Chapter 20 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Canopy of Jaguars.

Considering the circumstances in which he has been left, it is time to return to the poor student of theology—Don Cornelio Lantejas. We left him sleeping in a hammock, between two great tamarind trees; and certainly it must have been his good star that had conducted him into that comfortable situation.

All at once he awoke with a start—his slumber having been interrupted by a chilly sensation that had suddenly crept upon him. On opening his eyes, he perceived that he was suspended over a vast sea that rolled its yellow waves beneath the hammock, and within six inches of his body! At this unexpected sight, a cry of terror escaped him, which was instantly responded to by a growling, sniffing noise, that appeared to proceed from the tops of the tamarinds over his head!

As yet he saw nothing there; but casting his eyes around, he perceived that the whole country was under water sweeping onward in a frothy, turbulent current!

A moment’s reflection sufficed to explain to him this singular phenomenon. He now remembered having heard of the great annual inundation to which the plains of Oajaca are subject, and which occur almost at a fixed day and hour; and this also explained the circumstances which had been mystifying him—the abandoned dwellings, and the boats suspended from the trees. He had arrived in the midst of one of these great floods, which he might have shunned but for the slow and gentle gait at which his cavallo de picador had carried him along the route.

What was he to do? He scarce knew how to swim. But even had he been as accomplished in the art of natation as a pearl-diver himself, it would not have availed him in the midst of that immense sheet of water, on all sides apparently stretching to the limits of the horizon!

His situation, sufficiently unpleasant on account of the danger of the rising inundation, soon became absolutely frightful from another and a very different reason.

Some shining objects, which appeared to him among the leaves of the tamarinds, and that looked like burning coals, just then caught his glance; and a closer scrutiny convinced him that these could be no other than the eyes of some fierce animals that had taken refuge upon the trees—jaguars, no doubt: since he could think of no other creatures that could have climbed up the smooth trunks of the tamarinds!

His terror was now complete. Beneath rushed the surging waters. He knew not how soon they might mount higher and engulf him—for the flood might still be far from its maximum height! On the other hand, he dare not climb upwards. The fierce animals in the tree would be certain to dispute his ascent, even should they feel disposed to leave him unassailed where he was!

In this horrid state of uncertainty—dreading the double danger—he was compelled to pass the remainder of the night.

We need not detail the unpleasant reflections to which his situation gave rise: for a volume would scarce contain the thousand alternations from hope to fear that passed through his spirit before the light of the morning broke upon his longing eyes.

Though he had longed for morning to come, the daylight did not add much to the joyfulness of his situation. The animals, whose glancing orbs had kept him all night in a state of apprehension, were now plainly seen among the branches of the trees. They were jaguars—four of them—two large ones, and two others of smaller size, or cachorras. This was not all that Don Cornelio saw to alarm him. In addition to the fierce quadrupeds, the tops of the tamarinds were occupied by other living creatures of equally frightful aspect. These were reptiles: large serpents of hideous appearance twined spirally round the branches, with their heads projected outwards, and their forked tongues glistening beyond their teeth!

The terrified student cast an inquiring glance over the waters, to see if there was no means of escape from his perilous position. He saw only the bubbling surface, here and there mottled with huge uprooted trees, upon which appeared wolves and other wild animals half dead with affright. High overhead, eagles, vultures, and other birds of prey wheeled in circles through the air, uttering their piercing cries—fit accompaniment to this scene of desolation and death.

Don Cornelio again turned his eyes towards the fierce jaguars crouching among the branches of the trees. These brutes appeared to struggle against the ferocious instincts of their nature, which prompted them to seize hold of a prey almost within reach of their claws. Fear for their own lives alone prevented them from taking that of the student; and at intervals they closed their eyes, as if to escape the temptation caused by his presence!

At the same time the serpents, not far above his face, kept continually coiling their long viscous bodies round the branches, and rapidly uncoiling them again—equally uneasy at the presence of the man and the tigers.

Mechanically closing the folds of the hammock over him, and thus holding them with both hands, the student lay perfectly still. He feared either to speak or make a motion, lest his voice or movement might tempt either the reptiles or quadrupeds to make an attack upon him.

In this way more than an hour had passed, when over the surface of the waters, which now flowed in a more tranquil current, Don Cornelio fancied he heard a singular sound. It resembled the notes of a bugle, but at times the intonation was hoarser and more grave, not unlike a certain utterance of his two formidable neighbours, which from time to time the student heard swelling from the tops of the tamarinds.

It was neither more nor less than the conch of Costal; who, making his way towards the spot in his canoe, was employing the time to advantage in endeavouring to invoke the goddess of the waters.

Presently the student was able to make out in the distance the little canoe gliding over the water, with the two adventurers seated in the stem and stern. At intervals, the Indian, accustomed to this sort of navigation, was seen to drop his oars and hold the shell to his mouth. Lantejas then saw that it was from this instrument the sounds that had so puzzled him were proceeding.

Absorbed in their odd occupation, neither Costal nor Clara had as yet perceived the student of theology—hidden as he was by the thick network of the hammock, and almost afraid to make the slightest movement. Just then, however, a muffled voice, as of some one speaking from under a mask, reached their ears.

“Did you hear anything, Costal?” inquired the negro.

“Yes, I heard a sort of cry,” replied Costal; “like enough it’s the poor devil of a student who is calling us. Carrambo! where can he be? I see only a hammock hung between two trees. Eh! as I live, he is inside it. Carrai!”

As Costal finished speaking, a loud peal of laughter burst from his lips, which to him in the hammock appeared like heavenly music. It told him that the two men had discovered his situation; and the student at once fervently returned thanks to God for this interposition of His mercy.

Clara was sharing the mirth of the Indian, when music of a very different sort stifled the laugh upon his lips. It was the cry of the jaguars, that, suddenly excited by the voice of the student, had all four of them sent forth a simultaneous scream.

“Carrambo!” exclaimed Clara, with a fresh terror depicted upon his face; “the tigers again.”

“Rather strange!” said the Indian. “Certainly their howls appeared to come from the same place as the voice of the man. Hola! Señor student,” he continued, raising his voice, so as to be heard by him in the hammock, “are you making your siesta alone, or have you company under the shade of those tamarinds?”

Don Cornelio attempted to reply, but his speech was unintelligible both to the Indian and the negro. In fact, terror had so paralysed his tongue, as to render him incapable of pronouncing his words distinctly!

For a moment his arm was seen elevated above the folds of the hammock, as if to point out his terrible neighbours upon the tree. But the thick foliage still concealing the jaguars from the eye of Costal, rendered the gesture of the student as unintelligible as his cry.

“For the love of God, hold your oar!” cried Clara; “perhaps the tigers have taken refuge on the top of the tamarinds!”

“All the more reason why we should get up to them,” replied the Indian. “Would you leave this young man to smother in his hammock till the waters had subsided?”

In saying this, Costal plied his oars more vigorously than ever; and, in spite of the remonstrances of his companion, headed the canoe in a direct line towards the hammock.

“If these be the same tigers we encountered yesterday,” said Clara, in an anxious tone of voice, “and I am almost sure they are, by the mewing of their whelps, think for a moment, Costal, how desperately spiteful they will be against us.”

“And do you think I am not equally spiteful against them?” replied Costal, urging his canoe onwards with more rapidity than ever.

A few strokes of the paddle brought the light craft within gunshot distance of the tamarinds; and now for the first time did Costal obtain a good view of the theological student couched within the hammock—where he appeared to be indolently reposing, like some Oriental satrap, under a daïs of tigers and serpents!