Chapter 16 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Las Palmas and its People.

The southern portion of the state of Vera Cruz, bordering on Tehuantepec, exhibits a singular hydrographic system. A number of great rivers, as the Rio Blanc, the Plaza Vicente, the Goazacoalcos, and the Papatoapan, with many of smaller note, form a complete network over the country. Most of these rivers have their sources in the Sierra Madre, and traversing the plains of the tierra calienté, debouch into the Gulf of Mexico.

Every one has heard how profusely the rain falls in tropical countries during that period of the year known as the “rainy season.” It is the American winter of these southern latitudes, commencing in the month of June, and ending in October. At this time the waters of the rivers above mentioned, augmented by torrents of rain falling daily, break over the boundaries of their channels, and, free as the wild horses upon their banks, rush impetuously over the surrounding plains.

Almost with the rapidity of a galloping steed, the yellow flood rolls onward, as if impelled by the breath of a demon, carrying terror and desolation in its track. Woe to the living thing unable to flee before its watery phalanx!

The inundations proceeding simultaneously from the different streams soon become joined to one another; and the waters, now spread over a vast tract of country, flow in a more tranquil current. Thus united together, they form an immense sea, covering the whole extent of the savannas; upon the tranquil surface of which may be seen the débris of their destructive violence, with the carcasses of all sorts of animals.

In the country thus inundated a singular spectacle may at this time be witnessed: villages completely surrounded by water, as if built upon islands; trees with their trunks submerged, their leafy tops alone visible; canoes and large periaguas, decked with flags and filled with people in their holiday suits, trying to outdo each other in speed or elegance of adornment; while groups of young girls, gaily dressed and crowned with flowers, may be seen seated in the boats, singing to the inspiriting accompaniment of the harp or mandolin.

The situation in which the hacienda of Las Palmas stood had been chosen with a view to provide against these annual floods. It was upon the north side of a plait apparently boundless towards the south, east, and west. The house stood upon an eminence of no great elevation—a sort of outlying spur of a higher ridge that backed it upon the north. It was isolated, however, and at some distance from the ridge, whose direction was eastward and westward. The hill upon which the hacienda stood was one of those singular eminences known in Spanish-America by the name of mesa (table). Its flat top formed an oblong parallelogram, at one end of which stood the dwelling-house, the other being occupied by the storehouses and stables. These were upon an extensive scale, all enclosed within a wall of strong mason-work. In the same enclosure were rows of chambers for the lodgment of the peons, vaqueros, and other retainers of the establishment.

The dwelling-house, standing upon the southern extremity of the mesa, fronted towards the great plain. In its centre a massive double door opened into the courtyard, or patio; and this entrance was reached by a broad causeway, sloping upward with a gentle declivity from the plain, and fenced along each edge by a parapet of strong mason-work. Thus situated, the hacienda of Las Palmas—so named from the numerous topes of palm-trees which mottled the plain in front—not only defied the flood, but might have served as a fortress of no despicable strength. The proprietor of this dwelling, as well as the extensive estate surrounding it, was Don Mariano de Silva.

The bell of the hacienda had tolled the evening oration, and the tinkling of the angelus was sounding the summons to prayer. At that moment might be witnessed an interesting spectacle upon the plain adjoining the dwelling of Don Mariano de Silva. The Indian labourers, who never work a moment beyond the prescribed time, at the first sound of the bell had all suddenly stopped as if struck by paralysis. The pickaxe raised aloft, the spade half buried in the earth, the goad lifted to prick forward the ox, fell simultaneously from their hands; while the oxen themselves, accustomed to imitate their drivers, came at once to a stand, leaving the plough in the half-finished furrow. The vaqueros galloped straight to their stables and unsaddled their horses; the peons came crowding in from the fields; and while the plain was thus deserted the corral and outhouses became crowded.

In the midst of this crowd women were seen hurrying to and fro, carrying hot plates of comal, tortillas, and chile colorado, destined for the evening repast.

The sun was yet shining brightly, and his last rays darted their golden light through the iron bars and green trelliswork of the windows of the hacienda. One, however, that looked eastward was sheltered from his beams; and a traveller coming in that direction might have observed that the lattice blind was raised up, and the rich amber-coloured curtains were visible behind it, although partially drawn. The window was at no great height from the ground, in fact on the ground-floor itself; but the house standing upon the pedestal of the mesa was elevated several feet above the level of the plain, and a horseman, however high his horse, could not have looked into the chamber thus situated.

There was no traveller, however, in sight; no one except some belated labourers, who, through the luminous haze of the setting sun, could be seen making their way towards the hacienda.

Any one who could have looked into this chamber would have there beheld a scene of more than ordinary interest. Though a mansion in the western world, the style and furnishing of the apartment exhibited a certain character of orientalism: for Mexico has long held traffic with the countries of the far East.

At that moment the chamber contained something of more interest than even its rich furniture. Three young girls graced it by their presence. Two of them were evidently sisters—judging by the air of familiarity that existed between them, rather than by any very marked personal resemblance. They were the daughters of Don Mariano, the proprietor of the mansion. The third was simply a servant—their waiting-maid.