and covered with yet more luxuriant vegetation. From the grassy meadow, in which the two men were standing, the noise of a cataract, like the breaking of the sea upon a rocky beach, was distinctly audible.

The complexion and costume of one of the men pronounced him an Indian. The former was a copper-brown, the well-known colour of the American aboriginal. His dress consisted of a coarse shirt of greyish woollen stuff, rayed with black stripes. Its short sleeves, scarce reaching to the elbows, permitted to be seen a pair of strong, sinewy arms of deepest bronze. It was confined round the waist with a thick leathern belt, while its skirt hung down to mid-thigh. Below this appeared the legs of a pair of trowsers, wide, but reaching only to the knee. These were of tanned sheep-skin, and of a reddish brown hue. From the bottoms of the trowsers, the legs and ankles of the Indian were naked; while the chaussure consisted of leathern buskins, also of a brownish red colour. A hat of rush plaiting covered his head, from under which hung two long tresses of black hair—one over each cheek—and reaching down to his elbows.

He was a man of tall stature, and with a physiognomy remarkable for one of his race. Instead of the servile aspect so characteristic of the Indios mangos (subdued Indians) of Mexico, he had more the air of the true savage, or Indio bravo. This appearance was strengthened by the fact of his having a slight moustache and beard—a rare distinction among the aborigines of Mexico.

Over his shoulder he carried a short, thick carbine, somewhat rusty; while a long macheté (half sword, half knife), was stuck behind his belt.

His companion was a negro, whose clothing consisted of little else than rags. Otherwise there was nothing remarkable about him—if we except the air of stupified credulity with which he appeared to be listening to the discourse of the Indian. From time to time his features assumed an expression of ill-concealed fear.

The red man, closely followed by the black, was advancing along the bank at a place destitute of timber and where the ground was smooth and soft. He was going slowly, his body bent slightly forwards, and his eyes turned upon the earth as if in search of some object, or tracking an animal. Suddenly he came to a top—

“Now!” he exclaimed, turning to the negro, and pointing to the ground, “I told you I should find their traces in less than half an hour. Look there!”

The Indian spoke in a tone of triumph; but the feeling was far from being shared by his companion, who bent his eyes upon the earth rather with a look of dismay. The sight was sufficient to have caused uneasiness to any one other than a hunter of wild beasts. In the soft mud was exhibited a number of tracks—twenty of them in all. They were of different sizes, too; and appeared to have been recently made. The marks of sharp claws, distinctly outlined in the clayey soil, told what kind of animal had made the tracks. It was the fierce jaguar—the tiger (tigré) of the Spanish-Americans.

“It’s not half an hour since they have been here,” continued the Indian. “Mira!” exclaimed he, pointing to a little eddy on the edge of the stream, “they have been drinking there not ten minutes ago: the water is yet muddy!”

“Let us get away,” suggested the negro, whose black face was now pale with fear. “I see no use in our remaining here. See! there are many tracks, and of different sizes, too. Lord bless me! a whole procession of tigers must have passed here.”

“Oh! you are exaggerating,” rejoined the Indian, with a sneering laugh. “Let us count them,” he continued, bending down over the foot-prints, “one—two—three—four: a male, a female, and her two cachorros (cubs). That is all. Carrambo! what a sight for a tigrero (tiger-hunter).”

“Ah! indeed!” assented the negro, in a hesitating way.

“Yes,” rejoined the other; “but we shan’t go after them to-day. We have more important business on our hands.”

“Would it not be better to defer the business you were speaking of till to-morrow, and now return to the hacienda? However curious I am to see the wonderful things you promised, still—”

“What!” exclaimed the Indian, interrupting his companion’s speech, “defer that business till another day? Impossible. The opportunity would not come round for another month, and then we shall be far from this place. No, no, Clara,” continued he, addressing the black by this very odd cognomen, “no, no; we must about it to-day and at this very moment. Sit down, then.”

Suiting the action to the word, the Indian squatted himself on the grass; and the negro, willing or unwilling, was forced to follow his example.