Chapter 35 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Fearful Fellow-Swimmers.

The shipwrecked sailor, floating upon his frail raft, or some spar of his shattered vessel, could not be more at the mercy of wave and wind, than were the two men astride of the capsized canoe. Their situation was indeed desperate. The stroke of a strong sea would be sufficient to swamp their frail embarkation; and, should the tempest continue to increase in fury, then destruction appeared inevitable.

Despite the imminent danger, Lantejas still indulged a hope that the intrepidity of the Zapoteque might rescue him from the present danger, as it had from many others. Sustained by this vague belief, he kept his eyes fixed upon the countenance of Costal, while endeavouring to read in its expression the condition of the Indian’s spirit.

Up to that time the imperturbable coolness exhibited by the ex-tigrero had favoured the hopes of his companion. As the time passed, however, and nothing was seen of the whale-boats, even the features of Costal began to wear an expression of anxiety. There is a difference, however, between anxiety and despair. The spirit of the Indian had only succumbed to the former of these two phases.

“Well, Costal, what think you?” demanded Lantejas, with a view of breaking the silence, which appeared to him of ill omen.

“Por Dios!” replied the Indian, “I’m astonished that the barges have not moved up on hearing that shot. It’s not like the Marshal to hang back so. He don’t often need two such signals to advance—”

A blast of wind sweeping past at the moment hindered Lantejas from hearing the last words of his companion’s speech. He saw, however, that the latter had relapsed into his ominous silence, and that the cloud of inquietude was growing darker over his countenance. It was almost an expression of fear that now betrayed itself upon the bronzed visage of the Indian.

The Captain well knew that the least display of such a sentiment on the part of Costal, was evidence that the danger was extreme. Not that he needed any farther proof of this, than what he saw around him; but, so long as the Zapoteque showed no signs of fear, he had entertained a hope that the latter might still find some resource for their safety.

He almost believed himself saved, when the voice of the Indian once more fell upon his ear, in a tone that seemed to betray an indifference to their present situation.

“Well, Señor Don Cornelio,” said Costal, “what would you give now to be lying in a hammock, with a canopy of jaguars and rattlesnakes over you? Eh?”

Costal smiled as he recalled the scene of the inundation. His gaiety was a good sign. Almost immediately after, however, he muttered to himself, in a tone of inquietude—

“Can it be possible that the barges have gone back?”

In situations of a frightful kind the smallest suspicion soon assumes the form of a reality; and the Captain did not doubt but that the barges had returned to the shore. Not that there was the slightest reason for this belief. On the contrary, it was more natural to suppose that they were still in the place where they had been left—awaiting the return of the canoe, and the news it might bring them. This was all the more likely: since they in the barges could not fail to have heard the shot from the schooner, and would be awaiting an explanation of it.

The probability of all this—especially of the boats being still in the same place—did not fail to strike Costal, who for some seconds appeared to be reflecting profoundly.

Meanwhile the waves had increased, and had all the appearance of soon becoming much larger. Already the frail embarkation was tossed about like an egg-shell.

“Listen to me, Señor Don Cornelio Lantejas!” said Costal.

“Ah!” woefully murmured the Captain, on hearing his patronymic pronounced; for ever since his proscription as Cornelio Lantejas, he had held his own name in horror. Never did it sound to him with a more lugubrious accent than now.

“Listen!” said Costal, repeating himself with emphasis; “I know you are a man for whom death has no terrors. Well, then! I think it would not be right of me to conceal from you—a fact—”

“What fact?”

“That if we stay here one hour longer, we must both go to the bottom. The waves are constantly growing bigger, as you see—”

“And what can we do?” demanded Lantejas, in a despairing tone.

“One of two things,” replied Costal. “The barges are either waiting for us where we left them, or they are directing their course towards the isle. It is absurd to suppose they have returned to the town. When one receives an order from a great general to attack any particular point, one does not return without making an attempt. The boats, therefore, must still be where we parted from them.”

“Well, what would you do?”

“Why, since it is easy for me to swim to them—”

“Swim to them!”

“Certainly. Why not?”

“What! through the midst of those monsters who have just devoured our comrades under our very eyes?”

A flash of lightning at that instant lit up the countenance of Costal, which exhibited an expression of profound disdain.

“Have I not just told you,” said he, “that I am perhaps the only man who could pass among these sharks without the least danger? I have done it a hundred times out of mere bravado. To-night I shall do it to save our lives.”

The thought of being left alone caused the Captain a fresh alarm. He hesitated a moment before making a reply. Costal, taking his silence for consent, cried out—

“As soon as I have reached one of the barges I shall cause a rocket to be sent up as a signal that I am aboard. Then you may expect us to come this way; and you must shout at the top of your voice, in order that we may find you.”

Don Cornelio had not time to make answer. On finishing his speech the ci-devant pearl-diver plunged head foremost into the water.

The Captain could trace a luminous line as he swam for some seconds under the surface; and could also see that the fierce denizens of the deep—as if they recognised in him a superior power—had suddenly glided out of his way!

Don Cornelio saw the intrepid swimmer rise to the surface, at some distance off, and then lost sight of him altogether behind the curling crests of the waves. He fancied, however, he could hear some indistinct words of encouragement borne back by the wind. After that, the only sounds that reached his ear were the hoarse moanings of the surf, and the ominous plashing of the waves against the quivering timbers of his canoe.