Chapter 21 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Student Rescued.

The odd spectacle once more overcame the gravity of the Indian; and, resting upon his oars, he delivered himself up to a renewed spell of laughter.

Through the network of the hammock the student could now note the movements of those who were coming to his rescue. He saw the Indian turn towards his companion, pointing at the same time to the singular tableau among the tops of the trees, which the negro appeared to contemplate with a countenance that betrayed an anxiety equal to his own.

Don Cornelio could not make out what there was to laugh at in a spectacle that for two mortal hours—ever since daybreak—had been causing him the extreme of fear; but, without saying a word, he waited for the explanation of this ill-timed hilarity.

“Let us get a little farther off!” stammered the negro; “we can deliberate better what we should do.”

“What we should do!” cried Costal, now speaking seriously; “it needs no deliberation to tell that.”

“Quite true,” assented Clara, “it does not. Of course we should push off a little; and the sooner we do it the better.”

“Bah!” exclaimed Costal, “that’s not what I meant;” as he spoke coolly laying his paddle in the bottom of the canoe, and taking up his carbine.

“But what are you going to do?” anxiously asked Clara.

“Por Dios! to shoot one of the jaguars; what else? You shall see presently. Keep yourself quiet, Señor student,” he continued, speaking to Don Cornelio, who still lay crouched up within the hammock, and who, from very fear, could neither speak nor move.

At this moment one of the jaguars uttered a growl that caused the blood to run cold through the veins of Clara. At the same time the fierce creature was seen tearing the bark from the tamarind with his curving claws; while, with mouth agape, and teeth set, as if in menace, he fixed his fiery eyes upon Costal, who was nearest to him. His angry glance had no terrors for the tigrero, who, gazing firmly back upon the fierce brute, appeared to subdue him by some power of fascination.

Costal now raised the carbine to his shoulder, took deliberate aim, and fired. Almost simultaneously with the report, the huge animal came tumbling down from the tree, and fell with a dull, dead plash upon the water. It was the male.

“Quick, Clara!” cried the Indian. “A stroke of the paddle—quick, or we shall have the other upon us!”

And, as Costal spoke, he drew his long knife to be ready for defending himself.

Anxious as the negro was to get out of the way, and making all the haste in his power, his fears had so unnerved him that his efforts were in vain. The female jaguar, furious at the death of her mate, and anxious for the safety of her whelps, stayed only to utter one savage yell; and then, bounding downward from the branches, she launched herself upon the student. The hammock, however, oscillating violently to one side, caused her to let go her hold, and making a second spring, she dropped down into the canoe. The weight of her body, combined with the impetus which her anger had given to it, at once capsized the little craft; and Indian, negro, and jaguar went all together under water!

In a second’s time all three reappeared on the surface—Clara half-frightened out of his senses, and striking out with all the energy of despair.

Fortunately for the negro, the old pearl-diver could swim like a shark; and, in the twinkling of an eye, the latter had darted betwixt him and the jaguar—his knife slung between his clenched teeth.

The two adversaries, now face to face, paused for an instant as if to measure the distance between them. Their eyes met—those of the tiger-hunter expressing coolness and resolution, while the orbs of the jaguar rolled furiously in their sockets.

All at once the hunter was seen to dive; and the jaguar, astonished at the sudden disappearance of her enemy, paused, and for a moment balanced herself in the water. Then turning round, she commenced swimming back towards the tree upon which she had left her young ones.

Before reaching it, however, she was seen to struggle, and sink partially below the surface—as if some whirlpool was sucking her underneath; then rising up again, she turned over on her back, and floated lifeless down the current. A long red gash appeared freshly opened in her belly; and the water around was fast becoming tinged with the crimson stream that gushed copiously from the wound.

The Indian, in turn, came to the surface; and, after casting a look around him, swam towards the canoe—which the current had already carried to some distance from the trees. Overtaking it, he once more turned the craft deck upwards; and, mounting aboard, paddled back towards the student.

Lantejas had not yet recovered from the surprise with which the encounter, as well as the audacious sang-froid exhibited by the tigrero, had inspired him, when the latter arrived underneath; and, with the same blade with which he had almost disembowelled the tiger, opened the bottom of the hammock by cutting it lengthwise. By this means he had resolved on delivering the student more easily than by endeavouring to get him out over the edge.

At that moment was heard the voice of Clara, still swimming about in the water.

“The skins of the jaguars!” cried he; “are you going to let them be lost? They are worth twenty dollars, Costal!”

“Well, if they are,” replied the Indian, “swim after and secure them. I have no time to spare,” added he, as he pulled Lantejas through the bottom of the hammock, and lowered him down into the canoe.

“Dios me libre!” responded Clara; “I shall do nothing of the kind. Who knows whether the life’s quite out of them yet? They may go to the devil for me! Heigh! Costal! paddle this way, and take me in. I have no desire to go under those tamarinds—laced as they are by half a mile of rattlesnakes.”

“Get in gently, then!” said Costal, directing the canoe towards the negro. “Gently, or you may capsize us a second time.”

“Jesus God!” exclaimed Don Cornelio, who now for the first time had found the power of speech; “Jesus God!” he repeated, seeing himself, not without some apprehension, between two strange beings—the one red, the other black—both dripping with water, and their hair covered with the yellow scum of the waves!

“Eh! Señor student,” rejoined Clara, in a good-humoured way, “is that all the thanks you give us for the service we have done you?”

“Pardon me, gentlemen,” stammered out Don Cornelio; “I was dreadfully frightened. I have every reason to be thankful to you.”

And, his confidence now restored, the student expressed, in fit terms, his warm gratitude; and finished his speech by congratulating the Indian on his escape from the dangers he had encountered.

“By my faith! it is true enough,” rejoined Costal, “I have run some little danger. I was all over of a sweat; and this cursed water coming down from the mountains as cold as ice—Carrambo! I shouldn’t wonder if I should get a bad cold from the ducking.”

The student listened with astonishment to this unexpected declaration. The man whose fearful intrepidity he had just witnessed to be thinking only of the risk he ran of getting a cold!

“Who are you?” he mechanically inquired.

“I?” said Costal. “Well, I am an Indian, as you see—a Zapoteque—formerly the tigrero of Don Matias de la Zanca; at present in the service of Don Mariano de Silva—to-morrow, who knows?”

“Don Matias de la Zanca!” echoed the student, interrupting him; “why, that is my uncle!”

“Oh!” said Costal, “your uncle! Well, Señor student, if you wish to go to his house I am sorry I cannot take you there, since it lies up among the hills, and could not be reached in a canoe. But perhaps you have a horse?”

“I had one; but the flood has carried him off, I suppose. No matter. I have good reasons for not regretting his loss.”

“Well,” rejoined Costal, “your best way will be to go with us to the Hacienda las Palmas. There you will get a steed that will carry you to the house of your uncle. But first,” added he, turning his eyes towards the tamarinds, “I must look after my carbine, which has been spilled out of the canoe. It’s too good a gun to be thrown away; and I can say that it don’t miss fire once in ten times. It should be yonder, where the brute capsized us; and with your permission, Señor student, I’ll just go in search of it. Ho, Clara! paddle us back under the hammock!”

Clara obeyed, though evidently with some reluctance. The hissing of the serpents still sounded ominously in his ears.

On arriving near the spot where the canoe had turned over, Costal stood up in the bow; and then raising his hands, and joining them above his head, he plunged once more under the water.

For a long time the spectators saw nothing of him; but the bubbles here and there rising to the surface, showed where he was engaged in searching for his incomparable carbine.

At length his head appeared above water, then his whole body. He held the gun tightly grasped in one of his hands, and making a few strokes towards the canoe he once more climbed aboard.

Costal now took hold of the paddle; and turning the head of the canoe in a westerly direction commenced making way across the turbid waters towards the Hacienda las Palmas.

Although the fury of the inundation had by this time partially subsided, still the flood ran onward with a swift current; and what with the danger from floating trees, and other objects that swelled the surface of the water, it was necessary to manage the canoe with caution. Thus retarded, it was near mid-day before the voyageurs arrived within sight of the hacienda. Along the way Don Cornelio had inquired from his new companions, what strange accident had conducted them to the spot where they had found him.

“Not an accident,” said Costal; “but a horseman, who appeared to be in a terrible hurry himself, as Por Dios! he had need to be. He was on his way to the house of Don Mariano, for what purpose I can’t say. It remains to be known, Señor student, whether he has been as fortunate as you, in escaping the flood. God grant that he has! for it would be a sad pity if such a brave young fellow was to die by drowning. Brave men are not so plentiful.”

“Happy for them who are brave!” sighed Don Cornelio.

“Here is my friend, Clara,” continued Costal, without noticing the rejoinder of the student, “who has no fear of man; and yet he is as much afraid of tigers as if he were a child. Well, I hope we shall find that the gallant young officer has escaped the danger, and is now safe within the walls of the hacienda.”

At that moment the canoe passed round a tope of half-submerged palm-trees, and the hacienda itself appeared in sight, as if suddenly rising from the bosom of the waters. A cry of joy escaped from the lips of the student, who, half-famished with hunger, thought of the abundance that would be found behind those hospitable walls.

While gazing upon them a bell commenced to toll; and its tones fell upon his ears like the music of birds, for it appeared as if summoning the occupants of the hacienda to pass into the refectory. It was, however, the angelus of noon.

At the same instant two barges were seen parting from the causeway that led down in front, and heading towards the high ridge that ran behind the hacienda, at a little distance on the north. In the first of these boats appeared two rowers, with a person in a travelling costume of somewhat clerical cut, and a mule saddled and bridled. In the second were two gentlemen and the same number of ladies. The latter were young girls, both crowned with luxuriant chaplets of flowers, and each grasping an oar in her white delicate fingers, which she managed with skill and adroitness. They were the two daughters of Don Mariano de Silva. One of the gentlemen was Don Mariano himself, while the other was joyfully recognised by Costal as the brave officer who had asked him the way, and by the student as his compagnon du voyage of yesterday—Don Rafael Tres-Villas.

Shortly after, the two boats reached the foot of the Sierra; and the traveller with the mule disembarked. Mounting into his saddle, he saluted those who remained in the other boat; and then rode away, amidst the words oft repeated by Don Mariano and his daughters—

“A dios! a dios! Señor Morelos! a dios!”

The two barges now returned towards the hacienda, arriving there nearly at the same time as the canoe which carried the student of theology, the Indian, and the negro.

Don Cornelio had now a better opportunity of observing the rich freight carried in the larger of the two boats. The drapery of purple silk which covered the seats and fell over the sides of the barge, threw its brilliant reflections far out upon the water. In the midst of this brilliance appeared the young ladies, seated and bending languidly upon their oars. Now and then Marianita, in plunging her oar-blade into the water, caused the pomegranate flowers to rain down from her hair, as she shook them with bursts of laughter; while Gertrudis, looking from under the purple wreath, ever and anon cast stealthy glances at the cavalier who was seated by the side of her father.

“Señor Don Mariano!” said Costal, as the barge drew near, “here is a guest whom I have taken the liberty to bring to your hospitable mansion.”

As the Indian delivered this speech he pointed to the student of theology still seated in the canoe.

“He is welcome!” rejoined Don Mariano; and then, inviting the stranger to disembark, all except Costal, Clara, and the servants, landed from the boats, and passed out of sight through the front gateway of the hacienda.

These taking the boats around the battlements of the building, entered the enclosure by a gate that opened towards the rear.