The Tiger Hunter, by Captain Mayne Reid.
Strictly speaking this book is a free translation by Reid (1818-1883) of an earlier (1851) book by the Frenchman Luis de Bellemare (pseudonym of Gabriel Ferry, 1809-1852), "Costal l'Indien." The subject is the 1811-1812 Mexican War of Independence from Spain. Reid, having fought in the Mexican-American War of the 1850s, and having written books about the subject, would have wanted to make this excellent book available to an English-speaking readership, and his translation was published in 1861 with the title "A Hero In Spite Of Himself." The edition used was published by Routledge in 1890, some years after the author's death, with the title "The Tiger Hunter," which is what Costal was, though the tigers referred to were actually jaguars.
The type-setting in this book was not very good, and it seems likely that Routledge used the type from an earlier edition. To make matters worse practically every page of the copy used had been defaced by a rubber stamp of a previous owner, which made a day's work for the transcriber to clean up. Nevertheless the result is excellent, the book is very readable, and it makes a good audiobook.
THE TIGER HUNTER, BY CAPTAIN MAYNE REID.
During one of many journeyings through the remote provinces of the Mexican republic, it was my fortune to encounter an old revolutionary officer, in the person of Captain Castanos. From time to time as we travelled together, he was good enough to give me an account of some of the more noted actions of the prolonged and sanguinary war of the Independence; and, among other narratives, one which especially interested me was the famed battle of the Puente de Calderon, where the Captain himself had fought during the whole length of a summer's day!
Of all the leaders of the Mexican revolution, there was none in whose history I felt so much interest as in the priest-soldier, Morelos—or, as he is familiarly styled in Mexican annals, the "illustrious Morelos"—and yet there was none of whose private life I could obtain so few details. His public career having become historic, was, of course, known to every one who chose to read of him. But what I desired was a more personal and intimate knowledge of this remarkable man, who from being the humble curate of an obscure village in Oajaca, became in a few short months the victorious leader of a well-appointed army, and master of all the southern provinces of New Spain.
"Can you give me any information regarding Morelos?" I asked of Captain Castanos, as we were journeying along the route between Tepic and Guadalaxara.
"Ah! Morelos? he was a great soldier," replied the ex-captain of guerilleros. "In the single year of 1811, he fought no less than twenty-six battles with the Spaniards. Of these he won twenty-two; and though he lost the other four, each time he retreated with honour—"
"Hum! I know all that already," said I, interrupting my fellow-traveller. "You are narrating history to me, while I want only chronicles. In other words, I want to hear those more private and particular details of Morelos' life which the historians have not given."
"Ah! I understand you," said the captain, "and I am sorry that I cannot satisfy your desires: since, during the war I was mostly engaged in the northern provinces, and had no opportunity of knowing much of Morelos personally. But if my good friend, Don Cornelio Lantejas, is still living at Tepic, when we arrive there, I shall put you in communication with him. He can tell you more about Morelos than any other living man: since he was aide-de-camp to the General through all his campaigns, and served him faithfully up to the hour of his death."
Our conversation here ended, for we had arrived at the inn where we intended to pass the night—the Venta de la Sierra Madre.
Early on the following morning, before any one had yet arisen, I left my chamber—in a corner of which, rolled in his ample manga, Captain Castanos was still soundly asleep. Without making any noise to disturb him, I converted my coverlet into a cloak—that is, I folded my serape around my shoulders, and walked forth from the inn. Other travellers, along with the people of the hostelry inside, with the domestics and muleteers out of doors, were still slumbering profoundly, and an imposing silence reigned over the mountain platform on which the venta stood.
Nothing appeared awake around me save the voices of the sierras, that never sleep—with the sound of distant waterfalls, as they rushed through vast ravines, keeping up, as it were, an eternal dialogue between the highest summits of the mountains and the deepest gulfs that yawned around their bases.
I walked forward to the edge of the table-like platform on which the venta was built; and halting there stood listening to these mysterious conversations of nature. And at once it appeared to me that other sounds were mingling with them—sounds that suggested the presence of human beings. At first they appeared like the intonations of a hunter's horn—but of so harsh and hoarse a character, that I could scarcely believe them to be produced by such an instrument. As a profound silence succeeded, I began to think my senses had been deceiving me; but once more the same rude melody broke upon my ears, in a tone that, taken in connexion with the place where I listened to it, impressed me with an idea of the supernatural. It had something of the character of those horns used by the shepherds of the Swiss valleys; and it seemed to ascend out of the bottom of a deep ravine that yawned far beneath my feet.
I stepped forward to the extreme edge of the rock, and looked downwards. Again the hoarse cornet resounded in my ears; and this time so near, that I no longer doubted as to its proceeding from some human agency. In fact, the moment after, a man's form appeared ascending from below, along the narrow pathway that zigzagged up the face of the cliff.
I had scarce time to make this observation, when the man, suddenly turning the angle of the rock, stood close by my side, where he halted apparently to recover his breath.
His costume at once revealed to me that he was an Indian; though his garments, his tall stature, and haughty mien, lent to him an aspect altogether different from that of most of the Indians I had hitherto encountered in Mexico. The proud air with which he bore himself, the fiery expression of his eye, his athletic limbs, and odd apparel, were none of them in keeping with the abject mien which now characterises the descendants of the ancient masters of Anahuac. In the grey light of the morning, I could see suspended from his shoulders the instrument that had made the mysterious music—a large sea-shell—a long, slender, curved conch, that hung glistening under his arm.
Struck with the singular appearance of this man, I could not help entering into conversation with him; though he appeared as if he would have passed me without speaking a word.
"You are early abroad, friend?" I remarked.
"Yes, master," he replied; "early for a man as old as I am."
I could not help regarding this as a jest; for over the shoulders of the Indian fell immense masses of jet black hair, which seemed to give contradiction to the statement of his being an old man.
I looked more narrowly into his countenance. His bronzed skin appeared to cling closely to his angular features, but there were none of those deep furrows that betray the presence of advanced age.
"How old are you?" I asked at length.
"That I cannot tell, cavallero," replied he. "I tried from the time I was able to distinguish the dry season from that of the rains to keep an account of my age; and I succeeded in doing so up till I was fifty. After that, for particular reasons, I did not care to know it, and so I left off counting."
"You say you are more than fifty years old?" and as I put this inquiry I glanced at the long purple black tresses that hung over his shoulders.
"Nearly half as much more," was the reply. "You are looking at the colour of my hair. There are ravens who have seen a hundred seasons of rain without having a feather whitened. Ah! what matters the course of years to me? A raven croaked upon the roof of my father's cabin when I was born, at the same instant that my father had traced upon the floor the figure of one of these birds. Well, then! of course I shall live as long as that raven lives. What use then to keep a reckoning of years that cannot be numbered?"
"You think, then, that your life is in some way attached to that of the raven that perched on the paternal roof when you came into the world?"
"It is the belief of my ancestors, the Zapoteques, and it is also mine," seriously responded the Indian.
It was not my desire to combat the superstitions of the Zapoteques; and, dropping the subject, I inquired from him his purpose in carrying the conch—whether it was for whiling away his time upon the journey, or whether there was not also connected with it some other belief of his ancestors?
The Indian hesitated a moment before making reply.
"It is only a remembrance of my country," he said, after a short silence. "When I hear the echoes of the Sierra repeat the sounds of my shell, I can fancy myself among the mountains of Tehuantepec, where I used to hunt the tiger—in pursuing my profession of tigrero. Or at other times I may fancy it to be the signals of the pearl-seekers in the Gulf, when I followed the calling of a buzo (diver); for I have hunted the sea tigers who guard the banks of pearls under the water, as I have those that ravage the herds of cattle upon the great savannas. But time passes, cavallero; I must say good day to you. I have to reach the hacienda of Portezuelo by noon, and it's a long journey to make in the time. Puez, adios, cavallero!"
So saying, the Indian strode off with that measured step peculiar to his race; and was soon lost to my sight, as he descended into the ravine on the opposite side of the plateau.
As I returned towards the inn I could hear the prolonged notes of his marine trumpet rising up out of the chasm, and reverberating afar off against the precipitous sides of the Sierra Madre.
"What the devil is all this row about?" inquired Captain Ruperto Castanos, as he issued forth from the venta.
I recounted to him the interview I had just had; and the singular communications I had received from the Indian.
"It don't astonish me," said he; "the Zapoteques are still more pagan than Christian, and given to superstitious practices to a greater degree than any other Indians in Mexico. Our Catholic curas in their villages are there only for the name of the thing, and as a matter of formality. The business of the worthy padres among them must be a perfect sinecure. I fancy I understand what the fellow meant, well enough. Whenever a Zapoteque woman is about to add one to the number of their community, the expectant father of the child assembles all his relations in his cabin; and, having traced out the figures of certain animals on the floor, he rubs them out one after another in their turn. That which is being blotted out, at the precise moment when the child is born, is called its tona. They believe that, ever after, the life of the newborn is connected in some mysterious manner with that of the animal which is its tona; and that when the latter dies so will the former! The child thus consecrated to the tona, while growing up, seeks out some animal of the kind, takes care of it, and pays respect to it, as the negroes of Africa do to their fetish."
"It is to be presumed, then, that the Indian father will make choice only of such animals as may be gifted with longevity?"
The captain made no reply to my suggestion, farther than to say that the Zapoteque Indians were a brave race, easily disciplined, and out of whom excellent soldiers had been made during the war of the Revolution.
After a hasty desayuno at the venta, my travelling companion and I resumed our journey; and, crossing the second great chain of the Mexican Andes, at the end of six days of fatiguing travel we reached the ancient town of Tepic.
Here it was necessary for me to remain some time, awaiting the arrival of important letters which I expected to receive from the capital of Mexico.
During the first week of my stay at Tepic, I saw but very little of my fellow-voyager—who was all the time busy with his own affairs, and most part of it absent from the little fonda where we had taken up our abode. What these affairs might be, God only knows; but I could not help thinking that the worthy ex-captain of guerilleros carried on his commercial transactions, as in past times he had his military ones—a little after the partisan fashion, and not altogether in accordance with legal rules.
After all, it was no affair of mine. What most concerned me, was that with all his running about he had not yet been able to meet with his friend, Don Cornelio Lantejas—whom no one in Tepic seemed to know anything of—and I was beginning to suspect that the existence of this individual was as problematical as the business of the captain himself, when a lucky chance led to the discovery of the ex-aide-de-camp of Morelos.
"Don Ruperto appears to have gone crazy," said Dona Faustina, our hostess of the fonda, one morning as I seated myself to breakfast.
"Why, Dona Faustina?" I inquired.
"Because, Cavallero," replied she, evidently piqued at the captain's disregard of her hospitable board, "he is hardly ever here at meal times, and when he does show himself, it is so late that the tortillas enchiladas are quite cold, and scarce fit to eat."
"Ah, senora!" replied I, by way of excusing the irregularity of the captain's habits, "that is not astonishing. An old soldier of the Revolution is not likely to be very punctual about his time of eating."
"That is no reason at all," rejoined the hostess. "We have here, for instance, the good presbitero, Don Lucas de Alacuesta, who was an insurgent officer through the whole campaign of the illustrious Morelos, and yet he is to-day a very model of regularity in his habits."
"What! an officer of Morelos, was he?"
"Certainly; all the world knows that."
"Do you chance to know another old officer of Morelos, who is said to live here in Tepic, Don Cornelio Lantejas?"
"Never heard of him, Senor."
At this moment Don Ruperto's voice sounded outside, announcing his return from one of his matutinal expeditions.
"To the devil with your tortillas and black beans!" cried he, rushing into the room, and making answer to the reproaches of his hostess. "No, Dona Faustina—I have breakfasted already; and what is more, I shall dine to-day as a man should dine—with viands at discretion, and wine, as much as I can drink, of the best vintage of Xeres! I have breakfasted to-day, good clerical fashion. Who with, do you think?" asked he, turning to me.
"Don Lucas de Alacuesta, perhaps?"
"Precisely; otherwise Don Cornelio Lantejas, who, on changing his profession, has made a slight alteration in his name; and who, but for a lucky chance, I should never have found till the day of judgment, since the worthy presbitero hardly ever stirs out from his house. Who would have believed that an old soldier of the Independence should so change his habits? In fact, however, we have had so many priests turned officers during the Revolution, that it is only natural one officer should become a priest, by way of compensation."
In continuation, Don Ruperto announced to me, that we were both invited to dine with his old acquaintance; and further, that the latter had promised to place at my disposition such souvenirs of the illustrious Morelos as I desired to be made acquainted with.
I eagerly accepted the invitation; and in three hours after under the conduct of the captain, I entered the domicile of the worthy padre, Don Lucas de Alacuesta. It was a large house, situated near the outskirts of the town, with an extensive garden, enclosed by a high wall, rendered still higher by a stockade of the organ cactus that grew along its top.
We found our host awaiting us—a thin little man, of some fifty years of age, nimble in his movements, and extremely courteous and affable. He appeared to be one who occupied himself, much less with the affairs of his parish, than with the cultivation of his garden, and the preservation of entomological specimens—of which he possessed a bountiful collection.
Nothing either in his speech or features, as in those of Captain Castanos, recalled the ex-militario, who had borne a conspicuous part in the long and bloody campaigns of the revolutionary war.
It is not necessary to give any details of the dinner—which was after the fashion of the Mexican cuisine, and excellent of its kind. Neither shall I repeat the conversation upon general topics; but enter at once upon those scenes described by the ex-aide-de-camp of Morelos, and that of which our drama has been constructed.
THE GRITO OF HIDALGO.
The great revolutionary war of 1790 was not confined to France, nor yet to Europe. Crossing the Atlantic, it equally affected the nations of the New World—especially those who for three centuries had submitted to the yoke of Spain. These, profiting by the example set them by the English colonies in the north, had taken advantage of the confusion of affairs in Europe, and declared their independence of the mother country.
Of the Spanish-American vice-kingdoms, New Spain—or Mexico more properly called—was the last to raise the standard of independence; and perhaps had the wise measures of her viceroy, Iturrigaray, been endorsed by the court of Madrid, the revolution might have been still further delayed, if not altogether prevented.
Don Jose Iturrigaray, then vice-king of New Spain, on the eve of the insurrection had deemed it wise policy to grant large political concessions to the Creoles, or native white population of the country, and confer upon them certain rights of citizenship hitherto withheld from them.
These concessions might have satisfied the Creoles with the government of the mother country, and perhaps rendered their loyalty permanent. Mexico, like Cuba, might still have been a "precious jewel" in the Spanish crown, had it not been that the decrees of Iturrigaray produced dissatisfaction in another quarter—that is, among the pure Spaniards themselves—the Gachupinos, or colonists from Old Spain, established in Mexico; and who had up to this time managed the government of the country, to the complete exclusion of the Creoles from every office of honour or emolument.
These egoists, considering the acts of the viceroy ruinous to their selfish interests, and the privileges they had hitherto enjoyed, seized upon his person, and sent him to Spain to give an account of his conduct.
Tyrannous counsels prevailed; the prudent plans of Iturrigaray were rejected, and Mexico fell back into the same political bondage under which she had groaned since the conquest of Cortez.
The dismissal of Iturrigaray took place in 1808. The Gachupinos were not without apprehensions of an outbreak; but as two years passed over in tranquillity, their doubts became dissipated, and they ceased to believe in the possibility of such an event.
Theirs was but fancied security, and lasted only two years. In 1810 it was abruptly terminated by the rising of Hidalgo in one of the northern provinces, the news of which event descended upon the Gachupinos like a thunderbolt.
Strange enough that a priest should be the leader of this movement in favour of liberty: since it was through priestly influence that Mexico had all along been governed and oppressed! But in truth Hidalgo, and the other priests who figured in this insurrection, were a very different class of men from the great metropolitan ecclesiastics of the capital and the larger cities, who conducted the affairs of state. Hidalgo was but a simple village cura—a child of the people—and so, too, were most of the other patriot priests who espoused the popular cause.
In October 1810, Hidalgo had nearly one hundred thousand men in the ranks of his army. They were badly armed and equipped, but still formidable from their very numbers. This immense host, which consisted principally of native Indians, overspreading the country like a torrent, could not fail to produce consternation in the minds of the Gachupinos.
Even among the Creoles themselves it created a certain confusion of ideas. All these were the sons or descendants of Spaniards, and of course connected with the latter by ties of consanguinity. It was but natural, therefore, that some of them should believe it to be their duty to take the part of the government against the insurrection, while others should sacrifice the ties of family relationship to the more noble idea of liberating their country from a foreign yoke.
This difference of opinion among the Creoles existed only in families of the higher and wealthier classes. Among the poorer Mexicans—the people—whether white or half caste, there existed only one sentiment, and that was in favour of independence from Spain. The Indians of pure blood had their own ideas. They had been more enslaved than the Creoles, and of course readily united with them for the expulsion of the Spaniard—their common oppressor. Some of them also indulged in the idle dream that circumstances might restore the ancient splendour of the Aztec race.
AN IRKSOME JOURNEY.
In a morning of the month of October, a solitary traveller was pursuing his route across the vast plains which extend from the limits of the state of Vera Cruz through that of Oajaca. It is scarcely necessary to say that the traveller was on horseback—in a country where no one ever thinks of journeying on foot. He was armed also, as well as mounted; but both horse and weapon were of such an indifferent character as to be ill suited for an encounter with an enemy of any kind. This, too, in a country just then in a state of revolution, where the traveller might expect to meet with an enemy at any moment—either a political adversary, or one of those professional bandits with whom Mexico at this time abounded, and who robbed all alike, irrespective of party.
The only weapon our traveller possessed was an old curved sabre; but it was doubtful whether it could be drawn from its iron scabbard, which appeared as rusty as if it had lain for years at the bottom of a river. It was carried obliquely along the flap of the saddle, and under the thigh of the horseman—the common mode in Mexico—thus transferring the weight of the weapon from the hip of the rider to the ribs of his horse.
The steed of our traveller showed evident signs of having been at one time the property of some picador de toros: as was manifested by the numerous scars that traversed his flanks and counter; but whatever good qualities he may have once possessed, he was evidently now one of the sorriest of jades—worth no more than the value of his own skin. Notwithstanding the repeated strokes of the spur, which his rider administered without stint, it was impossible to force him into anything more rapid than a shambling walk, and at this slow pace was he proceeding, evidently to the great chagrin of the impatient traveller.
The costume of the horseman thus ill mounted consisted of a sort of jacket of white cotton stuff, with open calzoneros of olive-coloured velveteen. On his feet were short boots of goat-skin—dressed in imitation of cordovar leather—and covering his head was a broad-brimmed hat of common palmetto plait. Though not positively shabby, his garments had the appearance of having been a long time in wear, out of regard to economy. There was something, however, in their cut and texture that bespoke the wearer to belong to a class above that of the mere peasant.
He was a young man—apparently two or three and twenty—of slender figure and rather thin in flesh. His countenance bespoke gentleness of disposition, amounting almost to simplicity; and this would have been the impression produced upon an observer, but for a pair of lively spiritual eyes that sparkled in sockets somewhat sunken. These, combined with a well-formed mouth, and lips of a sarcastic cut, relieved the otherwise too ingenuous expression of his features, and proved that the young man was capable, when occasion required, of exhibiting a considerable power of repartee and acute observation. Just then the predominant expression upon his features was that of chagrin, mixed with a certain degree of uneasiness.
The scenes through which he was passing were of a character to cause apprehension—especially to one journeying alone. On all sides extended a vast plain of sterile soil—the brown earth but thinly covered with a growth of cactus and wild aloes, under the shadow of which appeared a sparse herbage, wild, and of yellowish hue. The aspect was monotonous and dreary beyond expression; while here and there vast clouds of dust rose in whirlwinds, and moved like spectres over the plain. The straggling huts encountered at long intervals on the way were all empty—apparently abandoned by their owners! This strange circumstance combined with the heat of a tropic sun, the absence of all signs of water, the profound silence that reigned over these solitary steppes, had created a sense of discouragement in the mind of the young traveller, amounting almost to fear.
Notwithstanding a liberal use of the spur, his horse could not be induced to depart from a walk. If by a desperate effort he was once or twice forced into a trot it was only to return again to his old gait as soon as the spur was taken from his flanks. The painful exertions of the rider had no other result than to cause the perspiration to flow profusely over his face, rendering it necessary for him every now and then to make use of his pocket-kerchief.
"Maldito cavallo!" (Good-for-nothing beast!) he exclaimed at intervals as his patience became exhausted; but the horse, fatigued with a long journey, was as insensible to the insults of his rider's speech as he had been to the strokes of his spur, and moved not a whit the faster.
Wearied with these idle efforts to increase the speed of the animal, the young traveller turned in his saddle and looked back. His object was to compare the route he had come with that which lay before him—in order to form some calculation as to the distance yet to be travelled before he could reach the other side of the desert plain.
The observation did not appear to gratify him. On the contrary, his countenance became clouded with a still deeper shade of chagrin; and, abandoning himself to a complete despair, he made no further attempt to urge forward his unwilling roadster, but left the sorry brute to his creeping pace.
For several hours the traveller kept on his slow course—his spirit alternately exasperated and depressed.
Mid-day had arrived, and the tropic sun, glaring down vertically from a cloudless sky, was causing a degree of heat almost intolerable. The breeze had ceased to cool the atmosphere; and even the dry leaves of the trees hung motionless from the boughs. At every moment the horse, crawling painfully forward, threatened to become motionless as they.
Suffering from thirst, and wearied with the journey he had already made, the young traveller at length dismounted, and threw his bridle-rein over the neck of his horse. He had no fear that the animal would take advantage of the freedom thus given him. There was not the slightest danger of its running away.
Leaving the steed to himself, therefore, the rider walked towards a clump of nopals—in hopes of finding some fruit upon them, by which he might relieve his thirst.
As good luck would have it, he was not deceived in his expectation. The nopals were in fruit; and having plucked a number of these "Indian figs," and stripped them of their spinous skins, he was enabled, by swallowing a quantity of the sweetish pulp, to allay in some measure the excessive thirst that had been hitherto torturing him. Thus satisfied, he once more mounted into his saddle, and continued his interrupted journey.
After riding several miles farther, he arrived at a small village, situated in the same plain through which he had been journeying. There, as all along the route, he found the houses deserted and abandoned by their owners! Not a soul was to be seen—no one to offer him hospitality; and as nothing could be found in the empty houses—neither food to satisfy his hunger, nor water to quench his thirst—the traveller was compelled to ride on without halting. "Cosa estrana!" muttered he to himself, "what on earth can be the meaning of this complete depopulation?"
In addition to the desertion of the houses, another odd circumstance had struck his attention. Almost at every hut which he passed, he saw canoes and periaguas suspended from the branches of the trees, and raised many feet above the ground! In a part of the country where there is neither lake nor river—not so much as the tiniest stream—no wonder the sight astonished our traveller, considering that he was a stranger to the district, and had not yet encountered a single individual who might explain the ludicrous phenomenon.
Just as he was pondering over an explanation of these singularities, a sound fell upon his ear, that produced within him a feeling of joy. It was the hoof-stroke of a horse, breaking upon the profound solitude. It came from behind him; and betokened that some horseman was approaching in his rear, though still invisible on account of a turning in the road, which the young traveller had just doubled.
In a few seconds' time the horseman appeared in sight; and galloping freely forward, soon came side by side with our traveller.
"Santos Dios!" saluted the new-comer, at the same time raising his hand to his hat.
"Santos Dios!" responded the young man, with a similar gesture.
The meeting of two travellers in the midst of a profound solitude is always an event, which leads to their regarding one another with a certain degree of curiosity; and such occurred in the present instance.
He who had just arrived was also a young man—apparently of twenty-four or twenty-five years; and this conformity of age was the only point in which the two travellers resembled each other. The new-comer was somewhat above medium stature, with a figure combining both elegance and strength. His features were regular and well defined; his eyes black and brilliant; his moustache thick and curving, and his complexion deeply embrowned with the sun. All these circumstances tended to show that he was a man of action; while a certain air of energy and command bespoke fiery passions, and the hot Arabian blood, which flows in the veins of many Spanish-Mexican families.
His horse was a bay-brown, whose slender limbs and sinewy form declared him also to be descended from an oriental race. The ease with which his rider managed him, and his firm graceful seat in the saddle, betokened a horseman of the first quality.
His costume was both costly and elegant. A vest of unbleached cambric suited well the heat of the climate. His limbs were covered with calzoneros of silk velvet of a bright purple colour; while boots of buff leather, armed with long glancing spurs, encased his feet. A hat of vicuna cloth, with its trimming of gold lace, completed a costume half-military, half-civilian. To strengthen its military character a rapier in a leathern sheath hung from his waist-belt, and a carbine, suspended in front, rested against the pommel of his saddle.
"Puez, amigo!" said the newly-arrived horseman, after a pause, and glancing significantly at the back of the traveller. "May I ask if you have far to go upon that horse?"
"No, thank goodness!" replied the other; "only to the hacienda of San Salvador; which, if I'm not mistaken, is scarce six leagues distant."
"San Salvador? I think I've heard the name. Is it not near to an estate called hacienda of Las Palmas?"
"Within two leagues of it, I believe."
"Ah! then we are following the same route," said he in the laced cap; "I fear, however," he continued, checking the ardour of his steed, "that there will soon be some distance between us. Your horse does not appear to be in any particular hurry?"
The last speech was accompanied by a significant smile.
"It is quite true," rejoined the other, also smiling, as he spoke; "and more than once upon my journey I have had reason to blame the mistaken economy of my good father, who, instead of letting me have a proper roadster, has munificently furnished me with a steed that has escaped from the horns of all the bulls of the Valladolid Circus; the consequence of which is, that the poor beast cannot see even a cow on the distant horizon without taking to his heels in the opposite direction."
"Carrambo! and do you mean to say you have come all the way from Valladolid on that sorry hack?"
"Indeed, yes, Senor—only I have been two months on the way."
Just then the Rosinante of the circus, roused by the presence of the other horse, appeared to pique himself on a point of honour, and made an effort to keep up with his new companion. Thanks to the courtesy of the moustached cavalier, who continued to restrain the ardour of his fine steed, the two horses kept abreast, and the travellers were left free to continue the conversation.
"You have been courteous enough," said the stranger, "to inform me that you are from Valladolid. In return, let me tell you that I am from Mexico, and that my name is Rafael Tres-Villas, captain in the Queen's dragoons."
"And mine," rejoined the young traveller, "is Cornelio Lantejas, student in the University of Valladolid."
"Well, Senor Don Cornelio, can you give me the solution of an enigma which has puzzled me for two days, and which I have been unable to ask any one else, for the reason that I have not met with a soul since I entered this accursed country. How do you explain this complete solitude—the houses, and villages without inhabitant, and skiffs and canoes suspended from the trees in a district where you may go ten leagues without finding a drop of water?"
"I cannot explain it at all, Senor Don Rafael," replied the student; "it has equally astonished myself; and more than that—has caused me most horrible fear."
"Fear!" echoed the captain of dragoons; "of what?"
"The truth is, Senor Capitan, I have a bad habit of being more afraid of dangers which I cannot comprehend, than those which I know. I fear that the insurrection has gained this province—though I was told to the contrary—and that the State of Oajaca was perfectly tranquil. Like enough the people have abandoned their dwellings to avoid falling into the hands of some party of insurgents that may be scouring the country?"
"Bah!" exclaimed the dragoon, with a contemptuous toss of his head. "Poor devils like them are not in the habit of fleeing from marauders. Besides, the country-people have nothing to fear from those who follow the banner of the insurrection. In any case, it was not for sailing through these sandy plains that the canoes and periaguas have been hung up to the trees? There's some other cause, than the panic of the insurrection, that has breathed a spirit of vertigo into the people here; though, for the life of me, I can't guess what it is."
For a while the two travellers continued their journey in silence—each absorbed in speculating upon the singular mystery that surrounded them, and of which neither could give an explanation.
THE HUNGRY TRAVELLERS.
The dragoon was the first to resume the conversation.
"You, Senor Don Cornelio," said he, "you who have come from Valladolid, perhaps you can give me some later news, than I have received about the march of Hidalgo and his army?"
"Not any, I fear," replied the student; "you forget, Senor, that, thanks to the slow pace of my old horse, I have been two months on the route? When I left Valladolid, nobody had any more thought of an insurrection than of a new deluge. All I know of it is what I have heard from public rumour—that is, so much as could be divulged without fear of the Holy Inquisition. If, moreover, we are to believe the mandate of the Lord Bishop of Oajaca, the insurrection will not find many supporters in his diocese."
"And for what reason?" asked the captain of dragoons, with a certain hauteur, which proved, without committing himself to any disclosure of his political opinions, that the insurgent cause would not find an enemy in him. "What reason does the bishop assign?"
"What reason?" replied the student. "Simply because my Lord Bishop Bergosa y Jordan will excommunicate them. He affirms, moreover, that every insurgent will be recognisable by his horns and cloven hoofs, which before long they will all have from the hands of the devil!"
Instead of smiling at the childish credulity of the young student, the dragoon shook his head with an air of discontent, while the hairs of his black moustachios curled with indignation.
"Yes," said he, as if speaking to himself, "thus is it that our priests fight with the weapons of calumny and falsehood, perverting the minds of the Creoles with fanatical superstition! So, Senor Lantejas," he continued in a louder tone, addressing himself to the student, "you are afraid to enrol yourself in the ranks of the insurgents, lest you might obtain these diabolical ornaments promised by the bishop?"
"Heaven preserve me from doing such a thing!" replied the student. "Is it not an article of faith? And who should know better than the respectable Lord Bishop of Oajaca? Besides," continued he, hastening his explanation, as he saw the angry flash of his companion's eye, "I am altogether of a peaceable disposition, and about to enter into holy orders. Whatever party I might take, it would be with prayer alone I should seek to make it triumph. The Church has a horror of blood."
While the student was thus delivering himself, the dragoon regarded him with a side glance; which seemed to say: that it mattered little which side he might take, as neither would be much benefited by such a sorry champion.
"Is it for the purpose of passing your thesis that you have come to Oajaca?"
"No," replied Lantejas, "my errand into this country is altogether different. I am here in obedience to the commands of my father, whose brother is the proprietor of the rich estate of San Salvador. I am to remind my uncle that he is a widower—rich—and without children; and that he has half-a-dozen nephews to provide for. That is my business at San Salvador. What can I do? My honoured father is more attached to the good things of this life than is perhaps right; and I have been obliged to make this journey of two hundred leagues, for the purpose of sounding our relative's disposition in regard to us."
"And ascertaining the value of his property as well?"
"Oh! as to that, we know exactly how much it is worth; though none of us has ever been on the estate."
This answer of the young student did more honour to his heart than to his discretion.
"Well," continued he, after a pause, "I may safely say, that never did nephew present himself before an uncle in a more famished condition than I shall do. Thanks to the inexplicable desertion of all the houses and villages through which I have passed—and the care which their owners have taken to carry with them even the leanest chicken—there is not a jackal in the country hungrier than I at this minute."
The dragoon was in pretty much the same case. For two days he had been travelling without seeing a soul, and though his horse had picked up a little forage along the road, he had been unable to obtain food for himself—other than such wild fruits and berries as he could gather by the way.
The sympathy for a like suffering at once dissipated any ill-blood which the difference in their political sentiments might have stirred up; and harmony was restored between them.
The captain in his turn informed his new compagnon du voyage, that, since the imprisonment of the Viceroy, Iturrigaray, his own father, a Spanish gentleman, had retired to his estate of Del Valle, where he was now proceeding to join him. He was not acquainted with this estate, having never been upon it since he was a mere child; but he knew that it was not far from the hacienda of Las Palmas, already mentioned. Less communicative than Don Cornelio, he did not inform the student of another motive for his journey, though there was one that interested him far more than revisiting the scenes of his childhood.
As the travellers rode on, the evanescent ardour of Don Cornelio's roadster insensibly cooled down; while the student himself, fatigued by the incessant application of whip and spur, gradually allowed to languish a conversation, that had enabled them to kill a long hour of their monotonous journey.
The sun was now declining towards the western horizon, and the shadows of the two horsemen were beaming elongated upon the dusty road, while from the tops of the palm-trees the red cardinals and parroquets had commenced to chaunt their evening song.
Thirst—from which both the travellers suffered even more than from hunger—was still increasing upon them; and at intervals the dragoon captain cast a look of impatience toward the horse of his companion. He could not help observing that the poor brute, for the want of water, was every moment slackening his pace.
On his side, Don Cornelio perceived, that, from a generous motive, his travelling companion was resisting the temptation to ride forward. By putting his fine horse into a gallop, the latter could in a short time reach the hacienda—now less than three leagues distant. Under the apprehension of losing his company, therefore, the student redoubled his efforts to keep his old circus hack abreast with the bay-brown of the dragoon.
The journey thus continued for half an hour longer; when it became evident to both travellers that the escapado of the bull-ring was every moment growing more unable to proceed.
"Senor student," said the dragoon, after a long spell of silence, "have you ever read of those shipwrecks, where the poor devils, to avoid starvation, cast lots to see which shall be eaten by the others?"
"Alas! yes, I have," answered Lantejas, with a slight trembling in his speech; "but I hope with us it will not come to that deplorable extremity."
"Carrambo!" rejoined the dragoon with a grave air, "I feel at this moment hungry enough to eat a relative—even if he were rich and I his heir, as you of your uncle, the haciendado of San Salvador!"
"But we are not at sea, Senor captain, and in a boat from which there is no chance of escape?"
The dragoon fancied that he might amuse himself a little at the expense of the young student of divinity—of whose excessive credulity he had already had proofs. Perhaps he meant also to revenge himself on this foolish credulity, upon which the fulmination of the Bishop Bergosa— already celebrated throughout Mexico—had made such an impression. His chief motive, however, was to demonstrate to his travelling companion the necessity for their parting company; in order, that, by riding forward himself, he might be able to send back succour to his fellow-traveller. He was no little surprised, therefore, to perceive that his pleasantry was taken in actually a serious light; and therefore had determined to desist from making any further innuendos.
"I hope, Senor captain," said Don Cornelio, "I hope neither of us will ever be in such extremities."
Then casting a glance over the arid waste that stretched before them, a new idea seemed to strike the student; and with a haste that bespoke his agitation he continued—
"As for me, if I were mounted on a horse equal in strength and vigour to yours, I should gallop either to the hacienda of Las Palmas or San Salvador, without drawing bridle; and from there send assistance to the fellow-traveller I had left behind."
"Ah! is that your advice?"
"I could not think of giving any other."
"Good, then!" cried the dragoon; "I shall follow it; for to be candid, I felt a delicacy in parting company with you."
As Don Rafael spoke, he held out his hand to the student.
"Senor Lantejas," said he, "we part friends. Let us hope we may never meet as enemies! Who can foresee the future? You appear disposed to look with an evil eye on those attempts at emancipation of a country, that has been enslaved for three hundred years. As for myself, it is possible I may offer my arm—and, if need be, my life—to aid her in conquering her liberty. Hasta luego! I shall not forget to send you assistance."
Saying this, the officer clasped warmly the chill attenuated fingers of the student of theology, gave the reign to his horse, that needed no spur, and disappeared the moment after amidst a cloud of dust.
"God be praised!" said Lantejas, breathing freely; "I do believe the famished Lestrygon would have been quite capable of devouring me! As for my being found on a field of battle in front of this Goliath, or any other, there's not much danger. I defy the devil with all his horns to make a soldier of me, either for the insurrection or against it."
The student proceeded on his solitary route—congratulating himself on having escaped, from what his credulous fancy had believed to be a danger.
Some time had passed, and the red clouds of sunset were tinting the horizon, when he saw before him the form of a man, whose gait and complexion proved him to be an Indian. In hopes of obtaining some provisions from this man, or, at all events, an explanation of the singular circumstances already mentioned, the student urged his horse into a more rapid pace, heading him towards the Indian.
He saw that the latter was driving two cows before him, whose distended udders proved them to be milch cattle. This increased the desire of the horseman, hungry and thirsty as he was, to join company with the cowherd.
"Hola! Jose!" cried he, at the top of his voice.
An Indian will always respond to the name Jose, as an Irishman to that of Pat or Paddy. On hearing it, the cow-driver looked round in alarm. At that moment the escapado of the bull-ring caught sight of the two cows, and suddenly broke off into a gallop—unfortunately, however, in a direction the very opposite to that which his rider desired him to take!
Notwithstanding this, the student still continued to shout to the cowherd, in hopes of bringing him to comprehend his dilemma. But the odd spectacle of a horseman calling to him to approach, while he himself kept riding off in the opposite direction, so astounded the Indian that, uttering a cry of affright, he also took to his heels, followed in a long shambling trot by the two cows!
It was not until all three were out of sight, that the student could prevail on his affrighted steed to return into the proper path.
"In the name of the Holy Virgin!" soliloquised he, "what has got into the people of this country? Every one of them appears to have gone mad!"
And once more setting his horse to the road, he proceeded onward—now, however, hungrier and more disconsolate than ever.
Just as night was coming down, he arrived at a place where two or three small huts stood by the side of the road. These, like all the others, he found deserted. At sight of them, however, the old horse came to a dead stop, and refused to proceed. His rider, equally fatigued, resolved upon remaining by the huts, until the assistance promised by the dragoon captain should arrive.
In front of one of the huts stood two tall tamarind trees—between which a hammock was suspended, at the height of seven or eight feet from the ground. It was a capacious one, made of the strong plaited thread of the maguey. It seemed to invite the wearied traveller to repose—as if placed there on purpose for him.
As the heat was still suffocating, instead of entering one of the huts, he unsaddled his horse, permitted the animal to go at will, and by the trunk of one of the tamarinds climbed up into the hammock. There, stretching himself, he lay a good while listening attentively, in hopes of hearing some sound that might announce the approach of the promised succour.
It was now dark night. All nature had gone to sleep; and the profound silence was unbroken by any sound that resembled the tramp of a horse. Nothing was heard to indicate the approach of the expected relief.
As the student continued to listen, however, he became sensible of sounds, of a singular and mysterious character. There was a continuous noise, like the rumbling of distant thunder, or the roaring of the ocean during a storm. Although the air was calm around him, he fancied he could hear a strong wind blowing at a distance, mingled with hoarse bellowings of unearthly voices!
Affrighted by these inexplicable noises—which seemed the warning voices of an approaching tempest—he lay for a while awake; but fatigue overcoming him, he sunk at length into a profound sleep.
BLACK AND RED.
On that same evening, and about an hour before sunset, two men made their appearance on the banks of a small river that traversed the country not far from the group of huts where the traveller had halted— at a point about halfway between them and the hacienda Las Palmas.
At the place where the two men appeared upon its banks, the river in question ran through the middle of a narrow valley; flowing so gently along, that its unrippled surface mirrored the blue sky. At this place the water filled its channel up to the level of the banks, that were treeless, and covered with a sward of grass. Farther down trees grew along the edge of the stream—tall oaks and cotton woods, whose branches were interlaced by flowering llianas. Still farther down, the river entered between high banks of wilder appearance, and covered with yet more luxuriant vegetation. From the grassy meadow, in which the two men were standing, the noise of a cataract, like the breaking of the sea upon a rocky beach, was distinctly audible.
The complexion and costume of one of the men pronounced him an Indian. The former was a copper-brown, the well-known colour of the American aboriginal. His dress consisted of a coarse shirt of greyish woollen stuff, rayed with black stripes. Its short sleeves, scarce reaching to the elbows, permitted to be seen a pair of strong, sinewy arms of deepest bronze. It was confined round the waist with a thick leathern belt, while its skirt hung down to mid-thigh. Below this appeared the legs of a pair of trowsers, wide, but reaching only to the knee. These were of tanned sheep-skin, and of a reddish brown hue. From the bottoms of the trowsers, the legs and ankles of the Indian were naked; while the chaussure consisted of leathern buskins, also of a brownish red colour. A hat of rush plaiting covered his head, from under which hung two long tresses of black hair—one over each cheek—and reaching down to his elbows.
He was a man of tall stature, and with a physiognomy remarkable for one of his race. Instead of the servile aspect so characteristic of the Indios mangos (subdued Indians) of Mexico, he had more the air of the true savage, or Indio bravo. This appearance was strengthened by the fact of his having a slight moustache and beard—a rare distinction among the aborigines of Mexico.
Over his shoulder he carried a short, thick carbine, somewhat rusty; while a long machete (half sword, half knife), was stuck behind his belt.
His companion was a negro, whose clothing consisted of little else than rags. Otherwise there was nothing remarkable about him—if we except the air of stupified credulity with which he appeared to be listening to the discourse of the Indian. From time to time his features assumed an expression of ill-concealed fear.
The red man, closely followed by the black, was advancing along the bank at a place destitute of timber and where the ground was smooth and soft. He was going slowly, his body bent slightly forwards, and his eyes turned upon the earth as if in search of some object, or tracking an animal. Suddenly he came to a top—
"Now!" he exclaimed, turning to the negro, and pointing to the ground, "I told you I should find their traces in less than half an hour. Look there!"
The Indian spoke in a tone of triumph; but the feeling was far from being shared by his companion, who bent his eyes upon the earth rather with a look of dismay. The sight was sufficient to have caused uneasiness to any one other than a hunter of wild beasts. In the soft mud was exhibited a number of tracks—twenty of them in all. They were of different sizes, too; and appeared to have been recently made. The marks of sharp claws, distinctly outlined in the clayey soil, told what kind of animal had made the tracks. It was the fierce jaguar—the tiger (tigre) of the Spanish-Americans.
"It's not half an hour since they have been here," continued the Indian. "Mira!" exclaimed he, pointing to a little eddy on the edge of the stream, "they have been drinking there not ten minutes ago: the water is yet muddy!"
"Let us get away," suggested the negro, whose black face was now pale with fear. "I see no use in our remaining here. See! there are many tracks, and of different sizes, too. Lord bless me! a whole procession of tigers must have passed here."
"Oh! you are exaggerating," rejoined the Indian, with a sneering laugh. "Let us count them," he continued, bending down over the foot-prints, "one—two—three—four: a male, a female, and her two cachorros (cubs). That is all. Carrambo! what a sight for a tigrero (tiger-hunter)."
"Ah! indeed!" assented the negro, in a hesitating way.
"Yes," rejoined the other; "but we shan't go after them to-day. We have more important business on our hands."
"Would it not be better to defer the business you were speaking of till to-morrow, and now return to the hacienda? However curious I am to see the wonderful things you promised, still—"
"What!" exclaimed the Indian, interrupting his companion's speech, "defer that business till another day? Impossible. The opportunity would not come round for another month, and then we shall be far from this place. No, no, Clara," continued he, addressing the black by this very odd cognomen, "no, no; we must about it to-day and at this very moment. Sit down, then."
Suiting the action to the word, the Indian squatted himself on the grass; and the negro, willing or unwilling, was forced to follow his example.
Notwithstanding the change of attitude, the negro still continued the victim of his fears. Instead of paying proper attention to what his companion was saying, his eyes wandered abroad, searching the horizon on every side of him, as if at every moment he expected to see the jaguars returning to attack them.
Noticing his uneasiness, the Indian made an attempt to reassure him.
"You have nothing to fear, comrade," said he. "The tigers have the whole river to drink out of; and it is not likely they will come back here."
"They may be hungry," rejoined Clara, "and I have heard say that they prefer a black man, like me, to either a white or an Indian."
"Ha, ha!" laughed his companion. "You need not flatter yourself on that score. Bah, man! there's not a tiger in all the State that would be fool enough to prefer a carcass tough and black as yours, to the flesh of a young colt or heifer, either of which they can have at any time. Ha, ha! If the jaguars only heard what you've said, they would shake their sides with laughter."
The fearlessness exhibited by the Indian himself in regard to the jaguars is easily explained, since it was by the destruction of these fierce animals that he got his living. His calling was a peculiar one, though common enough throughout the tropical regions of America. He was, in fact, a tigrero, or tiger-hunter, a class of men whose sole occupation consists in pursuing, a l'outrance, the different beasts of prey that ravage the flocks and herds of the great haciendas de ganado, or grazing estates. Among these predatory creatures the jaguar is the most destructive; and the hunting and slaying of these animals is followed by many men—usually Indians or half-breeds—as a regular profession.
As the jaguar (Felis onca) in all parts of Spanish-America is erroneously called the tiger (tigre), so the hunter of this animal is termed a tiger-hunter (tigrero). Many of the more extensive estates keep one or more of these hunters in their pay; and the Indian we have introduced to the reader was the tigrero of the hacienda Del Valle. His name and nation were declared by himself in the speech that followed—
"Ah!" he exclaimed with an air of savage exultation, "neither tigers nor men may laugh with impunity at Costal, the Zapoteque. As for these jaguars," he continued after a pause, "let them go for this night. There will be nothing lost by waiting till to-morrow. I can soon get upon their trail again; and a jaguar whose haunt is once known to me, is a dead animal. To-night we have other business. There will be a new moon; and that is the time when, in the foam of the cascade, and the surface of the solitary lake, the Siren shows herself—the Siren of the dishevelled hair."
"The Siren of the dishevelled hair?"
"Yes; she who points out to the gold-seeker the rich placers of gold— to the diver the pearls that lie sparkling within their shells at the bottom of the great ocean."
"But who has told you this?" inquired Clara, with a look of incredulity.
"My fathers—the Zapoteques," replied Costal, in a solemn tone of voice; "and why should they not know? They have learnt these things from Tlaloc and Matlacuezc—gods they were, as powerful as the Christ of the pale faces. Why—"
"Don't speak so loud!" interrupted Clara, in a voice that betokened alarm. "The priests of the Christians have their ears everywhere. They might call it blasphemy; and carrambo! the Inquisition has its dangers for blacks as well as whites!"
On hearing the word Inquisition the Indian involuntarily lowered his voice; but continued speaking in a tone that his companion could still hear him.
"My fathers," said he, "have told me that the Siren never appears to any one who is alone. It is necessary that two be present—two men of tried courage they must be—for the divinity is often wrathful at being invoked, and at such times her anger is terrible. As two men are required, I need another besides myself. Will you then be my companion?"
"Hum!" said Clara. "I may boast that I am not afraid of a man; though I confess I cannot say the same about a tiger. As to your Siren, that appears to be the very devil—"
"Man, tiger, or devil," cried Costal, "why fear any of the three? What need one care for them—one who has a stout heart—especially when the reward of his courage is gold, and enough of it to make a grand lord out of a poor Indian?"
"And of a negro as well?"
"Say, rather," rejoined Clara, with an air of discouragement, "that gold could serve neither one nor the other. Black and Indian, both are slaves, and our masters would soon take it from us."
"True enough what you say; but let me tell you, Clara, that the bondage of the Indian is approaching its end. Have you not heard that up in the north—in the tierra adentro—a priest has proclaimed the emancipation of all races, and equal liberty for all?"
"No," replied the negro, betraying his total ignorance of the political affairs of the country, "I have heard nothing about it."
"Know, then, that the day is at hand when the Indian will be on an equality with the white, the Creole with the Spaniard; and when an Indian, such as I, will be the master of both!"
The descendant of the Zapoteques delivered this speech with an air of proud exultation.
"Yes!" continued he, "the day of our ancient splendour will soon return. That is why I am desirous at present of acquiring gold. Hitherto I have not troubled myself about finding it; since, as you say, it would soon be wrested from the hands of a poor slave. Now that I am to be free, the circumstances are changed; and I want gold, by which I may revive the glories of my ancestors."
Clara could not help casting a look of astonishment at his companion. The air of savage grandeur, visible in the countenance of the tiger-hunter—vassal of the hacienda Las Palmas—surprised him, as did also the pretentious manner in which he spoke about reviving the ancient splendours of his race.
The look and its meaning did not escape the observation of the Indian.
"Friend Clara!" said he, in a confidential tone, "listen to me, while I reveal to you a secret which I have kept for many long years—long enough for me to have seen fifty dry seasons, and fifty seasons of rain; and this fact can be confirmed to you by all of my colour and race."
"You have seen fifty seasons of rain?" cried the negro, in a tone of astonishment, at the same time regarding his companion attentively, who in truth did not appear to be over thirty years of age. "Fifty seasons of rain?"
"Well, not quite fifty," replied Costal, with a smile, "but very near it."
"Ah! I shall see fifty more," continued he. "Omens have told me that I shall live as long as the ravens."
The negro remained silent, still held in surprise by the wild declarations which his companion was volunteering to make to him.
"Listen, friend Clara!" continued the tiger-hunter, extending his arm in a circle, and designating the four points of the compass; "in all the space that a horseman could traverse between sunrise and sunset—from north to south, from east to west—there is not a spot of ground that was not once possessed by my ancestors—the ancient lords of Zapoteca. Before the vessels of the white men touched upon our coasts, they were sovereign masters of all this land—from ocean to ocean. The sea alone was their boundary. Thousands of warriors followed their banners, and crowded around their plume-bedecked standards of war. In the ocean the pearl-banks, and on the land the placers of gold belonged to them. The yellow metal glanced upon their dresses and armour, or ornamented the very sandals upon their feet. They possessed it in such abundance, they scarce knew what to do with it.
"Where now are the once powerful Caciques of Tehuantepec? Most of their subjects have been slaughtered by the thunder of the white men, or buried in the dark mines—while the conquerors have divided among them and made slaves of the survivors! An hundred needy adventurers have been transformed into grand magnates—each endowed with a portion of the conquered territory; and at this moment the last descendant of the Caciques is forced to earn his subsistence almost as a slave—to submit to the tyranny of a white master—to expose his life daily for the destruction of fierce beasts, lest they should ravage the flocks and herds of his thankless employer; while, of the vast plains over which he is compelled to pursue his perilous calling, there remains to him not a spot he can call his own—not even the ground occupied by his miserable hut."
The speaker might have gone on much longer without fear of his hearer interrupting him. The latter was held mute with astonishment, as well as by a kind of involuntary respect with which the words of his companion had inspired him. In all probability the negro had never before heard that a powerful and civilised people existed in that country previous to the arrival of the Spaniards. At all events he had never suspected that the man who was thus enlightening him—the half-Pagan, half-Christian tiger-hunter—was the descendant of the ancient masters of Tehuantepec.
As for Costal himself, after making these statements of the former splendours of his family—in which, notwithstanding his pompous mode of declaring them, there was much truth—he lapsed into a profound silence; and, his face turned with a melancholy expression upon the ground, he took no notice of the effect produced on the mind of his black companion.
THE CHASE OF THE JAGUAR.
The sun was gradually inclining towards the horizon, when a prolonged howl, shrill at first, but ending in a hoarse roar, fell upon the ears of the two adventurers. It appeared to come from a brake some distance down the river; but, near or distant, it at once changed the expression upon the countenance of the negro. Fear took the place of astonishment; and, on hearing the sound, he sprang suddenly to his feet.
"Jesus Maria!" exclaimed he, "it is the jaguar again!"
"Well, what if it be?" said Costal, who had neither risen, nor made the slightest gesture.
"The jaguar!" repeated the negro in his terror.
"The jaguar? You are mistaken," said Costal.
"God grant that I may be," rejoined the black, beginning to hope that the sounds had deceived him.
"You are mistaken as to the number," coolly proceeded Costal. "There is not one jaguar, but four—if you include the cachorros!"
Perceiving the sense in which Costal meant he was mistaken, the negro, with terror gleaming in his eyes, appeared as if about to start off towards the hacienda.
"Take care what you do!" said the Indian, apparently inclined to amuse himself with the fears of his companion. "It is quite true, I believe, that these animals are very fond of black men's flesh."
"Carrambo! just now you told me the contrary?"
"Well, perhaps I am mistaken upon that point; but one thing I know well—for I have proved it a hundred times—that is, that a brace of tigers, when the male and female are together, seldom roar in that fashion—especially if they suspect the presence of a human being. It is more likely, therefore, that at this moment they are separated; and by going towards the hacienda, you might risk getting between the two."
"Heaven preserve me from getting into such a scrap," muttered the negro.
"Well, then; the best thing you can do is to stay where you are—beside a man who don't care a claco for the jaguars."
The negro hesitated, not quite certain that it would be the best thing for him. At that moment, however, a second howl, coming in a direction entirely opposite to the first, decided his uncertainty, and convinced him that the tigrero had spoken the truth.
"You see," said Costal, "the brutes are in search of something to eat. That's why they are calling to one another. Well, now! if you're still in the mind, off with you to the hacienda!"
This was of course meant as a taunt; for the negro, who now perceived that there was a jaguar howling in the way that led to the hacienda, had given up all notion of proceeding in that direction. On the contrary, while his black face turned of an ashen-grey colour, he drew closer to his imperturbable companion—who had not even attempted to take hold of the carbine which lay on the grass by his side!
"Bah!" muttered Costal, speaking to himself, "this comrade of mine is scarce brave enough for my purpose. I must defer it, till I meet with one possessed of more courage." Then resuming the current of his thoughts, which had been interrupted by the howling of the jaguars, he said aloud—"Where is the red man, where the black, who would not lift his arm to aid this brave priest?—he who has risen against the oppressor—the oppressor of all Zapoteques, Creoles, and Aztecs. Have these Spaniards not been more ferocious than even the tigers themselves?"
"I should not fear them, at any rate," interposed Clara.
"Good! I am glad you talk that way, comrade. To-morrow let us give warning to our master, Don Mariano de Silva. He must find another tigrero; and we shall go and join the insurgents in the west."
The Indian had scarce finished his speech, when another howl came from the jaguars, as if to put the patience of the tiger-hunter to the test. It was even more spitefully prolonged, coming in the direction in which the first had been heard—that is, from a point upon the river a little above where the two men were seated.
On hearing it, thus uttered as a signal of defiance, the eyes of the tigrero began to sparkle with an irresistible desire for the chase.
"By the souls of the Caciques of Tehuantepec!" exclaimed he, "this is too much for human patience. I shall teach those two braggarts not to talk so loud of their affairs. Now, Clara!" continued he, springing to his feet, "you shall have the opportunity of becoming acquainted with a jaguar at closer quarters than you have hitherto been."
"Carrambo!" exclaimed the black, "why should I go near them? I have no weapon, and would be of no use to you?"
"Hear me, Clara!" said the Indian, without replying to the speech of his comrade. "The one that howled last is the male. He was calling to the female, his mate. He is a good distance from here, up stream. We must go up to him; and as there's not a stream on all the estate, where I haven't either a canoe or periagua, for the purposes of my calling—"
"You have one here, then?" interrupted Clara.
"Certainly I have. We can go up the river; and in the canoe you will not be in the slightest danger. I have my own notions as to how we may best approach this noisy brute."
"But the jaguars can swim like seals, I have heard?"
"I don't deny it. Never mind that; come on!"
Without deigning further speech, the tigrero started forward; and going cautiously, approached that part of the bank where his canoe was moored.
Clara seeing that it would be perhaps less dangerous to accompany him than remain where he was alone, reluctantly followed.
In a few minutes they arrived at the place where the canoe was fastened to the bank; a rude craft, just large enough to carry two men. A paddle lay at the bottom; along with a piece of matting of plaited palm-leaf, which on occasions was called into requisition as a sail. But Costal threw out the matting, as there was no likelihood of its being required upon the present occasion.
Having loosed the cord by which the canoe was attached to the branch of a willow, the Indian leaped aboard, and seated himself near the stem. The negro took his place abaft. A vigorous push was given against the bank, the little craft shot out into the middle of the stream, and, impelled by the paddle, commenced ascending the current.
The sun was still shining on the river, but with his last rays; and the willows and alamos that grew along the bank threw their trembling shadows far over the water. The breeze of the desert sighed among their leaves, bearing upon its wings sweet perfumes stolen from a thousand flowers. It seemed the intoxicating incense of liberty.
Costal, an Indian and a hunter, inhaled it with an instinctive delight. Clara was altogether insensible to the sweetness of the scene; and his anxious countenance offered as great a contrast to the calm unmoved features of his companion, as the black shadows of the trees thrown upon the water with the brilliant hues of the sky.
The canoe for a time kept close along the bank, and followed the windings of the stream. Here and there the bushes hung over; and in passing such places Clara kept a sharp look out, in dread of seeing a pair of fiery orbs glancing upon him through the leaves.
"Por Dios!" cried he, every time the canoe approached too closely to the bank, "keep her farther off, friend Costal. Who knows but that the jaguars may be up there, ready to spring down upon us?"
"Possible enough," rejoined Costal, vigorously plying his paddle; and without giving any farther thought to the appeals of his companion. "Possible enough; but I have my idea—"
"What is it?" asked Clara, interrupting him.
"A very simple one, and one which I have no doubt you will approve of."
"Let us hear it first."
"Well, then; there are two jaguars, without speaking of the brace of cachorros. These I shall leave to you, since you have no weapon. Your plan will be this: take up one of the whelps in each hand, and break in their skulls, by striking them one against the rather. Nothing can be more simple."
"On the contrary, friend Costal, it appears to me very complicated. Besides, how can I lay hold upon them if they should run away?"
"Very likely, they will save you that trouble by laying hold on you. Never fear your getting close enough. If I'm not mistaken, we shall have all four of them within arm's length in less than a quarter of an hour."
"All four!" exclaimed the negro, with a start that caused the canoe to oscillate as if it would upset.
"Beyond doubt," rejoined Costal, making an effort to counterbalance the shock which the frail bark had received. "It is the only plan by which we can bring the chase to a speedy termination; and when one is pressed for time, one must do his best. I was going to tell you, when you interrupted me, that there are two jaguars—one on the right bank, the other on the left—the male and female, beyond doubt. Now by their cries I can tell that these animals are desirous of rejoining one another; and if we place ourselves between the two, it is evident they will both come upon us at once. What say you? I defy you to prove the contrary?"
Clara made no reply to the challenge. His profound belief in the infallibility of his companion's perceptions kept him silent.
"Look out now, Clara!" continued the hunter, "we are going to double that bend in the river where the bushes hide the plain from our view. Your face will be turned the right way. Tell me, then, what you see."
From his position in the canoe, Costal, who plied the paddle, was seated with his back to the open ground towards which they were advancing; and he could only see in front by turning his head, which from time to time he had been doing. But he needed not to look around very often. The countenance of the negro, who was face to face with him, resembled a faithful mirror, in which he could read whatever might be passing behind him.
A GRAND SPECTACLE.
Hitherto the features of Clara had expressed nothing more than a kind of vague fear; but at the moment when the canoe rounded the last turn in the river, a sudden terror became depicted upon them. The hunter thus warned quickly faced round. An immense plain came before his eye, that seemed to stretch to the verge of the horizon. Through this ran the river, its waters almost on a level with the banks—which were covered with a grassy sward, and without a single tree. At some distance from the curve the stream almost doubled back on itself—forming a verdant delta, around the apex of which ran the road that led to the hacienda Las Palmas.
The rays of the setting sun were flooding the plain with a transparent golden haze, which hung over the empurpled bosom of the water on which the canoe was floating. Just above, in the middle of the current, and scarce two shots distant from where the two men were, a sight appeared to the ravished eyes of the tiger-hunter that caused him at once to change his position in the boat.
"Mira!" exclaimed he in a half-whisper. "Look, Clara! Did you ever behold a more beautiful sight?"
With his claws stuck into the floating carcass of a colt upon which he was feeding, an enormous jaguar was suffering himself to float gently down the stream. It was the male one, the same from which the last howlings had proceeded.
With his head outstretched and curving over his fore paws, his hind legs drawn up under his belly, his back highly arched, and his flanks quivering with a supple undulation that betokened activity and power, was seen the royal beast of the American jungle. The dying rays of the sun falling upon his glossy skin displayed his splendid coat of bright yellow ocellated with spots of deepest black.
It was one of those beautiful savage spectacles often exhibited to the eyes of the Indian hunter—a magnificent episode in that eternal poem which the wilderness is constantly repeating.
Scarce taking time to gaze upon it, Costal passed the paddle to his companion; and, gun in hand, crouched down in the bottom of the canoe.
Clara accepted the oar, and half mechanically commenced rowing. He had made no reply to the enthusiastic interrogatory of the hunter. Fear held him speechless.
At that moment a growl, resembling the deepest tones of an ophicleide, resounded from the throat of the jaguar, rolling over the surface of the water to the ears of the men seated in the canoe. He had seen his enemies, and this was his signal of defiance.
The Indian replied by a cry somewhat similar, as the bloodhound utters his wild bay on seeing his victim before him.
"It's the male!" said Costal, apparently pleased that it was so.
"Fire, then!" cried Clara, at last finding his tongue.
"Fire, Carrambo! no. My gun does not carry so far. Besides, I shoot best when my game is nearer the muzzle. I wonder," continued he, looking up to the bank, "that the female has not found him! No doubt, if we wait a little, we'll see her coming bounding up with the cachorros at her heels."
"Dios nos ampare!" (God preserve us!) muttered the negro in a melancholy tone; for he feared that Costal would still insist upon his carrying out the plan he had proposed. "God preserve us! I hope not: one at a time is sufficient."
The words were scarce out of the negro's mouth, when a sharp screech, heard at some distance, proclaimed the coming of the other jaguar; and the moment after she was seen bounding over the savanna, with a rapidity and gracefulness superb beyond admiration.
At the distance of about two hundred yards from the bank, as also from the canoe, she came to a sudden stop; and with muzzle raised aloft, scenting the air, and flanks quivering like an arrow after striking its mark, she remained for some moments fixed to the spot. Meanwhile the two whelps, that had been left in the covert of the bushes, were seen hastening to join her. The canoe, no longer propelled by the paddle, began to spin round with the ripple, keeping about the same distance between it and the tiger crouched on the floating carcass.
"For Heaven's sake, Clara," said Costal impatiently, "keep the boat's head to the current, or I shall never get close enough to fire. There now—that is right—keep a steady hand—mine never shakes. It is important I should kill this jaguar at the first shot. If not, one of us is lost, to a certainty. Perhaps both; for if I miss we shall have both the brutes to contend with, to say nothing of the brace of whelps."
All this while the jaguar was quietly descending the stream upon his floating pedestal, and the distance between him and the canoe was gradually diminishing. Already could be seen his fiery eyeballs rolling in their sockets, and the quick oscillations of his tail, expressive of his gathering rage.
The hunter had taken aim, and was about to pull trigger, when the canoe commenced rocking about, as if tossed upon a stormy sea!
"What the devil are you about, Clara?" inquired the Indian in an angry tone. "If you move in that way I could not hit one in a whole crowd of tigers."
Whether it was through design, or that fear was troubling his senses, and causing him to shift about, Clara, instead of keeping quiet, only seemed to shake all the more.
"A thousand devils take you!" cried Costal, with increased rage. "Just then I had him between the eyes."
Laying down his gun, the hunter snatched the paddle from the hands of the black, and set about turning the canoe into its proper position.
This proved a work of some little time; and before Costal could succeed in accomplishing his purpose, the tiger had taken to flight. Giving utterance to a loud scream, the animal buried his sharp teeth in the carcass, tore from it a large mouthful, and then making a desperate bound passed from the floating body to the bank. In another moment he had rejoined his mate with her young ones, and all were soon beyond the range of the hunter's carbine. The two terrible creatures appeared to hesitate as to whether they should return to the attack, or retreat. Then giving a simultaneous scream, both stretched off at full gallop across the plain, followed by their cachorros.
The disappointed hunter looked after them, giving utterance to a fierce exclamation expressive of his disappointment. Then seating himself in the stern of the canoe, he turned its head down stream, and put forth all his strength to regain the point from which they had set out.
The canoe carrying the two men continued slowly to descend the course of the river—the negro felicitating himself on his escape from the claws of the jaguars; while the thoughts of the Indian were dwelling with regret upon his want of success.
Clara, however, did not enjoy an unalloyed satisfaction. The jaguars had fled, it was true, but in what direction? It was evident they had gone down stream, and might be encountered below.
This thought troubling Clara, he inquired of his companion if there was any probability of their again falling in with this dangerous enemy.
"Probable enough," responded Costal, "and more than probable. If we descend below the cascade, we shall be almost certain of seeing the jaguars there. The carcass of a fine young colt is not to be met with every day; and these brutes can reason like a man. They know well though that the current will carry the floating body over the fall, and that, below, it will be rendered up to them again. I do not say it will then be whole; for I have seen the trunks of great trees broken into fragments from being carried over that very cascade."
"Then you really think the jaguars may be waiting below?"
"No doubt but they will be there. If I don't mistake, you shall hear their roar before ten minutes have passed, and it will come from the bottom of the cascade, just where our business is now taking us."
"But they may feel inclined to take revenue on us for having driven them from the carcass?"
"And if they should, what care I? Not a straw. Vamos! friend Clara, we've given too much thought to these animals. Fortunately we have not lost much; and now to our affair. The young moon will be up in a trice, and I must invoke Tlaloc, the god of the waters, to bestow some gold on the Caciques of Tehuantepec."
The two men had by this time arrived at the place from which the canoe had been taken; and here both disembarked, Costal carefully refastening the craft to the trunk of the willow. Then leaving his companion, he walked off down the bank alone.
"Do not go far away!" said Clara, entreatingly, still troubled with the fear of the jaguars.
"Bah!" exclaimed Costal, "I leave my gun with you!"
"Oh, indeed!" murmured the negro; "what signifies that? one bullet for four tigers!"
Without vouchsafing any reply to this last speech, the Indian advanced a little farther along the bank, and then came to a pause. A large tree grew upon the edge of the stream, its branches extending outwards. Into this he climbed; and then stretching out his arms over the water, he commenced chaunting a lugubrious measure—a species of Indian invocation, of which Clara could hear the words, but without in the least comprehending their signification.
There was something in the wild melody of the Indian's voice to cause his companion a certain mysterious dread; and this was increased by additional notes of an equally mournful character that came pealing up the ravine, mingling with the hoarse roaring of the cascade. It was the scream of the jaguar; though it actually appeared as if some demon was answering to the invocations of the Indian. The lugubrious chaunt of the pagan, and the coincident scream of the tiger, formed a kind of infernal accompaniment, well calculated to strike awe into the mind of one of Clara's superstitious race; and as he stood upon the bank he fancied he saw fiery eyes glaring upon him through the leaves, and the Siren with the dishevelled hair rising above the surface of the water.
A double chill passed through his black skin, from the soles of his feet to the roots of his kinky hair.
At this moment Costal returned to him.
"Are you ready?" inquired the Indian.
"To accompany me to the cascade—there to invoke the Siren, and ask if she may be seen."
"What! down there, where the tigers are roaring?"
"Oh, a fig for them! Remember, Clara, it is gold we seek; and, believe me, if fortunate in our application, the Siren will tell us where it is to be found. Gold in masses!"
"Enough!" cried Clara, overcome by the rich prospect. "I am with you," continued he—"lead on! From this hour I am the slave of the Siren who can show us the placers of gold!"
The Indian took up his hat and carbine, both of which he had laid aside while chaunting his invocation; and, throwing the gun over his shoulder, started down stream. Clara followed close at his heels—his spirit alternately possessed with cupidity and fear.
As they advanced, the banks rose higher above the surface of the stream, and the channel became the bottom of a deep, narrow ravine, where the water rushed foaming among rocks. The great trees growing on each side stretched towards one another, until their branches interlocked, forming a dark sombre tunnel underneath. At the lower end of this, the stream, once more bursting forth into light, leaped vertically at one bound through a space of two hundred feet sheer, falling into the bottom of a deep gorge, with a noise louder than the roar of the mighty ocean.
Just where the foaming flood broke over the crest of the rocks, grew two enormous cypresses of the kind known to the Mexicans as ahuehuetes, or "lords of the water." They stood on opposite sides of the stream, with their long arms extended towards each other. Thickly loaded with llianas, and profusely festooned with the silvery Spanish moss, which, drooping downwards, every now and then dipped into the foaming arch of the cascade, these two great trees looked like the ancient genii of the waters.
At this point the two men made a halt. Although they were now very near to the place where the jaguars were supposed to be, Clara had become more regardless of the danger. His fear, both of wild beasts and evil spirits, had yielded to his thirst for gold, which had been gradually growing stronger.
"Now, Clara!" said Costal, turning a severe look upon his comrade; "listen attentively to the instructions I am about to give you. If the Siren should appear to you, and you should exhibit, either by look or gesture, the slightest symptoms of fear, you are a lost man!"
"All right!" replied the negro. "The hope of being shown a mine of gold gives me courage to risk even my neck in a halter, if need be. Never fear, Costal. Speak on—I am ready to listen."
As the negro pronounced these words, his countenance to all appearance expressed as much firmness as that of Costal himself. The Indian, thus assured, seated himself upon the very edge of the precipice, overlooking the gorge into which the waters were precipitated, while Clara, without invitation, sat down by his side.
STRAYED FROM THE TRACK.
The ravine, below the spot where the Indian and negro had seated themselves, was covered with a luxuriant vegetation—plants and trees of tropical growth so thickly standing over the ground that the rays of the sun could not have penetrated through the umbrageous foliage. Notwithstanding this abundance of vegetation, if the two gold-seekers had not been so absorbed in their designs, they might have seen below them the figure of a man, who was standing at the bottom of the cascade, directly under their feet.
This man, who had just arrived on the spot, and who appeared to be regarding the waterfall with looks of curiosity and admiration, was no other than Rafael Tres-Villas, Captain of the Queen's Dragoons.
It is necessary to explain how Don Rafael had come to be found in this wild spot, altogether away from the path which he should have followed to the hacienda Las Palmas. Accident, not design, had conducted him to the bottom of the cascade.
On parting from the student of theology, who, recalling the classic scenes of his Odyssey, had mistaken him for a man-eater—a Lestrygon— the dragoon captain, without searching any longer for an explanation of the odd circumstances observed along the way, at once stretched his horse into a gallop. The animal required no propulsion of the spur. His instinct enabled him to scent the proximity of a stable; and he responded to the wishes of his rider by galloping swiftly forward.
Unfortunately the Captain, though a Creole or native Mexican, was entirely unacquainted with this part of the country. He had been born in it, as already hinted; but at a very early age had been taken to reside in the capital; and since then had never revisited the place of his nativity. He was consequently ignorant of the road leading to the paternal hacienda Del Valle—as also to that of Las Palmas—for both were one.
He had not ridden many miles when he arrived at a point where the road forked into two separate paths. Both however continued on, running at no great distance from each other.
Not knowing which he should take, and having met no human being that could direct him, the Captain left the choice to his horse.
The animal, that was no doubt suffering more from thirst than hunger, spread his nostrils to the air, and scenting the fresh exhalations of water, struck off in the direction whence it came. This was to the right.
The choice was fortunate for the student of theology, but rather unlucky for the dragoon captain, as will presently appear.
In fact, the path leading to the left was that which conducted to the hacienda of Las Palmas—which the Captain, for a certain reason, was desirous of reaching, and on that very evening.
After following the right-hand branch for some minutes, the horseman arrived at a spot where the path suddenly gave out. In front appeared only a thick tangle of trees and bushes, behind which could be heard the roaring of a torrent.
Don Rafael was now completely at fault. To return on his track would not only be disagreeable, but there would still exist the same uncertainty as to his route. Even the right-hand branch of the road might not be the right one!
After a minute or two spent in considering what was best to be done, the Captain dismounted, and tying his steed to a tree, commenced making his way through the thicket in the direction whence came the sound of the water, evidently a stream. He was in hopes that on reaching the bank, and following along the water's edge, he might find the continuation of the road at some point where the stream was fordable. After making his way with much labour and loss of time through the labyrinthine tangle of the thicket, he arrived at the bottom of the cascade, just at the moment when Costal and Clara were about entering upon the ceremony of invoking the Siren.
Notwithstanding the desire which the dragoon captain had to escape as soon as possible from the dilemma into which chance had conducted him, the spectacle of this cascade—one of the most magnificent in America— drew from him a cry of wonder and admiration. For some minutes he stood regarding it with admiring eyes, inspired with those sublime feelings which such a grand sight is calculated to call forth.
At length other thoughts came before his mind; and he was about turning away to continue his explorations for a path, when an unexpected object presenting itself to his eyes, caused him to keep his place.
A LUDICROUS SPECTACLE.
Amid the vapoury mist that soared above the foaming torrent, the tops of the two ahuehuetes could be seen only indistinctly, but the trunks and lower limbs were more palpably visible. On one of these, that projected obliquely over the water, the dragoon fancied he could perceive the figure of a man. On closer scrutiny he became certain it was the figure of a man, and the bronze-coloured skin told him the man was an Indian.
Looking further, he observed another apparition equally singular. Through the fork of the second ahuehuete, appeared a face with a complexion black as ebony. It could be no other than the face of a negro.
Here, then, were three distinct types of the human race met in this wild spot. Why he was himself there, Don Rafael knew well enough; but what had brought the Indian and negro into such a place, and at such an hour, was what was now puzzling him.
Without saying a word, he stood watching the movements of the two men, in hopes that the event would furnish him with an explanation. Soon the entire bodies of both negro and Indian appeared in sight, as the two men crawled outward on the overleaning limbs of the trees; but still more plainly, as, hanging by the branches, they let themselves down till their feet dipped in the foam; and swinging there, appeared to go through a series of the most grotesque contortions! The sight made the head of the officer to swim, as if suddenly struck with vertigo.
Thus engaged, neither of the two perceived Don Rafael, though he was standing upon a spot of open ground immediately below them.
For his life, the officer could not guess the nature of these singular proceedings. He concluded that some object—unseen to him—was engaging their attention; and he could not help fancying that it was some nymph of the waters, whom the negro appeared to be wooing, to judge by his impassioned gestures and animated physiognomy.