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Chapter 46 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Bridge of Monkeys

Raoul thought that their superstition might prevent the enemy from pursuing us farther. They would consider the lightning as an interference from above—a stroke of the hrazos de Dios. But we had little confidence in this, and, notwithstanding our exhaustion, toiled on through the chaparral. Wearied with over-exertion, half-famished—for we had only commenced eating when roused from our repast in the morning—wet to the skin, cut by the bushes, and bitten by the poisoned teeth of the bloodhounds—blinded, and bruised, and bleeding, we were in but poor travelling condition.

Even Lincoln, whose buoyancy had hitherto borne up, appeared cowed and broken. For the first mile or two he seemed vexed at something and “out of sorts”, stopping every now and again, and examining his rifle in a kind of bewilderment.

Feeling that he was once more “in the timber”, he began to come to himself.

“Thet sort o’ an enemy’s new ter me,” he said, speaking to Raoul. “Dog-gone the thing! it makes the airth look yeller!”

“You’ll see better by and by,” replied his comrade.

“I had need ter, Rowl, or I’ll butt my brainpan agin one of these hyur saplin’s. Wagh! I cudn’t sight a b’ar, if we were to scare him up jest now.”

About five miles farther on we reached a small stream. The storm had abated, but the stream was swollen with the rain, and we could not cross it. We were now a safe distance from our pursuers—at least, we thought so—and we resolved to “pitch our camp” upon the bank.

This was a simple operation, and consisted in pitching ourselves to the ground under the shade of a spreading tree.

Raoul, who was a tireless spirit, kindled a fire, and commenced knocking down the nuts of the corozo palm, that hung in clusters over our heads. We dried our wet garments, and Lincoln set about dressing our numerous wounds. In this surgical process our shirts suffered severely; but the skill of the hunter soothed our swelling limbs, and after a frugal dinner upon palm-nuts and pitahayas we stretched ourselves along the greensward, and were soon asleep.

I was in that dreamy state, half-sleeping half-waking, when I was aroused by a strange noise that sounded like a multitude of voices—the voices of children. Raising my head I perceived the hunter in an attitude of listening.

“What is it, Bob?” I inquired.

“Dod rot me if I kin tell, Cap’n! Hyur, Rowl! what’s all this hyur channerin?”

“It’s the araguatoes,” muttered the Frenchman, half-asleep.

“Harry-gwaters! an what i’ the name o’ Nick’s them? Talk plain lingo, Rowl. What are they?”

“Monkeys, then,” replied the latter, waking up, and laughing at his companion.

“Thar’s a good grist on ’em, then, I reckin,” said Lincoln, throwing himself back unconcernedly.

“They are coming towards the stream. They will most likely cross by the rocks yonder,” observed Raoul.

“How?—swim it?” I asked. “It is a torrent there.”

“Oh, no!” answered the Frenchman; “monkeys would rather go into fire than water. If they cannot leap the stream, they’ll bridge it.”

“Bridge it! and how?”

“Stop a moment, Captain; you shall see.”

The half-human voices now sounded nearer, and we could perceive that the animals were approaching the spot where we lay. Presently they appeared upon the opposite bank, headed by an old grey-bearded chieftain, and officered like a regiment of soldiers.

They were, as Raoul had stated, the araguatoes (Simia ursina) of the tribe of “alouattes,” or “howlers.” They were of that species known as “monos colorados” (red monkeys). They were about the size of foxhounds, though there was a difference in this respect between the males and females. Many of the latter were mothers, and carried their human-like infants upon their shoulders as they marched along, or, squatted upon their hams, tenderly caressed them, fondling and pressing them against their mammas. Both males and females were of a tawny-red or lion-colour; both had long beards, and the hair upon their bodies was coarse and shaggy. Their tails were, each of them, three feet in length; and the absence of hair on the under side of these, with the hard, callous appearance of the cuticle, showed that these appendages were extremely prehensile. In fact, this was apparent from the manner in which the young “held on” to their mothers; for they appeared to retain their difficult seats as much by the grasp of their tails as by their arms and hands.

On reaching the bank of the “arroyo” the whole troop came to a sudden halt. One—an aide-de-camp, or chief pioneer, perhaps—ran forward upon a projecting rock; and, after looking across the stream, as if calculating its width, and then carefully examining the trees overhead, he scampered back to the troop, and appeared to communicate with the leader. The latter uttered a cry—evidently a command—which was answered by many individuals in the band, and these instantly made their appearance in front, and running forward upon the bank of the stream, collected around the trunk of a tall cotton-wood that grew over the narrowest part of the arroyo. After uttering a chorus of discordant cries, twenty or thirty of them were seen to scamper up the trunk of the cotton-wood. On reaching a high point, the foremost—a strong fellow—ran out upon a limb, and, taking several turns of his tail around it, slipped off and hung head downwards. The next on the limb—also a stout one—climbed down the body of the first, and, whipping his tail tightly around the neck and fore-arm of the latter, dropped off in his turn, and hung head down. The third repeated this manoeuvre upon the second, and the fourth upon the third, and so on, until the last one upon the string rested his fore-paws upon the ground.

The living chain now commenced swinging backwards and forwards, like the pendulum of a clock. The motion was slight at first, but gradually increased, the lowermost monkey striking his hands violently on the earth as he passed the tangent of the oscillating curve. Several others upon the limbs above aided the movement. The absence of branches upon the lower part of the tree, which we have said was a cotton-wood (Populus angulata), enabled them to execute this movement freely.

The oscillation continued to increase until the monkey at the end of the chain was thrown among the branches of a tree on the opposite bank. Here, after two or three vibrations, he clutched a limb and held fast. This movement was executed adroitly, just at the culminating point of the “swing”, in order to save the intermediate links from the violence of a too sudden jerk.

The chain was now fast at both ends, forming a complete suspension-bridge, over which the whole troop, to the number of four or five hundred, passed with the rapidity of thought.

It was one of the most comical sights I ever beheld, to witness the quizzical expression of countenances along that living chain. To see the mothers, too, making the passage, with their tiny infants clinging to their backs, was a sight at once comical and curious.

The monkeys that formed the chain kept up an incessant talking, and, as we fancied, laughing, and frequently they would bite at the legs of the individuals passing over, as if to hurry them on!

The troop was soon on the other side; but how were the animals forming the bridge to get themselves over? This was the question that suggested itself. Manifestly, thought we, by number one letting go his tail. But then the point d’appui on the other side was much lower down, and number one, with half a dozen of his neighbours, would be dashed against the opposite bank, or soused into the water.

Here, then, was a problem, and we waited with some curiosity for its solution.

It was soon solved. A monkey was now seen attaching his tail to the lowest on the bridge; another girdled him in a similar manner, and another, and so on until a dozen more were added to the string. These last were all powerful fellows; and running up to a high limb, they lifted the bridge into a position almost horizontal.

Then a scream from the last monkey of the new formation warned the tail end that all was ready; and the next moment the whole chain was swung over, and landed safely on the opposite bank!

The lowermost links now dropped off to the ground, while the higher ones leaped to the branches and came down by the trunk. The whole troop then scampered off into the chaparral and disappeared.

“Aw, be the powers of Moll Kelly! iv thim little crayteurs hasn’t more sinse than the humans av these parts! It’s a quare counthry, anyhow. Be me sowl! it bates Banagher intirely!”

A general laugh followed the Irishman’s remarks; and we all sprang to our feet, refreshed by our sleep, and lighter in spirits.

The storm had disappeared, and the sun, now setting, gleamed in upon us through the broad leaves of the palms. The birds were abroad once more—brilliant creatures—uttering their sweet songs. Parrots and trogons, and tanagers flashed around our heads; and the great-billed and silly-looking toucans sat silent in the branches above.

The stream had become fordable, and leaving our “lair”, we crossed over, and struck into the woods on the opposite side.

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