Chapter 14 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Precious Moments.

The Captain of the Queen’s Dragoons continued his gallop towards the hacienda of Las Palmas.

For the first mile or two of his route, he passed over the broad plain that lay silent under the soft light of the moon. The frondage of the palms swayed gently under a sky sparkling with stars, and the penetrating odour of the guavas loaded the atmosphere with a delicious perfume. So tranquil was the scene, that Don Rafael began to think the Indian had been playing upon his credulity. Mechanically he relaxed his pace, and delivered himself up to one of those sweet reveries which the tropic night often awakens within the spirit of the traveller. At such an hour one experiences a degree of rapture in listening to the voices of earth and heaven, like a hymn which each alternately chants to the other.

All at once the traveller remembered what for the last two days of his journey had been perplexing him—the houses abandoned—the canoes suspended from the trees. Now, for the first time, did he comprehend the meaning of these circumstances, no longer strange. The canoes and periaguas had been thus placed as a last means of safety, for those who might be so unfortunate as to be overtaken by the inundation.

Suddenly rousing himself from his reverie, Don Rafael again spurred his horse into a gallop.

He had ridden scarce a mile further, when all at once the voices of the night became hushed. The cicadas in the trees, and the crickets under the grass, as if by mutual consent, discontinued their cheerful chirrup; and the breeze, hitherto soft and balmy, was succeeded by puffs of wind, exhaling a marshy odour, stifling as the breath of some noisome pestilence.

This ominous silence was not of long duration. Presently the traveller perceived a hoarse distant roaring, not unlike that of the cataract he had left behind him; but from a point diametrically opposite—in fact, from the direction towards which he was heading.

At first he fancied that in his momentary fit of abstraction he had taken a wrong direction, and might be returning upon the stream. But no: the moon was on his left; his shadow and that of his horse were projected to the opposite side. He must still be on the right road.

His heart began to bound more quickly within his breast. If the Indian had spoken the truth, a danger lay before him against which neither his carbine nor rapier—neither courage nor a strong arm—could avail him. His only hope rested in the speed and strength of his horse.

Fortunately, the long journey had not deprived the brave steed of all his vigour. With ears laid back, and muzzle stretched horizontally forward, he continued his rapid gallop; his spread nostrils inhaling the puffs of damp air which came like avant-couriers in advance of the troubled waters.

It was now a struggle between the horseman and the flood, as to which should first reach the hacienda of Las Palmas.

The officer slackened his bridle-rein. The tinkling rowels of his spurs resounded against the ribs of his horse. The trial of speed had commenced. The plain appeared to glide past him like the current of a river. The bushes and tall palms seemed flying backward.

The inundation was rolling from west to east. The horseman was hastening in the opposite direction. Both must soon come together; but at what place?

The distance between them was rapidly diminishing. The noise of the flood, at first low, like the muttering of distant thunder, was gradually growing louder. The palms still appeared to glide past like spectres, but as yet the belfry of the hacienda had not come in sight. Neither as yet was visible the threatening mass of the inundation.

At this perilous moment Don Rafael perceived that his horse was sensibly slackening his pace. The sides of the animal felt swollen, and heaved with a convulsive panting.

The air, so rapidly cut in his swift course, with difficulty entered his nostrils. A few seconds longer, and that in his lungs must give out.

The officer drew up for an instant. The breathing of his horse appeared obstructed, and the hoarse sound, caused by its inspiration, was a mournful accompaniment to the sough of the waters that were constantly advancing.

The traveller listened to these sounds with a sentiment of despair.

Just then he heard the clanging of a bell, as if hurriedly tolled. It was that of the hacienda, giving out its warning notes over the wide savanna.

A reflection crossed his mind. It had been partly suggested by the words of the Indian: “Think only of those who may bewail your death.” Was there in that hacienda, where he was hourly expected, one who would bewail it? Perhaps yes, and bitterly!

The thought would have urged him onward; but Don Rafael still remained halted. He saw that his horse required a moment of rest, in order to recover his wind, otherwise he could not have proceeded.

The dragoon had the presence of mind to perceive this imperious necessity; and, in spite of the danger that threatened he dismounted, loosened the girdle of his saddle, thus permitting the horse to breathe more freely.