Chapter 13 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Who goes there?

At a glance Costal saw what the strange object was—a broad band of gold lace encircling a sombrero, and placed, Mexican fashion, around the under edge of the brim. The cigar illuminating the lace had deceived the negro, guiding him to the idea of a diadem!

“Carajo!” muttered Costal between his teeth, “I told you so. Did I not say that some profane white had hindered the Siren from appearing?”

“You were right,” replied Clara, ashamed at the mistake he had made, and from that time losing all belief in the genius of the cascade.

“An officer!” murmured Costal, recognising the military equipments of the dragoon, who, with a carbine in one hand, and his bridle in the other, sat smoking his cigar, as immoveable as a statue.

“Who goes there?” cried Costal, saluting him in a loud, bold voice.

“Say, rather, who stands there?” responded Don Rafael, with equal firmness, at the same moment that he recognised in the speaker the Indian whose incantation he had witnessed.

“Delighted to hear you speak at last, my fine fellows,” continued the dragoon in his military off-hand way, at the same time causing his horse to step forward face to face with the adventurers.

“Perhaps we are not so much pleased to hear you,” replied Costal roughly, as he spoke, shifting his gun from one shoulder to the other.

“Ah! I am sorry for that,” rejoined the dragoon, smiling frankly through his thick moustache, “for I’m not inclined to solitary habits, and I’m tired of being here alone.”

As Don Rafael said this, he placed his carbine back into its sling, and rebuckled the straps around it, as if it was no longer required. This he did notwithstanding the half-hostile attitude of the adventurers.

The act did not escape the quick perception of the Indian; and, along with the good-humour manifest in the stranger’s speech, made an instantaneous impression upon him.

“Perhaps,” added Don Rafael, plunging his hand into the pocket of his jaqueta, “you have no good feeling towards me for disturbing you in your proceedings, which I confess I did not understand. Neither did they concern me; but you will excuse a strayed traveller, who wished to inquire his way; and as I had no means of making myself heard to you, I was forced to adopt the method I did to draw your attention. I hope that on reflection you will do justice to my dexterity in taking care that none of the stones should hit you.”

As he finished speaking the dragoon took a dollar from his purse, and offered it to the Indian.

“Thank you,” said Costal, delicately refusing the piece, but which Clara, less scrupulous, transferred to his pocket. “Thank you, cavallero! May I ask where you are going?”

“To the hacienda Las Palmas.”

“Las Palmas?”

“Yes—am I far from it?”

“Well,” replied Costal, “that depends on the road you take.”

“I wish to take the shortest. I am rather pressed for time.”

“Well, then—the road which is the shortest is not that which you will find the most easy to follow. If you wish to go by the one on which there is the least danger of your getting astray, you will follow up the course of this river. But if you wish a shorter route—one which avoids the windings of the stream—you will go that way.”

As Costal finished speaking, he pointed in a direction very different from that which he had indicated as the course of the river.

The Indian had no design of giving a false direction. Even had the little resentment, which he had conceived for the stranger, not entirely passed, he knew that he dared not mislead a traveller on the way to the hacienda, of which he was himself a servitor. But he no longer held any grudge against the young officer, and his directions were honestly meant.

While they were speaking, another of those terrible screams that had perplexed the traveller broke in upon the dialogue. It was the cry of the jaguar, and came from the direction in which lay the route indicated by Costal as the shortest.

“What on earth is that?” inquired the officer.

“Only a jaguar searching for prey,” coolly responded Costal.

“Oh!” said the dragoon, “is that all? I was fancying it might be something more fearful.”

“Your shortest route, then, lies that way,” said Costal, resuming his directions, and pointing with his gun towards the spot where the howl of the tiger had been heard.

“Thank you!” said the horseman, gathering up his reins, and heading his horse to the path. “If that is the shortest, I shall take it.”

“Stay!” said Costal, approaching a little nearer, and speaking with more cordiality than he had yet shown.

“Oigate, señor cavallero! A brave man like you does not need to be warned of every danger; but one ought to be informed of the dangers one must meet.”

Don Rafael checked his horse.

“Speak, friend,” said he; “I shall not listen to you ungratefully.”

“To reach from here the hacienda of Las Palmas,” continued Costal, “without going astray, or making détours, be careful always to keep the moon to your left, so that your shadow may be thrown on the right—a little slanting—just as you are at this moment. Moreover, when you have started, never draw bridle till you have reached the house of Don Mariano de Silva. If you meet a ditch, or brake, or ravine, cross them in a direct line, and don’t attempt to go round them.”

The Indian gave these directions in so grave a tone of voice, and with such solemnity of manner, that Don Rafael was struck with surprise.

“What frightful danger is it that threatens me?” he inquired at length.

“A danger,” replied Costal, “compared with which that of all the tigers that ever howled over these plains is but child’s play—the danger of the inundation! Perhaps before an hour has passed, it will come sweeping over these savannas like a foaming sea. The arriero and his mules, as well as the shepherd and his flocks, will be carried away by its flood, if they don’t succeed in reaching the shelter of that very hacienda where you are going. Ay! the very tigers will not escape, with all their swiftness.”

“I shall pay strict attention to the directions you have given me,” said the officer—once more about to ride off—when just then he remembered his fellow-traveller whom he had left on the road.

In a few hurried words he made known to the Indian the situation of the young student of theology.

“Make your mind easy about him,” replied the latter. “We shall bring him to the hacienda to-morrow, if we find him still alive. Think only of yourself, and those who might bewail your death. If you meet the jaguars don’t trouble yourself about them. Should your horse refuse to pass them, speak to him. If the brutes come too near you, let them hear you as well. The human voice was given us to procure respect, which it will do from the most ferocious of animals. The whites don’t know this—because fighting the tiger is not their trade, as it is that of the red man; and I can tell you an adventure of this kind that I once had with a jaguar—Bah; he’s gone!”

The last exclamatory phrases were drawn from the speaker, on perceiving that the horseman, instead of staying to listen to his tale of adventure, had put spurs to his horse, and suddenly ridden away.

In another instant he was beyond earshot, galloping over the moonlit plain in the direction of the hacienda Las Palmas.

“Well!” cried Costal, as he stood gazing after him, “he’s a frank brave fellow, and I should be very sorry if any mischance were to happen to him. I was not pleased about his interrupting us. It was a pity, to be sure; but after all, had I been in his place I should have done just as he did. Never mind,” he added, after a pause, “all is not over—we shall find another opportunity.”

“Hum!” said Clara, “I think the sooner we get out of the neighbourhood of these tigers the better for our skins. For my part, I’ve had enough adventure for one day.”

“Bah! still frightened about the tigers! For shame, Clara! Look at this young man, who never saw a jaguar in his life; and heeds them no more than so many field mice. Come along!”

“What have we to do now?”

“The spirit of the waters,” replied Costal, “does not show herself in the cascade alone. She appears also to those who invoke her with the conch, amidst the yellow waves of the inundation. To-morrow we may try again.”

“What about the young fellow whom the officer has recommended to our care?”

“We shall go to look after him in the morning. Meanwhile, we must have some rest ourselves. Let us climb out of the ravine, and carry the canoe up to the summit of the Cerro de la Mesa. There we shall sleep tranquilly, without fear either of floods or jaguars.”

“That’s just the thing,” said Clara, his black face brightening up at the prospect of a good night’s rest. “To say the truth, friend Costal, I’m tired enough myself. Our gymnastics up yonder, on the ahuehuetes, have made every bone in my body as sore as a blister.”

And as the two confrères ended their dialogue, they stepped briskly forward, and were soon at the top of the precipitous path that led up from the ravine.