Chapter 7 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Chase of the Jaguar.

The sun was gradually inclining towards the horizon, when a prolonged howl, shrill at first, but ending in a hoarse roar, fell upon the ears of the two adventurers. It appeared to come from a brake some distance down the river; but, near or distant, it at once changed the expression upon the countenance of the negro. Fear took the place of astonishment; and, on hearing the sound, he sprang suddenly to his feet.

“Jesus Maria!” exclaimed he, “it is the jaguar again!”

“Well, what if it be?” said Costal, who had neither risen, nor made the slightest gesture.

“The jaguar!” repeated the negro in his terror.

“The jaguar? You are mistaken,” said Costal.

“God grant that I may be,” rejoined the black, beginning to hope that the sounds had deceived him.

“You are mistaken as to the number,” coolly proceeded Costal. “There is not one jaguar, but four—if you include the cachorros!”

Perceiving the sense in which Costal meant he was mistaken, the negro, with terror gleaming in his eyes, appeared as if about to start off towards the hacienda.

“Take care what you do!” said the Indian, apparently inclined to amuse himself with the fears of his companion. “It is quite true, I believe, that these animals are very fond of black men’s flesh.”

“Carrambo! just now you told me the contrary?”

“Well, perhaps I am mistaken upon that point; but one thing I know well—for I have proved it a hundred times—that is, that a brace of tigers, when the male and female are together, seldom roar in that fashion—especially if they suspect the presence of a human being. It is more likely, therefore, that at this moment they are separated; and by going towards the hacienda, you might risk getting between the two.”

“Heaven preserve me from getting into such a scrap,” muttered the negro.

“Well, then; the best thing you can do is to stay where you are—beside a man who don’t care a claco for the jaguars.”

The negro hesitated, not quite certain that it would be the best thing for him. At that moment, however, a second howl, coming in a direction entirely opposite to the first, decided his uncertainty, and convinced him that the tigrero had spoken the truth.

“You see,” said Costal, “the brutes are in search of something to eat. That’s why they are calling to one another. Well, now! if you’re still in the mind, off with you to the hacienda!”

This was of course meant as a taunt; for the negro, who now perceived that there was a jaguar howling in the way that led to the hacienda, had given up all notion of proceeding in that direction. On the contrary, while his black face turned of an ashen-grey colour, he drew closer to his imperturbable companion—who had not even attempted to take hold of the carbine which lay on the grass by his side!

“Bah!” muttered Costal, speaking to himself, “this comrade of mine is scarce brave enough for my purpose. I must defer it, till I meet with one possessed of more courage.” Then resuming the current of his thoughts, which had been interrupted by the howling of the jaguars, he said aloud—“Where is the red man, where the black, who would not lift his arm to aid this brave priest?—he who has risen against the oppressor—the oppressor of all Zapoteques, Creoles, and Aztecs. Have these Spaniards not been more ferocious than even the tigers themselves?”

“I should not fear them, at any rate,” interposed Clara.

“Good! I am glad you talk that way, comrade. To-morrow let us give warning to our master, Don Mariano de Silva. He must find another tigrero; and we shall go and join the insurgents in the west.”

The Indian had scarce finished his speech, when another howl came from the jaguars, as if to put the patience of the tiger-hunter to the test. It was even more spitefully prolonged, coming in the direction in which the first had been heard—that is, from a point upon the river a little above where the two men were seated.

On hearing it, thus uttered as a signal of defiance, the eyes of the tigrero began to sparkle with an irresistible desire for the chase.

“By the souls of the Caciques of Tehuantepec!” exclaimed he, “this is too much for human patience. I shall teach those two braggarts not to talk so loud of their affairs. Now, Clara!” continued he, springing to his feet, “you shall have the opportunity of becoming acquainted with a jaguar at closer quarters than you have hitherto been.”

“Carrambo!” exclaimed the black, “why should I go near them? I have no weapon, and would be of no use to you?”

“Hear me, Clara!” said the Indian, without replying to the speech of his comrade. “The one that howled last is the male. He was calling to the female, his mate. He is a good distance from here, up stream. We must go up to him; and as there’s not a stream on all the estate, where I haven’t either a canoe or periagua, for the purposes of my calling—”

“You have one here, then?” interrupted Clara.

“Certainly I have. We can go up the river; and in the canoe you will not be in the slightest danger. I have my own notions as to how we may best approach this noisy brute.”

“But the jaguars can swim like seals, I have heard?”

“I don’t deny it. Never mind that; come on!”

Without deigning further speech, the tigrero started forward; and going cautiously, approached that part of the bank where his canoe was moored.

Clara seeing that it would be perhaps less dangerous to accompany him than remain where he was alone, reluctantly followed.

In a few minutes they arrived at the place where the canoe was fastened to the bank; a rude craft, just large enough to carry two men. A paddle lay at the bottom; along with a piece of matting of plaited palm-leaf, which on occasions was called into requisition as a sail. But Costal threw out the matting, as there was no likelihood of its being required upon the present occasion.

Having loosed the cord by which the canoe was attached to the branch of a willow, the Indian leaped aboard, and seated himself near the stem. The negro took his place abaft. A vigorous push was given against the bank, the little craft shot out into the middle of the stream, and, impelled by the paddle, commenced ascending the current.

The sun was still shining on the river, but with his last rays; and the willows and alamos that grew along the bank threw their trembling shadows far over the water. The breeze of the desert sighed among their leaves, bearing upon its wings sweet perfumes stolen from a thousand flowers. It seemed the intoxicating incense of liberty.

Costal, an Indian and a hunter, inhaled it with an instinctive delight. Clara was altogether insensible to the sweetness of the scene; and his anxious countenance offered as great a contrast to the calm unmoved features of his companion, as the black shadows of the trees thrown upon the water with the brilliant hues of the sky.

The canoe for a time kept close along the bank, and followed the windings of the stream. Here and there the bushes hung over; and in passing such places Clara kept a sharp look out, in dread of seeing a pair of fiery orbs glancing upon him through the leaves.

“Por Dios!” cried he, every time the canoe approached too closely to the bank, “keep her farther off, friend Costal. Who knows but that the jaguars may be up there, ready to spring down upon us?”

“Possible enough,” rejoined Costal, vigorously plying his paddle; and without giving any farther thought to the appeals of his companion. “Possible enough; but I have my idea—”

“What is it?” asked Clara, interrupting him.

“A very simple one, and one which I have no doubt you will approve of.”

“Let us hear it first.”

“Well, then; there are two jaguars, without speaking of the brace of cachorros. These I shall leave to you, since you have no weapon. Your plan will be this: take up one of the whelps in each hand, and break in their skulls, by striking them one against the rather. Nothing can be more simple.”

“On the contrary, friend Costal, it appears to me very complicated. Besides, how can I lay hold upon them if they should run away?”

“Very likely, they will save you that trouble by laying hold on you. Never fear your getting close enough. If I’m not mistaken, we shall have all four of them within arm’s length in less than a quarter of an hour.”

“All four!” exclaimed the negro, with a start that caused the canoe to oscillate as if it would upset.

“Beyond doubt,” rejoined Costal, making an effort to counterbalance the shock which the frail bark had received. “It is the only plan by which we can bring the chase to a speedy termination; and when one is pressed for time, one must do his best. I was going to tell you, when you interrupted me, that there are two jaguars—one on the right bank, the other on the left—the male and female, beyond doubt. Now by their cries I can tell that these animals are desirous of rejoining one another; and if we place ourselves between the two, it is evident they will both come upon us at once. What say you? I defy you to prove the contrary?”

Clara made no reply to the challenge. His profound belief in the infallibility of his companion’s perceptions kept him silent.

“Look out now, Clara!” continued the hunter, “we are going to double that bend in the river where the bushes hide the plain from our view. Your face will be turned the right way. Tell me, then, what you see.”

From his position in the canoe, Costal, who plied the paddle, was seated with his back to the open ground towards which they were advancing; and he could only see in front by turning his head, which from time to time he had been doing. But he needed not to look around very often. The countenance of the negro, who was face to face with him, resembled a faithful mirror, in which he could read whatever might be passing behind him.