Chapter 10 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Strayed from the Track.

The ravine, below the spot where the Indian and negro had seated themselves, was covered with a luxuriant vegetation—plants and trees of tropical growth so thickly standing over the ground that the rays of the sun could not have penetrated through the umbrageous foliage. Notwithstanding this abundance of vegetation, if the two gold-seekers had not been so absorbed in their designs, they might have seen below them the figure of a man, who was standing at the bottom of the cascade, directly under their feet.

This man, who had just arrived on the spot, and who appeared to be regarding the waterfall with looks of curiosity and admiration, was no other than Rafael Tres-Villas, Captain of the Queen’s Dragoons.

It is necessary to explain how Don Rafael had come to be found in this wild spot, altogether away from the path which he should have followed to the hacienda Las Palmas. Accident, not design, had conducted him to the bottom of the cascade.

On parting from the student of theology, who, recalling the classic scenes of his Odyssey, had mistaken him for a man-eater—a Lestrygon—the dragoon captain, without searching any longer for an explanation of the odd circumstances observed along the way, at once stretched his horse into a gallop. The animal required no propulsion of the spur. His instinct enabled him to scent the proximity of a stable; and he responded to the wishes of his rider by galloping swiftly forward.

Unfortunately the Captain, though a Creole or native Mexican, was entirely unacquainted with this part of the country. He had been born in it, as already hinted; but at a very early age had been taken to reside in the capital; and since then had never revisited the place of his nativity. He was consequently ignorant of the road leading to the paternal hacienda Del Valle—as also to that of Las Palmas—for both were one.

He had not ridden many miles when he arrived at a point where the road forked into two separate paths. Both however continued on, running at no great distance from each other.

Not knowing which he should take, and having met no human being that could direct him, the Captain left the choice to his horse.

The animal, that was no doubt suffering more from thirst than hunger, spread his nostrils to the air, and scenting the fresh exhalations of water, struck off in the direction whence it came. This was to the right.

The choice was fortunate for the student of theology, but rather unlucky for the dragoon captain, as will presently appear.

In fact, the path leading to the left was that which conducted to the hacienda of Las Palmas—which the Captain, for a certain reason, was desirous of reaching, and on that very evening.

After following the right-hand branch for some minutes, the horseman arrived at a spot where the path suddenly gave out. In front appeared only a thick tangle of trees and bushes, behind which could be heard the roaring of a torrent.

Don Rafael was now completely at fault. To return on his track would not only be disagreeable, but there would still exist the same uncertainty as to his route. Even the right-hand branch of the road might not be the right one!

After a minute or two spent in considering what was best to be done, the Captain dismounted, and tying his steed to a tree, commenced making his way through the thicket in the direction whence came the sound of the water, evidently a stream. He was in hopes that on reaching the bank, and following along the water’s edge, he might find the continuation of the road at some point where the stream was fordable. After making his way with much labour and loss of time through the labyrinthine tangle of the thicket, he arrived at the bottom of the cascade, just at the moment when Costal and Clara were about entering upon the ceremony of invoking the Siren.

Notwithstanding the desire which the dragoon captain had to escape as soon as possible from the dilemma into which chance had conducted him, the spectacle of this cascade—one of the most magnificent in America—drew from him a cry of wonder and admiration. For some minutes he stood regarding it with admiring eyes, inspired with those sublime feelings which such a grand sight is calculated to call forth.

At length other thoughts came before his mind; and he was about turning away to continue his explorations for a path, when an unexpected object presenting itself to his eyes, caused him to keep his place.