Chapter 34 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

An Enterprise by Night.

As soon as darkness had fairly descended over the deep, the men took their places in the boats.

The flotilla was comprised of three barges or whale-boats, and a small canoe—in which altogether not more than fifty men could be embarked; but as it was at this period the sole fleet possessed by the insurgents, they were forced to make the best of it.

With oars carefully muffled, they rowed out from the beach; and, thanks to the darkness of the night, they succeeded in passing the castle without causing any alarm.

They were soon out of sight of the shore; and after rowing a mile or so further, the dark silhouette of the cliffs ceased to be visible through the obscurity.

The canoe commanded by Captain Lantejas carried, besides himself, Costal and two rowers. As it was the lightest vessel in the flotilla, it was directed to keep the lead, as a sort of avant-courier, to announce whatever might be seen ahead.

Costal sat in the stern guiding the craft; and while engaged in this duty, he could not resist the temptation of pointing out to his captain what the latter had already tremblingly observed:—three or four great sharks keeping company with the canoe.

“Look at them!” said the Indian; “one might almost imagine that the instinct of these fierce sea-wolves told them—”

“What?” inquired Lantejas, with an anxious air.

“Why, that this vessel we are in is not sea-worthy. She is as rotten and ricketty as an old tub; and very little—Bah! I only wish that my friend Pepe Gago was one of those fellows in the water, and I had nothing more to do than leap in and poniard him in presence of the others!”

“What! are you thinking still of that fellow?”

“More than ever!” replied Costal, grinding his teeth; “and I shall never leave the army of Morelos—even when my time of service is out—so long as there’s a hope of capturing the castle of Acapulco, and getting my hands on the miserable traitor.”

Lantejas was paying only slight attention to what the Indian said. The doubt which the latter had expressed about the sea-worthiness of the canoe, was at that moment occupying his thoughts more than Costal’s project of vengeance; and he was desirous that they should reach the island as soon as possible. Even an engagement with a human enemy—so long as it should take place on terra firma—would be less perilous than a struggle in the water with those terrible monsters—the sharks.

“The canoe goes very slowly!” remarked he to Costal mere than once.

“Señor Don Cornelio!” exclaimed the Indian with a smile, “you are always in a hurry to get into the fight; but we are now approaching the isle; and, with your permission, I think we would do well to obtain leave from the admiral (by his title Costal designated Don Hermenegildo) to go a little more in advance, and reconnoitre the way for the others. The canoe can approach near the schooner without much risk of being seen; whereas those great whale-boats would just now stand a pretty fair chance of being discovered. That’s my advice—do you agree to it, Captain?”

“Willingly,” replied Lantejas, scarce knowing between the two dangers which might be the greatest.

At a command from Costal the two rowers now rested upon their oars; and, shortly after, one of the barges arrived alongside. It was that which carried the admiral.

“What is it?” inquired the latter, seeing that the canoe had stopped for him. “Have you discovered anything?”

Don Cornelio communicated to him the proposition of Costal. The idea appeared good to the Marshal; and, in accordance with it, the three barges were ordered to lie to, while the lighter craft glided on in advance.

In a short time the isle appeared in sight—a dark spot upon the bosom of the water, like some vast sea-bird that had settled down upon the waves, to rest a moment before resuming its flight.

Presently, as they drew nearer, the dark mass appeared to grow larger, but still lay buried in sombre silence, with no light nor any visible object distinguishable through the gloom.

Still drawing nearer, they at length perceived, rising over the tops of the trees that thickly covered the island, the tall tapering masts and cross-yards of a ship. It was the schooner they were in search of.

Continuing their course, in a few moments they were able to make out her hull against the white background of the beach, and then the two cabin windows in her stern. Through these, lights were shining, that in two broad bands were flung far over the surface of the water. In the darkness, the vessel might have been likened to some gigantic whale that had risen a moment, and was bending its huge eyes to reconnoitre the surface of the sea.

“We must change our course,” muttered Costal. “If the canoe gets under that light, some sentry on the quarterdeck may see us. We must make a détour, and approach from the other side.”

In saying this the Indian shifted the rudder, and turned the head of the craft into a new direction, while the rowers still continued to ply their muffled oars.

The sharks turned at the same time, and kept on after the canoe, as could be told by the luminous traces left by their viscous bodies in passing through the water.

Beyond, the surface was sparkling with phosphoric points, as if the sky, now covered with a uniform drapery of dark clouds, had dropped its starry mantle upon the sea.

At intervals there came a slight puff of wind, and the water curling under it glanced more luminously; while an occasional flash of lightning announced that the clouds above were charged with electricity.

In all these signs Costal recognised the precursors of a storm.

The canoe had now passed far out of sight of the barges, and was circling around, to get upon the other side of the schooner—still followed by five of the shining monsters of the deep.

Both Costal and the Captain believed themselves too far distant from the schooner to be seen by any one aboard when all at once a brilliant light enveloped the Spanish vessel, revealing her whole outlines from stem to stern. Those in the canoe had just time to perceive that it was the blaze of a cannon, when the report followed, and the hissing of a ball was heard. Almost on the instant the little craft received a terrible shock; and, in the midst of a cloud of spray thrown around it, the two rowers were seen tumbling over the side and sinking below the surface of the water. Two of the sharks disappeared at the same moment!

Costal, seated in the stern, at once perceived that the canoe no longer obeyed the rudder; and Lantejas, who was more amidships, saw to his horror that the vessel was sinking at the forward part, where she had been struck by the ball.

“Por los infiernos! an unlucky shot!” cried Costal.

“What will be the result?” anxiously demanded Lantejas.

“Why, a very simple thing: the bullet has crushed in the bow of the craft, and she will go down head foremost, I suppose.”

“Por Dios! we are lost then!” cried Don Cornelio in a voice of terror.

“Not so sure of that yet,” calmly returned Costal, at the same time rising and stepping forward in the canoe. “Keep your place!” whispered he to Lantejas, “and don’t lose sight of me.”

Notwithstanding the assuring air with which the Indian spoke, the third rower, under the excitement of a terrible alarm, at this moment rushed up and caught him around the knees—as if clinging to him for help.

“Ho!” cried Costal, endeavouring to disengage himself, “hands off there, friend! Off, I say—here it is every one for himself!” And as he said this he pushed the man backward.

The latter, staggering partly under the impulsion he had received, and partly under the influence of his fright, tumbled back into the water. At the same instant a third shark disappeared from the side of the canoe, while a cry of despair appeared to rise up from the bottom of the sea!

“It was his own fault,” said the impassable Zapoteque, “his example should be a warning to others!”

At this frightful innuendo the ex-student of theology, more dead than alive, commenced invoking God and the saints with a fervour such as he had never felt in all his life.

“Carrambo! Captain,” cried the imperturbable pagan, “put more confidence in your own courage than your saints. Can you swim?”

“Only a few strokes,” feebly replied Lantejas.

“Good! that will be enough. There is only one way to hinder the canoe from going head downwards. Look out, then, and keep close by my side!”

Saying this, Costal waited until the canoe rose upon the top of a wave; and then, throwing all his strength into the effort, he kicked the craft, overturning it keel upwards.

Both men were for the moment under water; and Lantejas, on coming to the surface, felt himself violently grasped by the garments. He fancied it was one of the sharks that had seized hold of him; but the voice of Costal close to his ear once more reassured him.

“Do not fear: I am with you,” said the Indian, dragging him through the water towards the capsized canoe, which was now floating wrong side up.

The efforts of the Indian, joined to those which Lantejas mechanically made for himself, enabled the latter to get astride the keel of the canoe; where Costal, after swimming a few strokes through the water, mounted also.

“Another minute,” said the Indian, “and the old tub would have gone to the bottom. Now she may keep afloat till the whale-boats get up—that is, if the storm don’t come down before then.”

Lantejas cast a despairing glance towards the distant ocean, which, lashed by the wind, had already commenced under its mantle of foam. The sight drew from him a fresh invocation to the saints, with an improvised but earnest prayer for his own safety.

“Carrambo!” cried the pagan Costal, “keep a firm seat, and don’t trust too much to your gods. If you let yourself be washed off, you’ll find they won’t do much for you. Stay! you’ve nothing to hold on by! let me make a catch for you.”

Saying this, Costal bent towards his companion; and with the blade of his knife commenced opening a hole in the keel of the canoe. In the worm-eaten wood this might be easily effected; and, working with all the sang-froid of a wood-carver, in a few seconds Costal succeeded in making an aperture large enough to admit the hand. Through this Lantejas thrust his fingers; and, clutching firmly underneath, was now in a condition to maintain his seat against the waves that were threatening every moment to roll over the spot.

Costal, having thus secured his companion, and provided for his own safety in a similar fashion, now commenced peering through the darkness in hopes of seeing the barges.

In this he was disappointed. Though the lightning now flashed at shorter intervals, its gleams revealed only the dark and scowling water, the isle sleeping in sullen gloom, and farther off the frowning mass of the fortress-crowned cliff.

Notwithstanding that the castaways now shouted at the highest pitch of their voices, there was no response from the whale-boats. Their cries pealed along the seething surface of the waters, and died without even an echo.