Chapter 32 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Secret Signal.

The fortress castle of Acapulco stands at some little distance from the town, commanding the latter. It is built upon the summit of the cliffs that inclose the Acapulco Bay—against whose base the waves of the South Sea are continually breaking. On each side of the fortress a deep ravine or barranca pierces the precipice down to the depths of the ocean—so that the castle stands upon a sort of island promontory or voladero. The cliff upon the right flank of the castle is called the Voladero de los Hornos; and over the ravine between it and the citadel stretches a narrow bridge called El Puento de los Hornos.

Early in the following morning—while the insurgent camp was in some confusion consequent upon an unexpected order from the commander-in-chief; and while a strong detachment was getting under arms, not knowing where they were to be conducted—Captain Don Cornelio Lantejas and Costal the Indian were seen gliding silently along the sea-beach in the direction of the fortress.

The night was still dark—for it wanted yet two hours to sunrise—and both the town and castle were wrapped in the most profound slumber. The only sounds heard distinctly were the continuous murmuring of the waves as they broke along the beach.

The two men, after cautiously advancing towards the black cliff, on which stood the fortress, commenced climbing upward. It was not without much exertion, and danger too, that they at length succeeded in ascending to the bridge of Los Hornos.

The Indian now struck a light; and kindling a resin candle, which he carried inside his lantern, he hung the latter to a post that stood near the middle of the bridge, fixing it in such a manner that the light should shine in the direction of the fortress. It was the signal agreed upon by the Gallician; and as their part of the performance was now over, the two men sat down to await the attack which was soon to be made by the General in person.

The position which they occupied commanded an extensive view—taking in the town, the castle, and the ocean. Of the three, the last-mentioned alone gave out any sound; and Lantejas, after a time, ceased watching the two former, and involuntarily bent his regards upon the sea.

Costal was also turning his eyes upon the great deep, in which everything might also have appeared asleep, but that at intervals a narrow line of light might be seen gleaming along the black surface of the water.

“There’s a storm in the air,” muttered Costal to his companion in a solemn tone of voice. “See, how the sharks are shining in the roadway!”

As Costal spoke, half-a-dozen of these voracious creatures, in search of prey, were seen quartering the waters of the bay—crossing each other’s course, and circling around, like fireflies over the surface of a savanna.

“What think you,” continued the ci-devant tigrero, “would become of the man who should chance to fall overboard among those silent swimmers? Many a time, for all that, have I braved that same danger—in the days when I followed pearl-diving for my profession.”

Don Cornelio made no reply, but the thought of being among the sharks at that moment sent a shivering through his frame.

“I was in no danger whatever,” continued the Indian. “Neither the sharks nor the tigers—which I afterwards also hunted as a profession—could prevail against one destined to live as long as the ravens. Soon I shall be half-a-century old; and then quien sabe? At present, perhaps, no one here except myself could swim in the midst of those carnivorous creatures without the danger of certain death. I could do it without the slightest risk.”

“Is that the secret of your courage, Costal—of which you give so many proofs?”

“Yes, and no,” replied the Indian. “Danger attracts me, as your body would attract the sharks. It is an instinct which I follow—not a bravado. Another reason, perhaps, gives me courage. I seek to avenge in Spanish blood the assassination of my forefathers. What care I for the political emancipation of you Creoles? But it is not of this I wish to speak now. Look yonder! Do you see anything down there?”

A strange object just then came under the eyes of Lantejas, which caused him to make a movement of superstitious terror. Costal only smiled, while gazing calmly upon the object.

A dark human-like form, with a sort of tufted hair hanging loosely over its head, had emerged from the water, and was supporting itself by his two arms upon the beach—as if resting there like some bather fatigued with swimming.

“What is it?” inquired Lantejas in a troubled tone—the more so that a plaintive whine seemed to proceed from this singular object, which, with somewhat of the form of a woman, had nothing human in its voice.

“A manatee,” responded Costal; “an amphibious creature we call pesca-mujer—that is, half-fish, half-woman. Dare you stand face to face with a creature still more human-like in form—ah! more perfect than any human creature?”

“What do you mean?” inquired Lantejas.

“Señor Captain Don Cornelio,” continued the Indian, “you who are so brave in the face of the enemy—”

“Hum!” interrupted Lantejas with an embarrassed air, “the bravest has his moments of weakness, do you see?”

An avowal of his want of courage—though on certain occasions the ex-student of theology was not lacking this quality—was upon the tongue of Lantejas, when Costal interrupted him with a rejoinder—

“Yes, yes. You are like Clara—although a little braver than he, since he has not had such an opportunity to cultivate an acquaintance with the tigers, as you. Well, then, if you were to see down on the beach yonder, in place of the manatee, a beautiful creature rise up out of the deep—a beautiful woman with dishevelled locks—her long hair dripping and shining with the water, and she singing as she rose to the surface; and were you to know that this woman, although visible to your eyes, was only a spirit, only of air—what would you do?”

“A very simple thing,” answered the ex-student, “I should feel terribly afraid.”

“Ah! then I have nothing more to say to you,” replied the Indian, with an air of disappointment. “For a certain object I had in view, I was in search of a comrade, one with more courage than Clara. I must content myself with the negro. I expected that you—never mind—we need not talk any more about the matter.”

The Indian did not add a single word; and the officer, whose fears were excited by the half-confidences of his companion, was silent also. Both awaiting to hear the sounds of the attack upon the castle, continued to gaze upon the vast mysterious ocean, in which the luminous tracks of the sharks and the dark body of the manatee alone animated its profound solitude.

They were thus seated in silence, with their eyes wandering over the dark blue surface of the water, when all at once the manatee was heard to plunge under the waves, uttering a melancholy cry as it went down. Just then the loud booming of a cannon drowned the voice of the amphibious creature.

“The castle is taken!” cried Lantejas.

“No,” replied Costal, “on the contrary, Pepe Gago has betrayed us. I fear our General has been tricked.”

Several discharges of cannon followed on the instant, confirming Costal’s surmise; and the two men, hastening to leave their dangerous post by the bridge of Hornos, retreated towards a narrow defile called the Ojo de Agua. There they saw the Mexican detachment scattered, and in full retreat towards their encampment. A man standing in the middle of the path was trying to intercept their flight.

“Cowards!” cried he, “will you pass over the body of your general?”

Many halted, and, returning, made an attack upon the works of the citadel. But it was to no purpose: the gate was too well defended; and a discharge of grape had the effect not only of terrifying the assailants, but also killed several of their number.

Morelos now saw that he had been betrayed, and caused the retreat to be sounded. It was the first check he had experienced during a victorious career of months.

The day had not yet dawned, when two men were seen advancing from the direction of the insurgent camp toward the bridge of Los Hornos. One of these men was Costal, but this time he was accompanied by Clara the negro. The resin candle still burned within the lantern, but giving out a more feeble light, as the first streaks of day began to succeed to the darkness of night.

“You see that lantern, Clara?” said Costal, pointing out the glimmering light to his companion. “You know what it was hung there for: since I have just told you. But you haven’t yet heard the vow I have taken against the traitor who has so played with us. I shall tell you now.”

And Costal proceeded to disclose to his old camarado the oath he had registered against Pepe Gago.

“Devil take me!” said Clara in reply, “if I can see how you will ever be able to fulfil your vow.”

“No more do I,” rejoined Costal, “but as I have promised Pepe Gago that he should not forget the lantern on the bridge of Los Hornos, and as I am determined he shall have a sight of it now and then, to keep his memory awake, I don’t see why I should leave it here to be picked off by the first comer. At all events, it is no longer needed as a signal.”

Saying this, the Indian took down the lantern from the post, and blew out the light.

“Here, Clara,” he continued, “help me to make a hole. I intend hiding it—so that I can get it again, whenever I may want it.”

The two men kneeling down, and using the blades of their knives, soon carved out a hollow place, in which Costal deposited the lamp still containing the resin candle.

“Now, friend Clara,” said the Indian, as soon as they had covered it in, “sit down here, and let us try if we can’t think of some way to capture this castle, as well as the picaro who is within it.”

“Willingly, I will,” answered the black; and seating themselves side by side, the two associates commenced with all due gravity their important deliberation.