Chapter 8 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Grand Spectacle.

Hitherto the features of Clara had expressed nothing more than a kind of vague fear; but at the moment when the canoe rounded the last turn in the river, a sudden terror became depicted upon them. The hunter thus warned quickly faced round. An immense plain came before his eye, that seemed to stretch to the verge of the horizon. Through this ran the river, its waters almost on a level with the banks—which were covered with a grassy sward, and without a single tree. At some distance from the curve the stream almost doubled back on itself—forming a verdant delta, around the apex of which ran the road that led to the hacienda Las Palmas.

The rays of the setting sun were flooding the plain with a transparent golden haze, which hung over the empurpled bosom of the water on which the canoe was floating. Just above, in the middle of the current, and scarce two shots distant from where the two men were, a sight appeared to the ravished eyes of the tiger-hunter that caused him at once to change his position in the boat.

“Mira!” exclaimed he in a half-whisper. “Look, Clara! Did you ever behold a more beautiful sight?”

With his claws stuck into the floating carcass of a colt upon which he was feeding, an enormous jaguar was suffering himself to float gently down the stream. It was the male one, the same from which the last howlings had proceeded.

With his head outstretched and curving over his fore paws, his hind legs drawn up under his belly, his back highly arched, and his flanks quivering with a supple undulation that betokened activity and power, was seen the royal beast of the American jungle. The dying rays of the sun falling upon his glossy skin displayed his splendid coat of bright yellow ocellated with spots of deepest black.

It was one of those beautiful savage spectacles often exhibited to the eyes of the Indian hunter—a magnificent episode in that eternal poem which the wilderness is constantly repeating.

Scarce taking time to gaze upon it, Costal passed the paddle to his companion; and, gun in hand, crouched down in the bottom of the canoe.

Clara accepted the oar, and half mechanically commenced rowing. He had made no reply to the enthusiastic interrogatory of the hunter. Fear held him speechless.

At that moment a growl, resembling the deepest tones of an ophicleide, resounded from the throat of the jaguar, rolling over the surface of the water to the ears of the men seated in the canoe. He had seen his enemies, and this was his signal of defiance.

The Indian replied by a cry somewhat similar, as the bloodhound utters his wild bay on seeing his victim before him.

“It’s the male!” said Costal, apparently pleased that it was so.

“Fire, then!” cried Clara, at last finding his tongue.

“Fire, Carrambo! no. My gun does not carry so far. Besides, I shoot best when my game is nearer the muzzle. I wonder,” continued he, looking up to the bank, “that the female has not found him! No doubt, if we wait a little, we’ll see her coming bounding up with the cachorros at her heels.”

“Dios nos ampare!” (God preserve us!) muttered the negro in a melancholy tone; for he feared that Costal would still insist upon his carrying out the plan he had proposed. “God preserve us! I hope not: one at a time is sufficient.”

The words were scarce out of the negro’s mouth, when a sharp screech, heard at some distance, proclaimed the coming of the other jaguar; and the moment after she was seen bounding over the savanna, with a rapidity and gracefulness superb beyond admiration.

At the distance of about two hundred yards from the bank, as also from the canoe, she came to a sudden stop; and with muzzle raised aloft, scenting the air, and flanks quivering like an arrow after striking its mark, she remained for some moments fixed to the spot. Meanwhile the two whelps, that had been left in the covert of the bushes, were seen hastening to join her. The canoe, no longer propelled by the paddle, began to spin round with the ripple, keeping about the same distance between it and the tiger crouched on the floating carcass.

“For Heaven’s sake, Clara,” said Costal impatiently, “keep the boat’s head to the current, or I shall never get close enough to fire. There now—that is right—keep a steady hand—mine never shakes. It is important I should kill this jaguar at the first shot. If not, one of us is lost, to a certainty. Perhaps both; for if I miss we shall have both the brutes to contend with, to say nothing of the brace of whelps.”

All this while the jaguar was quietly descending the stream upon his floating pedestal, and the distance between him and the canoe was gradually diminishing. Already could be seen his fiery eyeballs rolling in their sockets, and the quick oscillations of his tail, expressive of his gathering rage.

The hunter had taken aim, and was about to pull trigger, when the canoe commenced rocking about, as if tossed upon a stormy sea!

“What the devil are you about, Clara?” inquired the Indian in an angry tone. “If you move in that way I could not hit one in a whole crowd of tigers.”

Whether it was through design, or that fear was troubling his senses, and causing him to shift about, Clara, instead of keeping quiet, only seemed to shake all the more.

“A thousand devils take you!” cried Costal, with increased rage. “Just then I had him between the eyes.”

Laying down his gun, the hunter snatched the paddle from the hands of the black, and set about turning the canoe into its proper position.

This proved a work of some little time; and before Costal could succeed in accomplishing his purpose, the tiger had taken to flight. Giving utterance to a loud scream, the animal buried his sharp teeth in the carcass, tore from it a large mouthful, and then making a desperate bound passed from the floating body to the bank. In another moment he had rejoined his mate with her young ones, and all were soon beyond the range of the hunter’s carbine. The two terrible creatures appeared to hesitate as to whether they should return to the attack, or retreat. Then giving a simultaneous scream, both stretched off at full gallop across the plain, followed by their cachorros.

The disappointed hunter looked after them, giving utterance to a fierce exclamation expressive of his disappointment. Then seating himself in the stern of the canoe, he turned its head down stream, and put forth all his strength to regain the point from which they had set out.