Chapter 55 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Sunrise in the Tropics.

On the fourth day after the siege of Huajapam, let the reader fancy himself transported to the banks of the Ostuta, where he will behold one of the most magnificent natural landscapes of American scenery.

The sun has not yet risen, and the mäipouri (tapir), before seeking his forest lair, plunges once more under the shadowy waves of the river. The Mexican roebuck, more timid than the tapir, trembling at the slightest sound among the leaves, watches while drinking for the first signs of daybreak—its signal to conceal itself in the thickets of sassafras and tall ferns. The solitary heron, standing statue-like upon its long legs, and the red flamingoes ranged in silent ranks, await, on the contrary, the coming of the dawn to commence their matutinal fishery.

There is a profound silence over all, save those vague sounds heard at this hour even in the most solitary places—where the different guests of the forest, according to their nature, are either awaking to begin their day, or retiring to their haunts for rest and concealment.

Although the darkness of night has disappeared, the eye cannot yet make out, amidst the whitish vapour that overhangs the stream, with what species of vegetation its banks are adorned. The crowns of palm-trees rising high above the other foliage—like noble knights of the olden time above the mêlée of common warriors—can alone be distinguished. To a superficial observer, the banks of the Ostuta might appear as much of a solitude as in those days before the children of Europe had set foot upon American soil; but the eye of one scrutinising the scene more narrowly would discover this deserted appearance to be altogether a deception.

Along the right bank of the river—near its main crossing—might be distinguished a number of scattered fires, scintillating through the nocturnal vapour, like stars in a cloud-covered sky.

On the left bank also, and opposite the first, others appear, irregularly gleaming along the edge of the river. Both lines of fires betoken an encampment—the same, though separated into two divisions by the stream.

At a considerable distance from the crossing, and contiguous to the road leading from Huajapam to the hacienda Del Valle, in the midst of a little glade, might be seen a group of eight horsemen, at the moment apparently engaged in some consultation among themselves. Still nearer to the river, and at the distance of some three or four hundred yards from this group, two pedestrian travellers appeared, cautiously advancing along the road, where it wound through an extensive wood of guiacum and cedrela trees.

Finally, between the eight horsemen and the two foot travellers, and at about mid-distance from each party, a single individual might have been seen, who could not be called either horseman or pedestrian, and who could neither be said to be occupied in any way. In fact, this personage was fast asleep, though in a most singular situation and attitude: that is to say, fast bound with a scarf of scarlet silk between the two main branches of a tree, and at a height of over ten feet from the ground.

The thick foliage so completely concealed him, however, that an Indian spy might have passed under the tree without suspecting his presence.

The individual who occupied this aerial couch was no other than Colonel Don Rafael Tres-Villas.

There are occasions when extreme bodily fatigue has the effect of causing apprehension in the spirit; and Don Rafael had found himself in one of these occasions.

Wearied, after three days’ journey under a hot sun, and having had no sleep on the night before setting out, in spite of the uncomfortable position in which he had placed himself, Don Rafael was enjoying that deep repose which is often granted to the tired soldier, even on the eve of a sanguinary battle.

Leaving him, therefore, to indulge in his lofty siesta, and passing to some distance from the spot, and along the road leading to Oajaca, we shall encounter another group, differing from any yet mentioned. At a short distance from the river Ostuta, and near the lake of this name, a little before daybreak, might be seen a small party of travellers, about to resume their journey interrupted for the night. From the haste exhibited in making preparations for departure from their bivouac, it would appear as if they were in dread of some danger. Two of them were busy in extinguishing the remains of a fire, lest its light might still betray them; two others saddled the horses; while a fifth, who stood by the half-opened curtains of a litera, appeared to be reassuring a young lady who was inside.

It is scarce necessary to say that the travellers in question were Don Mariano de Silva, his daughter, and their domestics.

In the midst of the solitudes of transatlantic scenery, there are two solemn hours out of the twenty-four, in which all created nature seems more especially to rejoice—the hours of sunrise and sunset.

The eternal horologe is about to sound the first. A fresh breeze arising, gently stirs the leaves of the trees, and, playing over the surface of the water, dispels the nocturnal vapours. The eastern sky is becoming tinged with bright yellow streaks, mixed with the purple of the aurora, which proclaims the approach of the rising sun. His coming is saluted by the voices of myriads of bright birds that flutter among the trees of the forest.

The jackal flying to his den, utters his parting growl, and the funereal voices of the night-birds are heard for the last time. The mäipouri and roebuck have already disappeared within the thickets, where they have chosen their respective dens.

Finally, the clouds redden like the wings of the flamingoes, as the sun, shooting upward, gleams with golden brilliance upon the fronds of the palms, and discloses in all their splendid variety the trees of the American forest.

The tall ebony trees, with their bunches of golden flowers, the guiacums and perfumed liquidambars—like pyramids of solid vegetation—the mahogany and cedrela trees, and the princely palms towering over gigantic tree-ferns, and fanciful festoons of parasitical climbers, that form a flowery cortège around their stems.

In the midst of the almost impenetrable labyrinths formed by these various kinds of trees, glades may here and there be encountered, and paths leading from one to another, trodden only by wild animals, or savage bulls, the descendants of those introduced by the great Cortez into the province of Oajaca. These, maddened by thirst, may be seen pressing through the thick undergrowth towards the river, or standing, half immersed, with their black muzzles buried under water. Here and there pieces of the flowery turf, detached by their hooves, float down the stream, while birds alighting upon these miniature islets, joyfully flap their wings, as if celebrating a triumphal procession upon the water.

Such, in all its primitive splendour, was the aspect of the Ostuta on the morning in question, at that solemnal hour, when the sun proclaimed his presence upon the eastern horizon.