Chapter 9 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Cascade.

The canoe carrying the two men continued slowly to descend the course of the river—the negro felicitating himself on his escape from the claws of the jaguars; while the thoughts of the Indian were dwelling with regret upon his want of success.

Clara, however, did not enjoy an unalloyed satisfaction. The jaguars had fled, it was true, but in what direction? It was evident they had gone down stream, and might be encountered below.

This thought troubling Clara, he inquired of his companion if there was any probability of their again falling in with this dangerous enemy.

“Probable enough,” responded Costal, “and more than probable. If we descend below the cascade, we shall be almost certain of seeing the jaguars there. The carcass of a fine young colt is not to be met with every day; and these brutes can reason like a man. They know well though that the current will carry the floating body over the fall, and that, below, it will be rendered up to them again. I do not say it will then be whole; for I have seen the trunks of great trees broken into fragments from being carried over that very cascade.”

“Then you really think the jaguars may be waiting below?”

“No doubt but they will be there. If I don’t mistake, you shall hear their roar before ten minutes have passed, and it will come from the bottom of the cascade, just where our business is now taking us.”

“But they may feel inclined to take revenue on us for having driven them from the carcass?”

“And if they should, what care I? Not a straw. Vamos! friend Clara, we’ve given too much thought to these animals. Fortunately we have not lost much; and now to our affair. The young moon will be up in a trice, and I must invoke Tlaloc, the god of the waters, to bestow some gold on the Caciques of Tehuantepec.”

The two men had by this time arrived at the place from which the canoe had been taken; and here both disembarked, Costal carefully refastening the craft to the trunk of the willow. Then leaving his companion, he walked off down the bank alone.

“Do not go far away!” said Clara, entreatingly, still troubled with the fear of the jaguars.

“Bah!” exclaimed Costal, “I leave my gun with you!”

“Oh, indeed!” murmured the negro; “what signifies that? one bullet for four tigers!”

Without vouchsafing any reply to this last speech, the Indian advanced a little farther along the bank, and then came to a pause. A large tree grew upon the edge of the stream, its branches extending outwards. Into this he climbed; and then stretching out his arms over the water, he commenced chaunting a lugubrious measure—a species of Indian invocation, of which Clara could hear the words, but without in the least comprehending their signification.

There was something in the wild melody of the Indian’s voice to cause his companion a certain mysterious dread; and this was increased by additional notes of an equally mournful character that came pealing up the ravine, mingling with the hoarse roaring of the cascade. It was the scream of the jaguar; though it actually appeared as if some demon was answering to the invocations of the Indian. The lugubrious chaunt of the pagan, and the coincident scream of the tiger, formed a kind of infernal accompaniment, well calculated to strike awe into the mind of one of Clara’s superstitious race; and as he stood upon the bank he fancied he saw fiery eyes glaring upon him through the leaves, and the Siren with the dishevelled hair rising above the surface of the water.

A double chill passed through his black skin, from the soles of his feet to the roots of his kinky hair.

At this moment Costal returned to him.

“Are you ready?” inquired the Indian.

“For what?”

“To accompany me to the cascade—there to invoke the Siren, and ask if she may be seen.”

“What! down there, where the tigers are roaring?”

“Oh, a fig for them! Remember, Clara, it is gold we seek; and, believe me, if fortunate in our application, the Siren will tell us where it is to be found. Gold in masses!”

“Enough!” cried Clara, overcome by the rich prospect. “I am with you,” continued he—“lead on! From this hour I am the slave of the Siren who can show us the placers of gold!”

The Indian took up his hat and carbine, both of which he had laid aside while chaunting his invocation; and, throwing the gun over his shoulder, started down stream. Clara followed close at his heels—his spirit alternately possessed with cupidity and fear.

As they advanced, the banks rose higher above the surface of the stream, and the channel became the bottom of a deep, narrow ravine, where the water rushed foaming among rocks. The great trees growing on each side stretched towards one another, until their branches interlocked, forming a dark sombre tunnel underneath. At the lower end of this, the stream, once more bursting forth into light, leaped vertically at one bound through a space of two hundred feet sheer, falling into the bottom of a deep gorge, with a noise louder than the roar of the mighty ocean.

Just where the foaming flood broke over the crest of the rocks, grew two enormous cypresses of the kind known to the Mexicans as ahuehuetes, or “lords of the water.” They stood on opposite sides of the stream, with their long arms extended towards each other. Thickly loaded with llianas, and profusely festooned with the silvery Spanish moss, which, drooping downwards, every now and then dipped into the foaming arch of the cascade, these two great trees looked like the ancient genii of the waters.

At this point the two men made a halt. Although they were now very near to the place where the jaguars were supposed to be, Clara had become more regardless of the danger. His fear, both of wild beasts and evil spirits, had yielded to his thirst for gold, which had been gradually growing stronger.

“Now, Clara!” said Costal, turning a severe look upon his comrade; “listen attentively to the instructions I am about to give you. If the Siren should appear to you, and you should exhibit, either by look or gesture, the slightest symptoms of fear, you are a lost man!”

“All right!” replied the negro. “The hope of being shown a mine of gold gives me courage to risk even my neck in a halter, if need be. Never fear, Costal. Speak on—I am ready to listen.”

As the negro pronounced these words, his countenance to all appearance expressed as much firmness as that of Costal himself. The Indian, thus assured, seated himself upon the very edge of the precipice, overlooking the gorge into which the waters were precipitated, while Clara, without invitation, sat down by his side.