Chapter 19 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Last of the Zapoteques.

At no great distance from the cascade already introduced to the reader, there rises a little hill, with a flat or table-shaped top, as if it had once been a cone, whose apex had been cut off by some freak of nature. As already observed, such eminences are not uncommon throughout the plains of America, where they are generally termed mesas, or cerros de la mesa (table hills). The archaeologists of the province, in speaking of the hill in question—which simply bore the name of Cerro-de-la-mesa—declared it to be an ancient shrine of the Zapoteques. Tradition says that a temple once stood upon it; but, if so, it must have been constructed of very perishable materials; since no ruin testifies to the truth of this tradition. Costal, however, believed it, for the tigrero, though apparently a Christianised Indian, was still a faithful believer in many of the pagan rites of his fathers; and, influenced by a superstitious feeling, he was in the habit of sleeping upon the summit of the Cerro-de-la-mesa, whenever the necessities of his calling compelled him to remain over night in that neighbourhood. A little hut which he had constructed out of bamboos, with the broad leaves of bananas thrown over it for thatch, served him sufficiently well for this occasional and temporary shelter.

Costal had told Clara no more than the truth. He was descended from the ancient Caciques of Tehuantepec; and, while wandering through the midst of the solitary savannas, the falling grandeur of his ancient race was often the subject of his thoughts. Perfectly indifferent to the political quarrels of the whites, he would have regarded the new insurrection of Hidalgo without the slightest interest or enthusiasm; but another motive had kindled within his breast the hope that in the end he might himself profit by the revolutionary movement, and that by the aid of the gold which he vainly dreamt of one day discovering, he might revive in his own person the title of Cacique, and the sovereignty which his ancestors had exercised. The pagan doctrines in which he had been brought up, the solitudes in which he dwelt while engaged in his calling of tiger-hunter, the contemplation of the boundless sea, whose depths he had often explored—for previous to his becoming a tigrero he had long practised the perilous profession of a pearl-diver—all these circumstances had contributed to give to his character a tone of singular exaltation which bordered upon frenzy.

Visionary dreamer though he was, he had acquired as much ascendancy over the negro Clara as ever Don Quixote had over his squire Sancho Panza. Nay more, for, unlike the Manchego gentleman, he might easily have persuaded his black associate that windmills were giants, since the latter had already taken a captain in the Queen’s dragoons for the Siren with the dishevelled hair!

About an hour after this incident we find the two adventurers upon the summit of the Cerro-de-la-mesa. Thither they had just transported the canoe of Costal, which, being a light craft, they had carried up on their shoulders without much difficulty. They had placed it keel upwards close to the wall of the bamboo hovel.

“Ouf!” grunted the negro as he sat down upon it. “I think we have fairly earned a minute’s rest. What’s your opinion, Costal?”

“Didn’t you travel through the province of Valladolid?” asked the Indian without replying to Clara’s idle question.

“Of course I did,” answered the black. “Valladolid, Acapulco, and several other of the south-western provinces. Ah, I know them well—from the smallest path to the most frequented of the great roads—every foot of them. How could I help knowing them? for, in my capacity of mozo de mulas, did I not travel them over and over again with my master, Don Vallerio Trujano, a worthy man, whose service I only quitted to turn proprietor in this province of Oajaca?”

Clara pronounced the word proprietor emphatically, and with an important air. His proprietorship consisted in being the owner of a small jacal, or bamboo hut, and the few feet of ground on which it was built—of which, however, he was only a renter under Don Mariano de Silva. To the haciendado he hired himself out a part of each year, during the gathering of the cochineal crop. The rest of his time he usually passed in a sort of idle independence.

“Why do you ask me these questions?” he added.

“I don’t see,” said Costal, speaking as much to himself as to his companion, “how we can enrol ourselves in the army of Hidalgo. As a descendant of the Caciques of Tehuantepec, I am not above hiring myself out as a tiger-hunter; but I can never consent to wear a soldier’s uniform.”

“And why not?” asked Clara. “For my part, I think it would be very fine to have a splendid green coat with red facings, and bright yellow trowsers, like one of these pretty parroquets. I think, however, we need not quarrel on that score. It’s not likely that the Señor Hidalgo, though he is generalissimo of the American insurgent army, will have many uniforms to spare; and unless we enrol ourselves as officers, which is not likely, I fear—”

“Stay!” said Costal, interrupting him. “Why couldn’t we act as guides and scouts, since you know the country so well? In that capacity we could go and come as we pleased, and would have every opportunity to search for the Siren with the dishevelled hair.”

“But is the Siren to be seen everywhere?” naïvely inquired Clara.

“Certainly; she can appear at any place to her faithful worshippers, wherever there is a pool of water in which she can mirror herself, a stream or a cascade in which she may bathe herself, or in the great sea where she searches for pearls to adorn her hair.”

“And did you never see her when you were yourself a pearl-fisher on the coast of the Gulf?”

“Certainly I have,” replied Costal; “yes, more than once, too, I have seen her at night; and by moonlight I have heard her singing as she combed out her shining hair and twisted long strings of pearls about her neck, while we could not find a single one. Several times, too, I have invoked her without feeling the slightest sensation of fear, and intreated her to show me the rich pearl-banks. But it was all to no purpose: no matter how courageous one is, the Siren will not do anything unless there are two men present.”

“What can be the reason of that?” inquired Clara. “Perhaps her husband is jealous, and don’t allow her to talk to one man alone.”

“The truth is, friend Clara,” continued Costal, without congratulating the negro on the cleverness of his conjecture, “I have not much hopes of seeing her until after I am fifty years old. If I interpret correctly the traditions I have received from my fathers, neither Tlaloc nor Matlacuezc ever reveal their secrets to any man who is less than half a century old. Heaven has willed it that from the time of the conquest up to my day none of my ancestors has lived beyond his forty-ninth year. I have passed that age; and in me alone can be verified the tradition of my family, which has been passed down in regular succession from father to son. But there is only one day in which it may be done: the day of full moon after the summer solstice of the year, in which I am fifty. That is this very year.”

“Ah, then,” said the negro, “that will explain why all our efforts to invoke the Siren has proved fruitless. The time has not yet come.”

“Just so,” said Costal. “It will be some months yet before we can be certain of seeing her. But whatever happens we must start to-morrow for Valladolid. In the morning we can go to the hacienda in our canoe, and take leave of our master Don Mariano as two respectable servants ought to do.”

“Agreed,” said Clara; “but are we not forgetting an important matter?”


“The student whom the officer left near the tamarind trees? Poor devil! he’s in danger of being caught by the inundation!”

“I had not forgotten him,” rejoined Costal. “We can go that way in the morning, and take him to the hacienda in the canoe along with us—that is, if we still find him alive. I hope he will have sense enough, before the flood reaches him, to climb into one of the trees.”

As Costal said this, he rose from his seat, and glanced westward over the plain. Already the hoarse murmur of the inundation was making itself heard in the direction of the hacienda.

“Listen!” said he, “to the growling of the waters. Carrambo! Who knows if the officer himself has had time to escape? He would have done better had he passed the night with us here. He appeared so anxious about going on to the hacienda. Probably he has his own private reasons for that; besides, I never thought of asking him to stay with us.”

“Well,” said Clara, “we may congratulate ourselves upon being safe here; but I feel rather hungry just now; do you chance to have a bit of tasajo in any corner of your cabin? I could put up with that and a drink of water.”

“I think I can manage to find a morsel or two,” said Costal, going inside the hut, whither he was followed by the negro.

A fire of dried sticks soon crackled upon the hearth, among the embers of which, as soon as they had burnt to a certain degree of redness, Costal placed several pieces of jerked meat—which he had taken from a string suspended across the room. This species of viand requires but a slight process of cooking; and, as soon as it was deemed sufficiently done, the two adventurers entered upon their frugal repast, which a keen appetite rendered palatable, if not absolutely luxurious.

Supper over, they stretched themselves along the floor, and for a time lay listening to the hoarse mutterings of the flood that every moment grew louder and louder. To this, however, they paid but little attention, having full confidence in the security of their elevated position; and even the noise of the water as the great waves came dashing against the hill did not hinder Costal from falling into a profound slumber. The negro also fell asleep, but awoke from time to time—fancying that he heard the screams of the jaguars mingling with the confused surging of the waters! In truth it was no fancy. What the negro heard was in reality the voices of the savage creatures they had that evening encountered. On becoming aware of the approach of the inundation, all four of them had made for the Cerro-de-la-mesa; but perceiving that its summit was already occupied by the two men, they had halted by its base, and stood for some moments growling their chagrin. The near approach of the waters inspiring them with terror, started them off afresh; and bounding rapidly onward, they were soon far distant from the hill, fleeing at utmost speed from the danger of the inundation, well understood even by them.