Chapter 15 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Friend in Need.

He was counting with anxiety the minutes that passed, when at that moment there echoed upon his ear the hoof-strokes of another horse, going at full gallop.

It was a horseman following the same route, and running the same risk as himself. He was mounted upon a strong, swift animal, that appeared to pass over the ground like a bird upon the wing.

In an instant the horseman came up, and drawing vigorously on the bridle, halted alongside.

“What are you about?” cried the new-comer, speaking in hurried phrase. “Do you not hear the alarm-bell? Don’t you know that the flood is coming down?”

“Yes; but my horse has given out. I am waiting till he recovers his wind.”

The stranger cast a glance towards the bay-brown of Don Rafael, and then threw himself out of his saddle. “Take hold of this,” he said, flinging his bridle to the officer. “Let me examine your horse.”

Raising the saddle-flap, he placed his hand underneath, to feel the pulsations of the lungs.

“All right yet,” he exclaimed, after a pause, apparently satisfied that the animal would recover.

Then stooping down, he took up a large stone, and began to rub it vigorously over the ribs and along the belly of the panting steed.

Don Rafael could not help gazing with curious interest on a man who, thus careless of his own life, was occupying himself so generously about the safety of another—that other, too, a perfect stranger!

The man was costumed as an arriero (muleteer). A species of tight-fitting blouse, of coarse greyish-coloured wool, striped black, covered the upper part of his body, over which, in front, hung a short leathern apron. Wide calzoneros of linen flapped about his legs. His feet were encased in buskins of brown goat-skin, while over his face fell the shadow of a broad-brimmed hat of coarse felt cloth.

He was a man of less than medium size; but with a sweet expression of features, from which his sunburnt complexion did not detract. Even at that terrible moment his countenance appeared calm and serene!

Don Rafael did not attempt to interrupt his proceedings, but stood regarding him with a feeling of deep gratitude.

For some moments the muleteer continued to use the stone. Then stopping the process, he placed his hand once more to feel the pulsation. This time he appeared less satisfied than before.

“He will founder,” said he, “if something be not done to prevent it. He must have more breath through his nostrils. There is but one way to save him. Assist me to try it. We must haste, for the bell is tolling with double violence to give warning that the waters are near.”

As he was speaking, he drew a cord from the pocket of his leathern apron; and, forming a running noose at one end of it, he drew it tightly around the muzzle of the horse, just above the nostrils.

“Now,” said he, handing the cord to Don Rafael. “First cover the horse’s eyes with your handkerchief; and then hold the cord with all your might.”

While Don Rafael hastened to obey the directions, the muleteer took a knife from his belt, and with a quick cut divided the transparent partition between the nostrils of the animal. The blood gushed forth in copious jets; and the horse, notwithstanding the efforts of Don Rafael to hold him to the ground, reared up on his hind legs, and struck forward with his hoofs. A hollow gurgling noise came forth from his nostrils as the air rushed in through the opening that had been made.

“Now!” exclaimed the muleteer, “you need no longer fear for his wind. Your horse can run as far as his legs will carry him. You will be saved if you are to be saved.”

“Your name,” cried Don Rafael, stretching out his hand to the muleteer; “your name, that I may always keep it in remembrance.”

“Valerio Trujano, a poor arriero; not very fortunate in his affairs, but who consoles himself with the belief that he has done his duty, and leaves the rest to God. Our lives are now in His hands. Let us pray that He may preserve them from the awful danger that is before us.”

Repeating these words with an air of solemnity, the muleteer took off his hat, displaying to view a mass of black curling hair. Then kneeling upon the sand, he raised his eyes to heaven, and in a voice of prayer pronounced the words:—

“De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine! Domine, exaudi vocem meam!”

While the muleteer was engaged in his devotion, the dragoon tightened his girths for the last struggle; and both at the same time springing into their saddles, resumed the gallop that had been so unfortunately interrupted. The damp, chill wind which preceded the coming of the waters bore loudly to their ears the warning notes of the bell—mingled with the sinister sounds that betokened the approach of the inundation.