Chapter 62 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Escaping the Toils.

Left to himself, Don Rafael calmly considered the circumstances that surrounded him. He could not help feeling a conviction that his chances of escape were of the most doubtful kind; and that, unless some unforeseen accident should favour him, he had but a very poor prospect of being able to extricate himself from the danger that threatened. Such an accident he had no reason to expect.

The sun was now high in the heavens, and his bright beams penetrating through the foliage, illuminated even the darkest labyrinths of the forest. It would be eight or nine hours before he would set again; for it was near the summer solstice, when the days of the year are longest. Don Rafael now regretted having slept so long. Had he awoke before sunrise, there might still have been time to have secured his retreat. He further regretted not having declared his name and rank to the two men who had just parted from him. It was possible that, by the offer of a large recompense, he might have induced them to attempt making an entrance into the hacienda Del Valle, and warning Lieutenant Veraegui of his perilous situation.

He was far from suspecting at that moment, that a providential chance was about doing for him the very thing which his reflection had now too late suggested he should have done before.

Notwithstanding the danger in which he was placed, Don Rafael, who had not eaten for many long hours, began to feel hungered. This, however, gave him but little concern; since in the tropical forests of Mexico, the anona, the corosollo, the aguacate, and other fruit-bearing trees, yield spontaneously their delicious produce, sufficient for the sustenance of human life.

These reflections once made, Don Rafael was not the man to waste time in vain regrets. He resolved to act at once.

He hesitated only an instant, to reflect upon what he should do with his horse. At first he thought of abandoning him; but then it occurred to him, that while passing along his tortuous track through the chapparal, the animal might prove useful. He might serve as a sort of moveable rampart, behind which he could shelter himself from the bullets of the carbines, that might be fired by his assailants. Moreover, should he succeed in getting clear of the thicket, by flinging himself in the saddle he would still have a chance of escape, through the superior swiftness of Roncador. For this reason he decided upon going in search of the horse.

The thicket in which he had hidden him was at no great distance from the cedrela; and finding his own traces, Don Rafael returned on them with stealthy tread. The silence that reigned throughout the forest was for the moment profound; and he knew that the slightest sound, even the snapping of a stick, might betray his presence to some lurking foe.

He had advanced only a few paces, when a vague clamour of voices reached his ear. He listened for some seconds; but as the voices did not appear to come any nearer, he again moved forward.

At length he succeeded in reaching the thicket, where Roncador had been left. The poor animal, though devoured by thirst—and suffering from hunger as well—had made no effort to free himself from his fastenings. He was still standing by the tree, to which Don Rafael had attached him. At the approach of his master he uttered a joyous neigh.

Notwithstanding the fear which Don Rafael had that the noise might be heard by his pursuers, he could not help feeling a joyful emotion at being thus saluted by his old companion in many a scene of peril; and, while caressing the horse, he felt a certain remorse at the rôle he had just designed him to play. It was, however, one of those crises, when the instinct of self-preservation is at variance with the desire of the heart.

Leading his steed by the bridle, Don Rafael advanced as rapidly as was possible through the labyrinth of bushes and climbing plants that thickly covered the ground. The sun occasionally coming in view, enabled him to guide his course towards the south—the direction which Zapote had counselled him to take.

The advice given by the latter seemed to Don Rafael worth following. If he could only pass through the line of those seeking for him, and reach the cane-brake on the Ostuta, he might there conceal himself until after sunset. By night he might again attempt to enter the hacienda, and with a better chance of success; since he was now aware of its being surrounded by the insurgent guerilleros.

In order to give him more freedom in his movements, he cast away his sword-belt and scabbard; and with the bare blade in one hand, and his bridle-rein in the other, he continued to advance as silently as possible. He had determined to make use of his pistols—only as a last resource.

It was not long, however, before he was forced out of his direct course—not by the thickness of the jungle, but on hearing in front of him the voices of several men. These calling to one another, appeared to be directing a movement among themselves, as if advancing towards him in an extended deployment.

Singly, each of those who were approaching would have caused Don Rafael no more uneasiness than does the solitary hunter the lion who reluctantly retreats before him; but it was evident from the number of voices that a large party of men were in the wood; and should they all fall upon him simultaneously, there would be no alternative but to succumb. He therefore renounced the desperate idea that for a moment had occurred to him: of rushing upon the nearest, and putting an end to him without noise.

He perceived, at the same time, that, in the midst of the dense chapparal where he then was, a resolute man would have a decided advantage over enemies who were so scattered, and who were constantly warning him of their whereabouts as they advanced; while he, keeping silence, left them ignorant of his own.

The men were evidently getting nearer, and Don Rafael heard their voices with anxiety. He listened also to hear if any others replied to them in the opposite direction; since in that case he would be in danger of being surrounded. He knew not the number of his enemies; but he could tell by the sounds that their cordon had not yet been completely drawn around him, and there might still be a chance of escaping from it.

While thus listening, with all the eagerness of a man whose life was depending on the acuteness of his hearing, a noise reached him, which he knew was not made by a human being. It was the distant and sonorous tapping of a woodpecker upon the trunk of a dead tree—a sound often heard in the depths of an American forest. The sound fell upon his ear like the voice of a friend. It seemed to say that, in the direction whence it proceeded, no human creature would be found to trouble the solitude of the forest.

The hint was sufficient for one skilled in wood-lore, as Don Rafael was. Without a moment’s hesitation, he faced in the direction of the sound, and commenced advancing towards it—guided by the measured strokes given by the beak of the bird.

He was still at some distance from the dead-wood, where the woodpecker was employed seeking its food, when the bird, perceiving him, flew off amidst the trees.

Don Rafael now halted, and once more bent his ear to listen. To his joy he perceived that the voices of the searchers had receded to a distance. This proved that he had passed out of their way; and, if they should not find reason to return on their tracks, his chances of escape were becoming more favourable.

To make more sure of not being followed, he adopted a ruse, which he had learnt during his Indian campaigns. Taking up two dry sticks of guiacuni wood, he struck one against the other, thus producing a sound that resembled the tapping of the woodpecker’s beak; and, after repeating this for a number of times, he returned by a détour to the same direction from which he had been forced on hearing the voices.

After a half-hour’s advance through the thicket, he halted to refresh himself by eating some fruits of the pawpaw that grew by the path. Their juicy pulp served for a moment to satisfy the craving of both appetites—relieving at the same time both hunger and thirst.

Mid-day had already passed, and the sun was beginning to fling his rays obliquely through the branches, when Don Rafael resumed his route; and shortly after, through the last straggling trees of the forest, he perceived the crystal current of the Ostuta running its tranquil course between banks thickly covered with tall bamboos.

The breeze blowing freely over the water stirred the long lance-like leaves of the gigantic canes; among whose moveable stems the caimans had sought protection from the hot sun, and were awaiting the freshness of the night to return to the channel of the river. Here, too, like them, was Don Rafael to find an asylum that would shelter him till sunset.

He was not long in choosing a place of concealment. The selvage of the forest through which he had come, extended to within a few paces of the bamboo brake; and, crossing the intervening space as rapidly as possible, the fugitive plunged in among the canes.

Once hidden by the gigantic reeds, he felt more secure; and had now an opportunity to reconnoitre to some extent a portion of the surrounding neighbourhood. From certain large rocks, which he saw lying in the mid-channel of the stream, he recognised the place, and knew that he was not far distant from the ford of the Ostuta—where, two years before, the pursuit of Arroyo and his brigands had more than once conducted him. He saw, moreover, on the opposite side of the stream, the rude tent of the guerillero chief, and the horsemen of his band galloping up and down the bank. The sight aroused all his fiery passions, and he could not restrain himself from raising his clenched hand, and stretching his arm in menace across the water.

All at once he heard shouts behind him, and the trampling of horses. These sounds were caused by the party sent in pursuit of him by Arroyo, and who were now returning to the camp. It need not be said that they had been unsuccessful, as they brought back with them, instead of the Colonel and the two runaways, only Suarez and Pacheco, still alive and well, but terribly frightened.

For better security, Don Rafael advanced still further among the bamboos, carefully parting them with his hands as he moved forward; and the horsemen, though they rode past along the bank, only a short distance from where he was concealed, had not the slightest suspicion their enemy was so near. The most sharp-sighted eye could not have discovered his place of concealment.

Still continuing to listen, he heard the plashing of the horses as they forded the crossing; and a few minutes after a profound silence reigned over the scene.