No doubt he would have done so, had there been nothing else on the spot to take off his attention; but just as he came into the open ground, his eyes fell upon the ant-eaters, where they lay squatted and licking up the termites. He had entered the glade in a sort of skulking trot, but the moment he saw the tamanoirs he halted, drew his body into a crouching attitude, and remained thus for some moments, while his long tail oscillated from side to side, as that of a cat when about to spring upon a mouse or a sparrow.
Just at this moment the tamanoir, having turned round to address some conversation to her young companion, espied him, and sprang to her feet. She recognised in the puma—as in others of his race—a deadly enemy. With one sweep of her fore-arm she flung the young one behind her, until it rested against the wall of the ant-hill, and then, following in all haste, threw herself into an erect attitude in front of her young, covering it with her body.
She was now standing firm upon her hind-feet—her back resting against the mud wall—but her long snout had entirely disappeared! That was held close along her breast, and entirely concealed by the shaggy tail, which for this purpose had been brought up in front. Her defence rested in her strong fore-arms, which, with the great claws standing at right angles, were now held out in a threatening manner. The young one, no doubt aware of some danger, had drawn itself into its smallest bulk, and was clewed up behind her.
The puma dashed forward, open-mouthed, and began the attack. He looked as though he would carry everything by the first assault; but a sharp tear from the tamanoir's claws drew the blood from his cheek, and although it rendered him more furious, it seemed to increase his caution. In the two or three successive attempts he kept prudently out of reach of these terrible weapons. His adversary held her fore-legs wide open, as though she was desirous of getting the other to rush between them, that she might clutch him, after the manner of the bears. This was exactly what she wanted, and in this consists the chief mode of defence adopted by these animals. The puma, however, seemed to be up to her trick.
This thrust-and-parry game continued for some minutes, and might have lasted longer, had it not been for the young tamanoir. This foolish little creature, who up to that moment was not very sure what the fuss was all about, had the imprudent curiosity to thrust out its slender snout. The puma espied it, and making a dart forward, seized the snout in his great teeth, and jerked the animal from under. It uttered a low squall, but the next moment its head was "crunched" between the muscular jaws of the puma.
The old one now appeared to lose all fear and caution. Her tail fell down. Her long snout was unsheathed from under its protection, and she seemed undecided what to do. But she was not allowed much time to reflect. The puma, seeing the snout, the most vulnerable part, uncovered, launched himself forward like an arrow, and caught hold of it in his bristling fangs. Then having dragged his victim forward, he flung her upon her breast, and mounting rapidly on her back, proceeded to worry her at his pleasure.
Although Leon pitied the poor tamanoir, yet he dared not interfere, and would have permitted the puma to finish his work, but at that moment a sharp pain, which he suddenly felt in his ankle, caused him to start upon his seat, and utter an involuntary scream.
ATTACK OF THE WHITE ANTS.
Leon looked down to ascertain what had caused him such a sudden pain. The sight that met his eyes made his blood run cold. The ground below was alive and moving. A white stratum of ants covered it on all sides to the distance of several yards. They were ascending the tree! Nay, more; a string of them had already crawled up; the trunk was crowded by others coming after; and several were upon his feet, and legs, and thighs! It was one of these that had stung him!
The fate of the ais—which he had just witnessed—and the sight of the hideous host, caused him again to scream out. At the same time he had risen to his feet, and was pulling himself up among the upper branches. He soon reached the highest; but he had not been a moment there, when he reflected that it would be no security. The creatures were crawling upwards as fast as they could come.
His next thought was to descend again, leap from the tree, and crushing the vermin under his feet, make for the bark-cutters. He had made up his mind to this course, and was already half-down, when he remembered the puma! In his alarm at the approach of the ants he had quite forgotten this enemy, and he now remembered that it was directly in the way of his intended escape. He turned his eyes in that direction. It was not there! The ant-bears were still upon the ground—the young one dead, and the mother struggling in her last agonies; but no puma!
The boy began to hope that his cries had frightened him off. His hope was short-lived; for on glancing around the glade, he now beheld the fierce brute crouching among the grass, and evidently coming towards him! What was to be done? Would the puma attack him in the tree? Surely he would; but what better would he be on the ground? No better, but worse. At all events he had not time for much reflection, for before two seconds the fierce puma was close to the tree. Leon was helpless—he gave himself up for lost. He could only cry for help, and he raised his voice to its highest pitch.
The puma did not spring up the tree at once, as Leon had expected. On the contrary, it crouched round and round with glaring eyes and wagging tail, as if calculating the mode of attack. Its lips were red—stained with the blood of the ant-eaters—and this added to the hideousness of its appearance. But it needed not that, for it was hideous enough at any time.
Leon kept his eyes upon it, every moment expecting it to spring up the tree. All at once he saw it give a sudden start, and at the same instant he heard a hissing noise, as if something passed rapidly through the air. Ha! something sticking in the body of the puma! It is an arrow,—a poisoned arrow! The puma utters a fierce growl—it turns upon itself—the arrow is crushed between its teeth. Another "hist!"—another arrow! Hark! a well-known voice—well-known voices—the voices of Don Pablo and Guapo! See! they burst into the glade—Don Pablo with his axe, and Guapo with his unerring gravatana!
The puma turns to flee. He has already reached the border of the wood; he staggers—the poison is doing its work. Hurrah! he is down; but the poison does not kill him, for the axe of Don Pablo is crashing through his skull. Hurrah! the monster is dead, and Leon is triumphantly borne off on the shoulders of the faithful Guapo!
Don Pablo dragged the puma away, in order that they might get his fine skin. The ant-eaters, both of which were now dead, he left behind, as he saw that the termites were crawling thickly around them, and had already begun their work of devastation. Strange to say, as the party returned that way, going to dinner, not a vestige remained either of the ais or the ant-eaters, except a few bones and some portions of coarse hair. The rest of all these animals had been cleared off by the ants, and carried into the cells of their hollow cones!
It was, no doubt, the noise of the bark-hunters that had started the ant-eaters abroad, for these creatures usually prowl only in the night. The same may have aroused the fierce puma from his lair, although he is not strictly a nocturnal hunter.
A curious incident occurred as they approached the glade on their way home. The male tamanoir was roused from his nest among the dry leaves, and Guapo, instead of running upon him and killing the creature, warned them all to keep a little back, and he would show them some fun. Guapo now commenced shaking the leaves, so that they rattled as if rain was falling upon them. At this the ant-eater jerked up its broad tail, and appeared to shelter itself as with an umbrella! Guapo then went towards it, and commenced driving it before him just as if it had been a sheep or goat, and in this manner he took it all the way to the house. Of course Guapo took care not to irritate it; for, when that is done, the ant-eater will either turn out of his way or stop to defend itself.
The tamanoir is not so defenceless a creature as might at first sight be imagined by considering his small toothless mouth and slow motions. His mode of defence is that which has been described, and which is quite sufficient against the tiger-cat, the ocelot, and all the smaller species of feline animals. No doubt the old female would have proved a match for the puma had she not been thrown off her guard by his seizing upon her young. It is even asserted that the great ant-bear sometimes hugs the jaguar to death; but this I believe to be a mistake, as the latter is far too powerful and active to be thus conquered. Doubtless the resemblance of the jaguar to some of the smaller spotted cats of these countries, leads to a great many misconceptions concerning the prowess of the American tiger.
Besides the tamanoir there are two, or perhaps three, other species of ant-bears in the forests of South America. These, however, are so different in habits and appearance, that they might properly be classed as a separate genus of animals. They are tree-climbers, which the tamanoir is not, spite of his great claws. They pursue the ants that build their nests upon the high branches, as well as the wasps and bees; and to befit them for this life, they are furnished with naked prehensile tails, like the opossums and monkeys. These are characteristics entirely distinct from those of the Myrmecophaga jubata, or great ant-eater.
One of these species is the tamandua, called by the Spano-Americans Osso hormiguero (ant-bear). The tamandua is much less than the tamanoir, being only three and a half feet in length, while the latter is over seven. The former is of a stouter build, with neither so long a snout in proportion, nor such claws. The claws, moreover, are made for tree-climbing, and are not so much in the way when the animal walks on the ground. It is, therefore, a more active creature, and stands better upon its limbs. Its fur is short and silky, but the tail is nearly naked, and, as already stated, highly prehensile, although it does not sleep hanging by the tail as some other animals do.
The tamandua is usually of a dull straw-colour, although it varies in this respect, so that several species have been supposed to exist. It spends most of its time upon the trees; and in addition to its ant-diet, it feeds upon wild honey, and bees too, whenever it can catch them. The female, like the tamanoir, produces only one young at a birth, and like the other species, carries it upon her back until it is able to provide for itself. The tamandua has sometimes been called tridactyla, or the "three-toed ant-eater," because it has only three claws upon each of its fore-feet, whereas the tamanoir is provided with four.
Another species of "ant-bear," differing from both in size and in many of its habits, is the "little ant-eater." This one has only two claws on each fore-foot, hence its specific name. It is a very small creature—not larger than the common grey squirrel—with a prehensile tail like the tamandua. The tail, however, is not entirely naked—only on the under side near the point. It is not so good a walker as the three-toed kind, though more active on its feet than the tamanoir. Standing upon its hind-feet, and supporting itself also by the tail—which it has already thrown around some branch—the little ant-eater uses its fore-feet as hands to carry food to its mouth. It lives among the trees, and feeds upon wasps, bees, and especially the larvae of both; but it does not use the tongue to any great extent. It is, on this account, an essentially different sort of animal.
The little ant-eater is usually of a bright yellow colour, brownish on the back; but there are many varieties in this respect, and some are of a snowy whiteness. Its fur is soft and silky, sometimes slightly curled or matted at the points, and the tail fur is annulated, or ringed, with the prevailing colours of the body.
So much for the ant-bears of America.
Ants are disagreeable insects in any country, but especially so in warm tropical climates. Their ugly appearance, their destructive habits, but, above all, the pain of their sting, or rather bite—for ants do not sting as wasps, but bite with the jaws, and then infuse poison into the wound—all these render them very unpopular creatures. A superficial thinker would suppose that such troublesome insects could be of no use, and would question the propriety of Nature in having created them.
But when we give the subject a little attention, we find that they were not created in vain. Were it not for these busy creatures, what would become of the vast quantities of decomposing substances found in some countries? What would be done with the decaying vegetation and the dead animal matter? Why, in many places, were it not consumed by these insects, and reorganised into new forms of life, it would produce pestilence and death; and surely these are far more disagreeable things than ants.
Of ants there are many different kinds; but the greatest number of species belong to warm countries, where, indeed, they are most useful. Some of these species are so curious in their habits, that whole volumes have been written about them, and naturalists have spent a life-time in their study and observation. Their social and domestic economy is of the most singular character, more so than that of the bees; and I am afraid here to give a single trait of their lives, lest I should be led on to talk too much about them. I need only mention the wonderful nests or hills which some species build—those great cones of twenty feet in height, and so strong that wild bulls run up their sides and stand upon their tops without doing them the least injury!
Others make their houses of cylindrical form, rising several feet from the surface. Others, again, prefer nesting in the trees, where they construct large cellular masses of many shapes, suspending them from the highest branches; while many species make their waxen dwellings in hollow trunks, or beneath the surface of the earth. There is not a species, however, whose habits, fully observed and described, would not strike you with astonishment. Indeed, it is difficult to believe all that is related about these insects by naturalists who have made them their study. One can hardly understand how such little creatures can be gifted with so much intelligence, or instinct, as some choose to call it.
Man is not the only enemy of the ants. If he were so, it is to be feared that these small insignificant creatures would soon make the earth too hot for him. So prolific are they, that if left to themselves our whole planet would, in a short period, become a gigantic ants' nest!
Nature has wisely provided against the over increase of the ant family. No living thing has a greater variety of enemies than they. In all the divisions of animated nature there are ant-destroyers—ant-eaters! To begin with the mammalia, man himself feeds upon them—for there are tribes of Indians in South America, the principal part of whose food consists of dried termites, which they bake into a kind of "paste!" There are quadrupeds that live exclusively on them, as the ant-bear, already described, and the pangolins, or scaly ant-eaters of the Eastern continent. There are birds, too, of many sorts that devour the ants; and there are even some who make them exclusively their food, as the genus Myothera, or "ant-catchers." Many kinds of reptiles, both snakes and lizards, are ant-eaters; and, what is strangest of all, there are insects that prey upon them!
No wonder, then, with such a variety of enemies that the ants are kept within proper limits, and are not allowed to overrun the earth.
The observations just made are very similar to those that were addressed by Dona Isidora to the little Leona, one day when they were left alone. The others had gone about their usual occupation of bark-cutting, and these, of course, remained at home to take care of the house and cook the dinner. That was already hanging over a fire outside the house: for in these hot countries it is often more convenient to do the cooking out-of-doors.
Dona Isidora, busy with some sewing, was seated under the shadow of the banana-trees, and the pretty little Leona was playing near her. Leona had been abusing the ants, partly on account of their having so frightened Leon, and partly because one of the red species had bitten herself the day before; and it was for this reason that her mother had entered into such explanations regarding these creatures, with a view of exculpating them from the bitter accusations urged against them by Leona. Talking about ants very naturally led them to cast their eyes to the ground to see if any of the creatures were near; and sure enough there were several of the red ones wandering about. Just then the eyes of Dona Isidora rested upon a very different insect, and she drew the attention of her daughter to it.
It was an insect of considerable size, being full an inch in length, with an elongated oval body, and a small flat head. From the head protruded two great horny jaws, that bore some resemblance to a pair of calliper compasses. Its legs were short and very unfitted for motion. Indeed they were not of much use for that purpose, as it could make very little way on them, but crawled only sidewards, or backwards, with great apparent difficulty. The creature was of a greyish or sand colour; and in the sand, where it was seated, it might not have been observed at all had not the lady's eyes been directed upon the very spot. But Dona Isidora, who was a very good entomologist, recognised it; and, knowing that it was a very curious insect, on this account called the attention of her daughter to it.
"What is it, mamma?" inquired the little Leona, bending forward to examine it.
"The ant-lion! Why, mamma, it is an insect! How then can it be called lion?"
"It is a name given it," replied the lady, "on account of its fierce habits, which, in that respect, assimilate it to its powerful namesake,—the king of the beasts; and, indeed, this little creature has more strength and ferocity in proportion to its size than even the lion himself."
"But why the ant-lion, mamma?"
"Because it preys principally on ants. I have said there are insect ant-eaters. This is one of them."
"But how can such a slow creature as that get hold of them? Why, the ants could crawl out of its way in a moment!"
"That is true. Nevertheless it manages to capture as many as it requires. Remember 'the race is not always to the swift.' It is by stratagem it succeeds in taking its prey—a very singular stratagem too. If you will sit back and not frighten it, I have no doubt it will soon give you an opportunity of seeing how it manages the matter."
Leona took a seat by the side of her mother. They were both at just such a distance from the ant-lion that they could observe every movement it made; but for a considerable time it remained quiet; no doubt, because they had alarmed it. In the interval Dona Isidora imparted to her daughter some further information about its natural history.
"The ant-lion," said she, "is not an insect in its perfect state, but only the larva of one. The perfect insect is a very different creature, having wings and longer legs. It is one of the neuropterous tribe, or those with nerved wings. The wings of this species rest against each other, forming a covering over its body, like the roof upon a house. They are most beautifully reticulated like the finest lace-work, and variegated with dark spots, that give the insect a very elegant appearance. Its habits are quite different to those which it follows when a larva, or in that state when it is the ant-lion. It flies but little during the day, and is usually found quietly sitting amongst the leaves of plants, and seems to be one of the most pacific and harmless of insects. How very different with the larva—the very reverse—See!"
Dona Isidora pointed to the ant-lion that was just then beginning to bestir itself, and both sat silent regarding it attentively.
First, then, the little creature going backwards, and working with its callipers, traced a circle on the surface of the sand. This circle was between two and three inches in diameter. Having completed it, it now commenced to clear out all the sand within the circle. To accomplish this, it was seen to scrape up the sand with one of its fore-feet, and shovel a quantity of it upon its flat head; then, giving a sudden jerk of the neck, it pitched the sand several inches outside the traced circumference.
This operation it repeated so often, and so adroitly, that in a very short time a round pit began to show itself in the surface of the ground. Whenever it encountered a stone, this was raised between its callipers and pitched out beyond the ring. Sometimes stones occurred that were too large to be thrown out in this way. These it managed to get upon its back, and, then crawling cautiously up the sides of the pit, it tumbled them upon the edge and rolled them away. Had it met with a stone so large as to render this impossible, it would have left the place, and chosen another spot of ground. Fortunately this was not the case, and they had an opportunity of watching the labour to its conclusion.
For nearly an hour they sat watching it—of course not neglecting their other affairs—and, at the end of that time, the ant-lion had jerked out so much sand, that a little funnel-shaped pit was formed nearly as deep as it was wide. This was its trap, and it was now finished and ready for action.
Having made all its arrangements, it had nothing more to do than remain at the bottom of the pit, and wait patiently until some unfortunate ant should chance to come that way and fall in; and where these insects were constantly wandering over the ground, such an accident would, sooner or later, be certain to take place.
Lest the ant should peep into the pit, discover its hideous form below, and then retreat, this ant-lion had actually the cunning to bury its body in the sand, leaving only a small portion of its head to be seen.
Both Dona Isidora and the little Leona remained watching with increased interest. They were very anxious to witness the result. They were not kept long in suspense. I have already stated that many ants were crawling about. There were dozens of them "quatering" the ground in every direction in search of their own prey; and they left not an inch of it unsearched. At last one was seen to approach the trap of the ant-lion. Curiosity brings it to the very edge of that terrible pit-fall. It protrudes its head and part of its body over the brink—it is not such a terrible gulf to look into—if it should slip down, it could easily crawl out again.
Ha! it little knows the enemy that is ambushed there. It perceives something singular—an odd something—perhaps it might be something good to eat. It is half resolved to slide down and make a closer examination of this something. It is balancing on the brink, and would, no doubt, have gone down voluntarily, but that is no longer left to its own choice. The mysterious object at the bottom of the funnel suddenly springs up and shows itself—it is the ant-lion in all its hideous proportions; and before the little ant can draw itself away, the other has flung around it a shower of sand that brings it rolling down the side of the pit. Then the sharp callipers are closed upon the victim—all the moisture in his body is sucked out—and his remains, now a dry and shapeless mass, are rested for a moment upon the head of the destroyer, and then jerked far outside the pit!
The ant-lion now dresses his trap, and, again burying himself in the sand, awaits another victim.
THE TATOU-POYOU AND THE DEER CARCASS.
Dona Isidora and Leona had watched all the manoeuvres of the ant-lion with great interest, and Leona, after the bite she had had, was not in any mood to sympathise with the ants. Indeed, she felt rather grateful to the ant-lion, ugly as he was, for killing them.
Presently Leon returned from the woods, and was shown the trap in full operation; but Leon, upon this day, was full of adventures that had occurred upon the hills to himself, Guapo, and Don Pablo. In fact, he had hastened home before the others to tell his mamma of the odd incidents to which he had been a witness.
That morning they had discovered a new mancha of cinchona trees. When proceeding towards them they came upon the dead carcass of a deer. It was a large species, the Cervus antisensis, but, as it had evidently been dead several days, it was swollen out to twice its original size, as is always the case with carcasses of animals left exposed in a warm climate. It was odd that some preying animals had not eaten it up. A clump of tall trees, that shaded it, had, no doubt, concealed it from the sharp sight of the vultures, and these birds, contrary to what has so often been alleged, can find no dead body by the smell. Neither ants nor animals that prey upon carrion had chanced to come that way, and there lay the deer intact.
So thought Don Pablo and Leon. Guapo, however, was of a different opinion, and, going up to the body, he struck it a blow with his axe. To the surprise of the others, instead of the dead sound which they expected to hear, a dry crash followed the blow, and a dark hole appeared where a piece of thin shell-like substance had fallen off. Another blow from Guapo's axe, and the whole side went in. Not a bit of carcass was there; there were bones—clean bones—and dry hard skin, but no flesh, not an atom of flesh!
"Tatou-poyou!" quietly remarked Guapo.
"What!" said Don Pablo, "an armadillo, you think?" recognising, in Guapo's words, the Indian name for one of the large species of armadillos.
"Yes," replied Guapo. "All eaten by the tatou-poyou. See! there's his hole."
Don Pablo and Leon bent over the sham carcass, and, sure enough, under where its body had been they could see a large hole in the ground. Outside the carcass, also, at the distance of several feet was another.
"This is where he entered," said Guapo, pointing to the second. "He's not about here now," continued he, "no, no,—ate all the meat, and gone long ago."
This was evident, as the hollow skeleton was quite dry, and had evidently been empty for a good while.
Don Pablo was pleased at this incident, as it gave him an opportunity of verifying a curious habit of the armadillos. These creatures are among the finest burrowers in the world, and can bury themselves in the earth in a few seconds time; but, being badly toothed,—some of them altogether without teeth,—they can only feed upon very soft substances. Putrid flesh is with them a favourite "dish," and in order to get at the softest side of a carcass, they burrow under, and enter it from below, rarely leaving their horrid cave until they have thoroughly cleared it out.
The bark-hunters now passed on, Don Pablo making many inquiries about the armadillos, and Guapo giving replies, while Leon listened with interest. Guapo knew a good deal about these curious creatures, for he had eaten many a dozen of them in his time, and as many different kinds of them too. Their feeding upon carrion had no effect on Guapo's stomach, and, indeed, white people in South America relish them as much as Indians. The white people, however, make a distinction in the species, as they suppose some kinds to be more disposed to a vegetable diet than others.
There are some in the neighbourhood of the settlements, that occasionally pay a visit to the graveyards or cemeteries, and these kinds do not go down well. All of them will devour almost any sort of trash that is soft and pulpy, and they are more destructive to the ant than even the ant-eaters themselves. How so? Because, instead of making a nice little hole in the side of the ant-hill, as the tamanoirs do, and through this hole eating the ants themselves, the armadillos break down a large part of the structure and devour the larvae. Now the ants love these larvae more than their own lives, and when these are destroyed, they yield themselves up to despair, refuse to patch up the building, the rain gets in, and the colony is ruined and breaks up.
It does not follow, however, that the flesh of the armadillo should be "queer" because the animal itself eats queer substances. Among carnivorous creatures the very opposite is sometimes the truth; and some animals—as the tapir, for instance—that feed exclusively on sweet and succulent vegetables, produce a most bitter flesh for themselves. About this there is no standing law either way.
The flesh of the armadillo is excellent eating, not unlike young pork, and, when "roasted in the shell" (the Indian mode of cooking it), it is quite equal, if not superior, to a baked "pig," a dish very much eaten in our own country.
Guapo did not call them armadillos—he had several Indian names for different kinds of them. "Armadillo" is the Spanish name, and signifies the "little armed one," the diminutive of "armado" or "armed." This name is peculiarly appropriate to these animals, as the hard bony casing which covers the whole upper parts of their bodies, bears an exceeding resemblance to the suits of plate armour worn in the days of Cortez and chivalry.
On the head there is the helmet, the back is shielded by a corslet, and even the limbs are covered with greaves. Of course, this armour is arranged differently in the different species, and there is more or less hair upon all, between the joinings of the plates.
These points were not touched upon by Guapo, but others of equal interest were. He went on to say that he knew many different kinds of them;—some not bigger than a rat, and some as large as a full-grown sheep; some that were slow in their paces, and others that could outrun a man; some that were flat, and could squat so close as hardly to be seen against the ground,—(these were tatou-poyous, the sort that had hollowed out the deer); and some again that were high-backed and nearly globe-shaped. Such was Guapo's account of these curious animals which are found only in the warmer regions of North and South America.
AN ARMADILLO HUNT.
Conversing in this way, the bark-hunters, at length, reached the cinchona-trees, and then all talk about armadillos was at an end. They went lustily to their work—which was of more importance—and, under Guapo's axe, several of the cinchonas soon "bit the dust."
There was a spot of open ground just a little to one side of where these trees stood. They had noticed, on coming up, a flock of zamuros, or black vultures, out upon this ground, clustered around some object. It was the carcass of another deer. The first blow of the axe startled the birds, and they flapped a short way off. They soon returned, however, not being shy birds, but the contrary.
There was nothing in all this to create surprise, except, perhaps, the dead deer. What had been killing these animals? Not a beast of prey, for that would have devoured them, unless, indeed, it might be the puma, that often kills more than he can eat.
The thought had occurred to Don Pablo that they might have died from the poisoned arrows of an Indian. This thought somewhat disquieted him, for he knew not what kind of Indians they might be,—they might be friendly or hostile;—if the latter, not only would all his plans be frustrated, but the lives of himself and party would be in danger. Guapo could not assure him on this head; he had been so long absent from the Great Montana that he was ignorant of the places where the tribes of these parts might now be located. These tribes often change their homes.
He knew that the Chunchos sometimes roamed so far up, and they were the most dangerous of all the Indians of the Montana,—haters of the whites, fierce and revengeful. It was they who several times destroyed the settlements and mission stations. If Chunchos were in the woods they might look out for trouble. Guapo did not think there were any Indians near. He would have seen some traces of them before now, and he had observed none since their arrival. This assurance of the knowing Indian quite restored Don Pablo's confidence, and they talked no longer on the subject. After a while, their attention was again called to the vultures. These filthy creatures had returned to the deer, and were busily gorging themselves, when, all at once, they were seen to rise up as if affrighted. They did not fly far,—only a few feet,—and stood with outstretched necks looking towards the carrion, as if whatever had frightened them was there.
The bark-hunters could perceive nothing. It was the body of a small deer, already half eaten, and no object bigger than a man's hand could have been concealed behind it. The zamuros, however, had seen something strange—else they would hardly have acted as they did—and, with this conviction, the bark-hunters stopped their work to observe them.
After a while the birds seemed to take fresh courage, hopped back to the carrion, and recommenced tearing at it. In another moment they again started and flew back, but, this time, not so far as before, and then they all returned again, and, after feeding another short while, started back a third time.
This was all very mysterious, but Guapo, guessing what was the matter, solved the mystery by crying out,—
"Where?" inquired Don Pablo.
"Yonder, master, yonder in the body of the beast."
Don Pablo looked, and, sure enough, he could see something moving; it was the head and shoulders of an armadillo. It had burrowed and come up through the body of the deer, thus meeting the vultures half-way! No doubt, it was the mysterious mode by which it had entered on the stage that had frightened them.
They soon, however, got over their affright, and returned to their repast.
The armadillo—a very large one—had, by this time, crept out into the open air, and went on eating.
For a while the zamuros took no heed of him, deeming, perhaps, that, although he had come in by the back-door, he might have as good a right upon the premises as themselves. Their pacific attitude, however, was but of short duration; something occurred to ruffle their temper—some silent affront, no doubt, for the bark-hunters heard nothing. Perhaps the tatou had run against the legs of one, and scraped it with the sharp edge of his corslet. Whether this was the cause or no, a scuffle commenced, and the beast in armour was attacked by all the vultures at once.
Of course he did not attack in turn, he had no means; he acted altogether on the defensive; and this he was enabled to do by simply drawing in his legs and flattening himself upon the ground. He was then proof, not only against the beaks and weak talons of a vulture, but he might have defied the royal eagle himself.
After flapping him with their wings, and pecking him with their filthy beaks, and clawing him with their talons, the zamuros saw it was all to no purpose, and desisted. If they could not damage him, however, they could prevent him from eating any more of the deer; for the moment he stretched out his neck, several vultures sprang at him afresh, and would have wounded him in the tender parts of his throat had he not quickly drawn in his head again. Seeing that his feast was at an end—at least above ground—he suddenly raised his hind-quarters, and in a brace of seconds buried himself in the earth. The vultures pecked him behind as he disappeared, but the odd manner of his exit, like that of his entree, seemed to mystify them, and several of them stood for some moments in neck-stretched wonder.
This scene had scarcely ended when a pair of fresh armadillos were espied, coming from the farther edge of the opening, and, in fact, from the edge of a precipice, for the river flowed close by, and its channel was at that point shut in by cliffs. These two were large fellows, and were making speedily towards the carrion, in order to get up before it was all gone. Guapo could stand it no longer. Guapo had tasted roast armadillo, and longed for more. In an instant, therefore, axe in hand, he was off to intercept the new-comers. Don Pablo and Leon followed to see the sport and assist in the capture.
The armadillos, although not afraid of the vultures, seeing the hunters approach, turned tail and made for the precipice. Guapo took after one, while Don Pablo and Leon pursued the other. Guapo soon overhauled his one, but, before he could lay his hands upon it, it had already half buried itself in the dry ground. Guapo, however, seized the tail and held on; and, although not able to drag it out, he was resolved it should get no deeper.
The one pursued by Don Pablo had got close to the edge of the precipice, before either he or Leon could come up with it. There it stood for a moment, as if in doubt what plan to pursue. Don Pablo and Leon were congratulating themselves that they had fairly "cornered" it, for the cliff was a clear fall of fifty feet, and, of course, it could get no farther in that direction, while they approached it from two sides so as to cut off its retreat. They approached it with caution, as they were now near the edge, and it would not do to move too rashly. Both were bent forward with their arms outstretched to clutch their prey; they felt confident it was already in their grasp. Judge their astonishment, then, at seeing the creature suddenly clew itself into a round ball, and roll over the cliff!
They looked below. They saw it upon the ground; they saw it open out again, apparently unharmed, for, the next moment, it scuttled off and hid itself among the rocks by the edge of the water!
They turned toward Guapo, who was still holding his one by the tail, and calling for help. Although it was but half buried, all three of them could not have dragged it forth by the tail. That member would have pulled out before the animal could have been dislodged; and such is not an unfrequent occurrence to the hunters of the armadillo. Don Pablo, however, took hold of the tail and held fast until Guapo loosened the earth with his axe, and then the creature was more easily "extracted." A blow on its head from Guapo made all right, and it was afterwards carried safely to the house, and "roasted in the shell."
That was a great day among the "armadillos."
During the whole summer, Don Pablo, Guapo, and Leon, continued bark-gathering. Every day they went out into the woods, excepting Sunday of course. That was kept as a day of rest; for, although far from civilised society, there was not the less necessity for their being Christians. God dwells in the wilderness as well as in the walled city, and worship to Him is as pleasing under the shadow of the forest leaves, as with sounding organ beneath the vaulted dome of the grand cathedral.
During week-days, while the others were abroad, Dona Isidora and the little Leona were not idle at home; yet their whole time was not taken up by the mere concerns of the cuisine. They had an industry of their own, and, in fact, one that promised to be almost as profitable in its results as the bark-gathering. This was neither more nor less than preparing vanilla.
Some days after arriving in the valley, while exploring a wood that lay at the back of the cultivated ground, Don Pablo discovered that every tree carried a creeper or parasite of a peculiar kind. It was a small creeper not unlike ivy, and was covered with flowers of a greenish-yellow colour, mixed with white. Don Pablo at once recognised in this parasitical plant one of the many species of lianas that produce the delicious and perfumed vanilla. It was, in fact, the finest of the kind—that which, among the French, is called leq vanilla; and, from the fact that every tree had a number of these parasites, and no other climbing vines, Don Pablo came to the conclusion that they had been planted by the missionaries. It is thus that vanilla is usually cultivated, by being set in slips at the root of some tree which may afterwards sustain it.
In the course of the summer, these vanilla vines exhibited a different appearance. Instead of flowers, long bean-like capsules made their appearance. These capsules or pods were nearly a foot in length, though not much thicker than a swan's quill. They were a little flattish, wrinkled, and of a yellow colour, and contained inside, instead of beans, a pulpy substance, surrounding a vast quantity of small seeds, like grains of sand. These seeds are the perfumed vanilla so much prized, and which often yield the enormous price of fifty dollars a pound! To preserve these, therefore, was the work of Dona Isidora and Leona; and they understood perfectly how to do it.
First, they gathered the pods before they were quite ripe. These they strung upon a thread, taking care to pass the thread through that end nearest the footstalk. The whole were next plunged for an instant into boiling water, which gave them a blanched appearance. The thread was then stretched from tree to tree, and the pods, hanging like a string of candles, were then exposed to the sun for several hours. Next day, they were lightly smeared with an oiled feather, and then wrapped in oiled cotton of the Bombax ceiba, to prevent the valves from opening.
When they had remained in this state for a few days, the string was taken out, and passed through the other ends, so that they should hang in an inverted position. This was to permit the discharge of a viscid liquid from the footstalk end; and in order to assist this discharge, the pods were several times lightly pressed between the fingers. They now became dry and wrinkled. They had also shrunk to less than half their original size, and changed their colour to a reddish-brown. Another delicate touch of the oil-feather, and the vanilla was ready for the market. Nothing remained but to pack them in small cases, which had already been prepared from the leaf of a species of palm-tree.
In such a way did the lady Isidora and her daughter pass their time; and before the summer was out they had added largely to the stock of wealth of our exiles.
Although these two always remained by the house, they were not without their adventures as well, one of which I shall describe. It occurred while they were getting in their crop of vanilla. Leona was in the porch in front, busy among the vanilla-beans. She had a large needle and a thread of palm-leaf fibre, with which she was stringing the long pods, while her mother was inside the house packing some that had been already dried.
Leona rested for a moment, and was looking over the water, when, all at once, she exclaimed,
"Maman—Maman! come out and see! oh! what a beautiful cat!"
The exclamation caused Dona Isidora to start, and with a feeling of uneasiness. The cause of her uneasiness was the word "cat." She feared that what the innocent child had taken for a "beautiful cat" might prove to be the dreaded jaguar. She ran at once out of the door, and looked in the direction pointed out by Leona. There, sure enough, on the other side of the water, was a spotted creature, looking in the distance, very much like a cat; but Dona Isidora saw at a glance that it was a far larger animal.
Was it the jaguar? It was like one, in its colour and markings. It was of a yellowish colour, and covered all over with black spots, which gave it the semblance of the jaguar. Still Dona Isidora thought that it was not so large as these animals usually are; and this, to some extent, restored her confidence. When first seen, it was close down to the water's edge, as if it had come there to drink; and Dona Isidora was in hopes that, after satisfying its thirst, it would go away again. What was her consternation to see it make a forward spring, and, plunging into the water, swim directly for the house!
Terrified, she seized Leona by the hand, and retreated inside. She shut the door, and bolted it. If it were a jaguar, what protection would that be? Such a creature could dash itself through the frail bamboo wall, or tear the door to pieces with his great claws in a moment. "If it be a jaguar," thought she, "we are lost!"
Dona Isidora was a woman of courage. She was determined to defend the lives of herself and daughter to the last. She looked around the house for a weapon. The pistols of Don Pablo were hanging against the wall. She knew they were loaded. She took them down, and looked to the flints and priming, and then stationed herself at a place where she could see out through the interstices of the bamboos. The little Leona kept by her side, though she knew, that in a struggle with a ferocious jaguar, she could give no help.
By this time the animal had crossed the river, and she could see it spring out on the bank, and come on towards the house. In a few seconds it was close to the porch, where it halted to reconnoitre. Dona Isidora saw it very plainly, and would now have had a very good chance to fire at it; but she did not wish to begin the combat. Perhaps it might go away again, without attempting to enter the house. In order not to draw its attention, she stood perfectly quiet, having cautioned Leona to do the same.
It was not a large animal, though its aspect was fierce enough to terrify any one. Its tiger-like eyes, and white teeth, which it showed at intervals, were anything but pleasant to look upon. Its size, however, was not so formidable; and Dona Isidora had understood the jaguar to be a large animal; but there is also a smaller species of jaguar. This might be the one.
After halting a moment, the creature turned to one side, and then proceeded at a skulking trot around the house. Now and then it stopped and looked toward the building, as if searching for some aperture by which it might get in. Dona Isidora followed it round on the inside. The walls were so open that she could mark all its movements; and, with a pistol in each hand, she was ready for the attack, determined to fire the moment it might threaten to spring against the bamboos.
On one side of the house, at a few paces distance, stood the mule. The horse had been taken to the woods, and the mule was left alone. This animal was tied to a tree, which shaded her from the sun. As soon as the fierce creature got well round the house, it came in full view of the mule, which now claimed its attention. The latter, on seeing it, had started, and sprung round upon her halter, as if badly terrified by the apparition.
Whether the beast of prey had ever before seen a mule was a question. Most likely it had not; for, half-innocently, and half as if with the intention of making an attack, it went skulking up until it was close to the heels of the latter. It could not have placed itself in a better position to be well kicked; and well kicked it was, for, just at that moment, the mule let fling with both her heels, and struck it upon the ribs. A loud "thump" was heard by those within the house, and Dona Isidora, still watching through the canes, had the satisfaction to see the spotted creature take to its heels, and gallop off as if a kettle had been tied to its tail! It made no stop, not even to look back; but having reached the edge of the water, plunged in, and swam over to the opposite shore. They could see it climb out on the other side, and then, with a cowed and conquered look, it trotted off, and disappeared among the palm-trees.
Dona Isidora knew that it was gone for good; and having now no further fear went on with her work as before. She first, however, carried out a large measure of the murumuru nuts, and gave them to the mule, patting the creature upon the nose, and thanking her for the important service she had rendered.
When Don Pablo and the rest returned, the adventure was, of course, related; but from the description given of the animal, neither Don Pablo nor Guapo believed it could have been the jaguar. It was too small for that. Besides a jaguar would not have been cowed and driven off by a mule. He would more likely have killed the mule, and dragged its body off with him across the river, or perhaps have broken into the house, and done worse.
The animal was, no doubt, the "ocelot," which is also spotted, or rather marked with the eye-like rosettes which distinguish the skin of the jaguar. Indeed, there are quite a number of animals of the cat genus in the forests of the Montana; some spotted like the leopard, others striped as the tiger, and still others of uniform colour all over the body. They are, of course, all preying animals, but none of them will attack man, except the jaguar and the puma. Some of the others, when brought to bay, will fight desperately, as would the common wild cat under like circumstances; but the largest of them will leave man alone, if unmolested themselves. Not so with the jaguar, who will attack either man or beast, and put them to death, unless he be himself overpowered.
The jaguar, or, as he is sometimes called, "ounce," and by most Spanish-Americans "tiger," is the largest and most ferocious of all the American Felidae. He stands third in rank as to these qualities—the lion and tiger of the Eastern continent taking precedence of him. Specimens of the jaguar have been seen equal in size to the Asiatic tiger; but the average size of the American animal is much less. He is strong enough, however, to drag a dead horse or ox to his den—often to a distance of a quarter of a mile—and this feat has been repeatedly observed.
The jaguar is found throughout all the tropical countries of Spanish America, and is oftener called tiger than jaguar. This is a misapplied name; for although he bears a considerable likeness to the tiger, both in shape and habits, yet the markings of his skin are quite different. The tiger is striated or striped, while the black on the jaguar is in beautiful eye-like rosettes. The leopard is more like the jaguar than any other creature; and the panther and cheetah of the Eastern continent also resemble him. The markings of the jaguar, when closely examined, differ from all of these. The spots on the animals of the old world are simple spots or black rings, while those of the American species are rings with a single spot in the middle, forming ocellae, or eyes. Each, in fact, resembles a rosette.
Jaguars are not always of the same colour. Some have skins of an orange yellow, and these are the most beautiful. Others are lighter-coloured; and individuals have been killed that were nearly white. But there is a "black jaguar," which is thought to be of a different species. It is larger and fiercer than the other, and is found in the very hottest parts of the Great Montana. Its skin is not quite jet-black, but of a deep maroon brown; and upon close inspection, the spots upon it can be seen of a pure black. This species is more dreaded by the inhabitants of those countries than the other; and it is said always to attack man wherever it may encounter him.
In the forests of South America, the jaguar reigns with undisputed sway. All the other beasts fear, and fly from him. His roar produces terror and confusion among the animated creation, and causes them to fly in every direction. It is never heard by the Indian without some feeling of fear,—and no wonder; for a year does not pass without a number of these people falling victims to the savage ferocity of this animal.
There are those, however, among them who can deal single-handed with the jaguar,—regular "jaguar-hunters" by profession,—who do not fear to attack the fierce brute in his own haunts. They do not trust to fire-arms, but to a sharp spear. Upon this they receive his attack, transfixing the animal with unerring aim as he advances. Should they fail in their first thrust, their situation is one of peril; yet all hope is not lost. On their left arm they carry a sort of sheep-skin shield. This is held forward, and usually seized by the jaguar; and while he is busy with it, the hunter gains time for a second effort, which rarely fails to accomplish his purpose.
The jaguars are killed for many reasons. Their beautiful skins sell for several dollars; besides, in many places a price is set upon their heads, on account of their destructive habits. Thousands are destroyed every year. For all this, they do not seem to diminish in numbers. The introduction of the large mammalia into America has provided them with increased resources; and in many places, where there are herds of half-wild cattle, the number of the jaguars is said to be greater than formerly. It is difficult for one, living in a country where such fierce animals are unknown, to believe that they may have an influence over man to such an extent as to prevent his settling in a particular place; yet such is the fact. In many parts of South America, not only plantations, but whole villages, have been abandoned solely from fear of the jaguars!
A FAMILY OF JAGUARS.
As yet none of the exiles had seen any tracks or indications of the terrible jaguar, and Don Pablo began to believe that there were none in that district of country. He was not allowed to remain much longer in this belief, for an incident occurred shortly after proving that at least one pair of these fierce animals was not far off.
It was near the end of the summer, and the cinchona-trees on the side of the river on which stood the house had been all cut down and "barked." It became necessary, therefore, to cross the stream in search of others. Indeed, numerous "manchas" had been seen on the other side, and to these the "cascarilleros" now turned their attention. They, of course, reached them by crossing the tree-bridge, and then keeping up the stream on the farther side.
For several days they had been at work in this new direction, and were getting bark in by the hundred-weight.
One day Guapo and Leon had gone by themselves—Guapo to fell the trees as usual, and Leon who was now an expert bark-peeler, to use the scalping-knife. Don Pablo had remained at home, busy with work in the great magazine, for there was much to do there in the packing and storing.
An hour or two after, Guapo was seen to return alone. He had broken the handle of his axe, and having, several spare ones at the house, he had returned to get one. Leon had remained in the woods.
Now Leon had finished his operations on such trees as Guapo had already cut down, and not finding a good seat near, had walked towards the precipice which was farther up the hill, and sat down upon one of the loose rocks at its base. Here he amused himself by watching the parrots and toucans that were fluttering through the trees over his head.
He noticed that just by his side there was a large hole or cave in the cliff. He could see to the further end of it from where he sat, but curiosity prompted him to step up to its mouth, and gave it a closer examination. On doing so, he heard a noise, not unlike the mew of a cat. It evidently came from the cave, and only increased his curiosity to look inside. He put his head to the entrance, and there, in a sort of nest, upon the bottom of the cave, he perceived two creatures, exactly like two spotted kittens, only larger. They were about half as big as full-grown cats.
"Two beauties!" said Leon to himself; "they are the kittens of some wild cat—that's plain. Now we want a cat very much at home. If these were brought up in the house, why shouldn't they do? I'll warrant they'd be tame enough. I know mamma wants a cat. I've heard her say so. I'll give her an agreeable surprise by taking this pair home.—The beauties!"
Without another word Leon climbed up, and taking hold of the two spotted animals, returned with them out of the cave. They were evidently very young creatures, yet for all that they growled, and spat, and attempted to scratch his hands; but Leon was not a boy to be frightened at trifles, and after getting one under each arm, he set off in triumph, intending to carry them direct to the house.
Guapo was in front of the house busy in new-hafting his axe. Don Pablo was at his work in the store-room. Dona Isidora and the little Leona were occupied with some affair in the porch. All were engaged one way or other. Just then a voice sounded upon their ears, causing them all to stop their work, and look abroad. It even brought Don Pablo out of the storehouse. It was the voice of Leon, who shouted from the other side of the lake, where they all saw him standing, with a strange object under each arm.
"Hola!" cried he. "Look, mamma! See what I've got! I've brought you a couple of cats—beauties, ain't they?" And as he said this, he held the two yellow bodies out before him.
Don Pablo turned pale, and even the coppery cheek of Guapo blanched at the sight. Though at some distance, both knew at a glance what they were. Cats, indeed! They were the cubs of the jaguar!
"My God!" cried Don Pablo, hoarse with affright. "My God! the boy will be lost!" and as he spoke he swept the upper edge of the lake with an anxious glance.
"Run, little master!" shouted Guapo. "Run for your life; make for the bridge—for the bridge!"
Leon seemed astonished. He knew by the words of Guapo, and the earnest gestures of the rest, that there was some danger:—but of what? Why was he to run? He could not comprehend it. He hesitated, and might have stayed longer on the spot, had not his father, seeing his indecision, shouted out to him in a loud voice—
"Run, boy! run! The jaguars are after you!"
This speech enabled Leon to comprehend his situation for the first time, and he immediately started off towards the bridge, running as fast as he was able.
Don Pablo had not seen the jaguars when he spoke, but his words were prophetic, and that prophecy was speedily verified. They had hardly been uttered when two yellow bodies, dashing out of the brushwood, appeared near the upper end of the lake. There was no mistaking what they were. Their orange flanks and ocellated sides were sufficiently characteristic. They were jaguars!
A few springs brought them to the edge of the water, and they were seen to take the track over which Leon had just passed. They were following by the scent—sometimes pausing—sometimes one passing the other—and their waving tails and quick energetic movements showed that they were furious and excited to the highest degree. Now they disappeared behind the palm-trunks, and the next moment their shining bodies shot out again like flashes of light.
Dona Isidora and the little Leona screamed with affright. Don Pablo shouted words of encouragement in a hoarse voice. Guapo seized his axe—which fortunately he had finished hafting—and ran towards the bridge, along the water's edge. Don Pablo followed with his pistols, which he had hastily got his hands upon.
For a short moment there was silence on both sides of the river. Guapo was opposite Leon, both running. The stream narrowed as it approached the ravine, and Leon and Guapo could see each other, and hear every word distinctly. Guapo now cried out,—
"Drop one! young master—only one!"
Leon heard, and, being a sharp boy, understood what was meant. Up to this moment he had not thought of parting with his "cats"—in fact, it was because he had not thought of it. Now, however, at the voice of Guapo, he flung one of them to the ground, without stopping to see where it fell. He ran on, and in a few seconds again heard Guapo cry out—
"Now the other!"
Leon let the second slip from his grasp, and kept on for the bridge.
It was well he had dropped the cubs, else he would never have reached that bridge. When the first one fell the jaguars were not twenty paces behind him. They were almost in sight, but by good fortune the weeds and underwood hid the pursued from the pursuers.
On reaching their young, the first that had been dropped, both stopped, and appeared to lick and caress it. They remained by it but a moment. One parted sooner than the other—the female it was, no doubt, in search of her second offspring. Shortly after the other started also, and both were again seen springing along the trail in pursuit. A few stretches brought them to where the second cub lay, and here they again halted, caressing this one as they had done the other.
Don Pablo and Dona Isidora, who saw all this from the other side, were in hopes that having recovered their young, the jaguars might give over their chase, and carry them off. But they were mistaken in this. The American tiger is of a very different nature. Once enraged, he will seek revenge with relentless pertinacity. It so proved. After delaying a moment with the second cub. Both left it, and sprang forward upon the trail, which they knew had been taken by whoever had robbed them.
By this time Leon had gained the bridge—had crossed it—and was lifted from its nearer end by Guapo. The latter scarce spoke a word—only telling Leon to hurry towards the house. For himself he had other work to do than run. The bridge he knew would be no protection. The jaguars would cross over it like squirrels, and then——
Guapo reflected no further, but bending over the thick branch, attacked it with his axe. His design was apparent at once. He was going to cut it from the cliff!
He plied the axe with all his might. Every muscle in his body was at play. Blow succeeded blow. The branch was already creaking, when, to his horror, the foremost of the jaguars appeared in sight on the opposite side! He was not discouraged. Again fell the axe—again and again; the jaguar is upon the bank; it has sprung upon the root of the tree! It pauses a moment—another blow of the axe—the jaguar bounds upon the trunk—its claws rattle along the bark—it is midway over the chasm! Another blow—the branch crackles—there is a crash—it parts from the cliff—it is gone! Both tree and jaguar gone—down—down to the sharp rocks of the foaming torrent!
A loud yell from the Indian announced his triumph. But it was not yet complete. It was the female jaguar—the smaller one that had fallen. The male still remained—where was he? Already upon the opposite brink of the chasm!
He had dashed forward, just in time to see his mate disappearing into the gulf below. He saw, and seemed to comprehend all that had passed. His eyes glared with redoubled fury. There was vengeance in his look, and determination in his attitude.
For a moment he surveyed the wide gulf that separated him from his enemies. He seemed to measure the distance at a glance. His heart was bold with rage and despair. He had lost his companion—his faithful partner—his wife. Life was nothing now—he resolved upon revenge or death!
He was seen to run a few paces back from the edge of the chasm, and then turning suddenly, set his body for the spring.
It would have been beautiful to have beheld the play of his glistening flanks at that moment had one been out of danger; but Guapo was not, and he had no pleasure in the sight. Guapo stood upon the opposite brink, axe in hand, ready to receive him.
The Indian had not long to wait. With one desperate bound the jaguar launched his body into the air, and, like lightning, passed to the opposite bank. His fore-feet only reached it, and his claws firmly grasped the rock. The rest of his body hung over, clutching the cliff!
In a moment he would have sprung up, and then woe to his antagonist! but he was not allowed that moment, for he had scarcely touched the rock when the Indian leaped forward and struck at his head with the axe. The blow was not well aimed, and although it stunned the jaguar, he still clung to the cliff. In setting himself for a second blow, Guapo came too near, and the next moment the great claws of the tiger were buried in his foot!
It is difficult to tell what might have been the result. It would, no doubt, have been different. Guapo would have been dragged over, and that was certain death; but at this moment a hand was protruded between Guapo's legs—the muzzle of a pistol was seen close to the head of the jaguar—a loud crack rang through the ravine, and when the smoke cleared away the jaguar was seen no more!
Guapo, with his foot badly lacerated, was drawn back from the cliff into the arms of Don Pablo.
This was the most exciting day that had been passed since their arrival in the Montana; and considering the result it was well that the occurrence had taken place. It had rid them of a pair of bad neighbours—there would soon have been four—that some time or other would have endangered the lives of some of the party. It was the opinion of Guapo that they need not, at least for a while, have any fear of jaguars. It was not likely there was another pair in that district; although, from the roaming disposition of this animal, fresh ones might soon make their appearance; and it was deemed best always to act as though some were already in the neighbourhood.
The cubs were disposed of. It was not deemed advisable to bring them up as "cats." After what had occurred that was voted, even by Leon, a dangerous experiment—too dangerous to be attempted. They were still on the other side of the river, and the bridge was now gone. If left to themselves, no doubt they would have perished, as they were very young things. Perhaps some carnivorous creature—wolf, coati, eagle, or vulture—would have devoured them, or they might have been eaten up by the ants. But this was not to be their fate. Guapo swam across, and strangled them. Then tying them together, he suspended the pair over his shoulders, and brought them with him to be exhibited as a curiosity. Moreover Guapo had a design upon their skins.
It was not long after that a pleasanter pet than either of them was found, and this was a beautiful little saimiri monkey, about the size of a squirrel, which Guapo and Leon captured one day in the woods. They heard a noise as they were passing along, and going up to the spot, saw on the branch of a low tree nearly a dozen little monkeys all rolled up together in a heap with their tails wrapped round each other as if to keep themselves warm.
Nearly another dozen were running about, whining and apparently trying to get in among the rest. Guapo and Leon made a sudden rush upon them, and were able to capture three or four before the creatures could free themselves; but only one lived, and that became a great pet and favourite. It was a beautiful little creature—a true saimiri, or squirrel-monkey, called the "titi." Its silky fur was of a rich olive-green colour; and its fine large eyes expressed fear or joy—now filling with tears, and now brightening again—just like those of a child.
During the summer our bark-gatherers continued their labour without interruption, and on account of the great plenty of the cinchona-trees, and their proximity to the house, they were enabled to accumulate a very large store. They worked like bees.
Although this forest life was not without its pleasures and excitements, yet it began to grow very irksome both to Don Pablo and Dona Isidora. Life in the wilderness, with its rude cares and rude enjoyments, may be very pleasant for a while to those who seek it as amateurs, or to that class who as colonists intend to make it a permanent thing. But neither Don Pablo nor his wife had ever thought of colonisation. With them their present industry was the result of accident and necessity. Their tastes and longings were very different. They longed to return to civilised life; and though the very misfortune which had driven them forth into the wilderness had also guided them to an opportunity of making a fortune, it is probable they would have passed it by, had they not known that, penniless as they were, they would have fared still worse in any city to which they might have gone.
But before the first year was out, they yearned very much to return to civilisation, and this desire was very natural. But there were other reasons that influenced them besides the mere ennui of the wilderness. The lives of themselves and their children were constantly in danger from jaguars, pumas, and poisonous reptiles. Even man himself might at any moment appear as their destroyer. As yet no Indian—not even a trace of one—had been seen. But this was not strange.
In the tangled and impenetrable forests of the Great Montana two tribes of Indians may reside for years within less than a league's distance of each other, without either being aware of the other's existence! Scarcely any intercourse is carried on, or excursions made, except by the rivers—for they are the only roads—and where two of these run parallel, although they may be only at a short distance from each other, people residing on one may never think of crossing to the other.
Notwithstanding that no Indians had yet appeared to disturb them, there was no certainty that these might not arrive any day, and treat them as enemies. On this account, Don Pablo and Dona Isidora were never without a feeling of uneasiness.
After mutual deliberation, therefore, they resolved not to prolong their stay beyond the early part of spring, when they would carry out their original design of building a balza raft, and commit themselves to the great river, which, according to all appearance, and to Guapo's confident belief, flowed directly to the Amazon. Guapo had never either descended or ascended it himself, and on their first arrival was not so sure about its course; but after having gone down to its banks, and examined its waters, his recollections revived, and he remembered many accounts which he had heard of it from Indians of his own tribe. He had no doubt but it was the same which, under the name of the "Purus," falls into the Amazon between the mouths of the Madeira and the Coary.
Upon this stream, therefore, in a few months they would embark. But these intervening months were not spent in idleness. Although the season for bark-gathering was past, another source of industry presented itself. The bottom lands of the great river were found to be covered with a network of underwood, and among this underwood the principal plant was a well-known briar, Smilax officinalis. This is the creeping plant that yields the celebrated "sarsaparilla;" and Don Pablo, having made an analysis of some roots, discovered it to be the most valuable species—for it is to be remembered, that, like the cinchona, a whole genus, or rather several genera, furnish the article of commerce.
The briar which produces the sarsaparilla is a tall creeping plant, which throws out a large number of long wrinkled roots of a uniform thickness, and about the size of a goose-quill. Nothing is required further than digging and dragging these roots out of the ground, drying them a while, and then binding them in bundles with a small "sipo," or tough forest creeper. These bundles are made up, so as to render the roots convenient for packing and transport.
During several months this branch of industry occupied Don Pablo, Guapo, and Leon; so that when the time drew nigh for their departure, what with the cinchona-bark, the sarsaparilla, and the vanilla-beans, there was not an empty inch in the large storehouse.
Guapo had not been all the time with them. For several days Gruapo was not to be seen at the house, nor anywhere around it. Where had Guapo been all this time? I will tell you; Guapo had been to the mountains!
Yes, Don Pablo had sent him on an important mission, which he had performed with secrecy and despatch. Don Pablo, before braving the dangers of the vast journey he had projected, had still a lingering hope that something might have happened—some change in the government of Peru—perhaps a new Viceroy—that might enable him to return with safety to his native land. To ascertain if such had taken place, Guapo had made his journey to the mountains.
He went no farther than the Puna—no farther than the hut of his friend the vaquero—who, by a previous understanding with Guapo, had kept himself informed about political matters.
There was no hope; the same Council, the same Viceroy, the same price upon the head of Don Pablo—who, however, was believed to have escaped in an American ship, and to have taken refuge in the great Republic of the North.
With this news Guapo returned, and now the preparations for the river voyage were set about in earnest. A balza raft was built out of large trunks of the Bombax ceiba, which, being light wood, was the best for the purpose. Of course these trunks had been cut long ago with a view to using them in this way. A commodious cabin, or "toldo," was constructed on the raft, built of palm and bamboos, and thatched with the broad leaves of the bussu. A light canoe was also hollowed out, as a sort of tender to the raft, and a couple of very large canoes for the purpose of giving buoyancy to it, were lashed one upon each side. The "merchandise" was carefully "stowed" and covered with "tarpaulins" of palm-leaves, and the stores laid in with every providential care and calculation.
You will be wondering what was done with the horse and mule,—those creatures who had served the exiles so faithfully and so well? Were they left behind to become a prey to the jaguars and the large blood-sucking bats, that kill so many animals in these parts? No—they were not to be left to such a fate. One of them—the mule—had been already disposed of. It was a valuable beast, and partly on that account, and partly from gratitude felt towards it for the well-timed kick it had given the ocelot, it was to be spared. Guapo had taken both the mule and the horse on his mountain journey, and presented the former to his friend the vaquero.
But the horse was still on hand. What was to be done with him? Leave him behind? That would be certain death, for no horse, that was not cared for, could exist in the Montana ten days without being eaten up by the fierce creatures that inhabit it. The bats would surely have destroyed him. Well, what was done? He could not be carried on the raft. But he was, though,—in a way.
Guapo was resolved that the bats should not have him, nor the jaguars neither. He was in fine condition—fat as a pig. The fruit of the murumuru had agreed with him. He was just in the condition in which an Indian thinks a horse "good for killing," and Guapo killed him! Yes, Guapo killed him! It is true it was a sort of a Virginius tragedy, and Guapo had great difficulty in nerving himself for the task. But the blow-gun was at length levelled, and the curare did its work. Then Guapo skinned him, and cut him into strips, and dried him into "charqui," and carried him on board the raft. That was the closing scene.
All left the house together, carrying with them the remains of their hastily-created penates. On reaching the end of the valley, they turned and threw back a last glance at a home that had to them been a happy one; and then, continuing their journey, they were soon upon the balza. The only living creature that accompanied them from their valley home was the pretty saimiri, carried on the shoulder of the little Leona.
The cable of piassaba-palm was carefully taken in and coiled, the raft was pushed out, and the next moment floated lightly upon the broad bosom of the river.
THE GUARDIAN BROTHER.
The current of the river flowed at the rate of about four miles an hour, and at this speed they travelled. They had nothing to do but guide the raft in the middle part of the stream. This was effected by means of a large stern-oar fixed upon a pivot, and which served the purpose of a rudder. One was required to look after this oar, and Don Pablo and Guapo took turns at it. It was not a very troublesome task, except where some bend had to be got round, or some eddy was to be cleared, when both had to work at it together. At other times the balza floated straight on, without requiring the least effort on the part of the crew; and then they would all sit down and chat pleasantly, and view the changing scenery of the forest-covered shores.
Sometimes tall palms lined the banks, and sometimes great forest trees netted together by thick parasites that crept from one to the other, and twined around the trunks like monster serpents. Sometimes the shores were one unbroken thicket of underwood, where it would have been almost impossible to make a landing had they wished it. At other places there were sand-bars, and even little islets with scarce any vegetation upon them; and they also passed many other islets and large islands thickly wooded. The country generally appeared to be flat, though at one or two places they saw hills that ran in to the banks of the river.
Of course the change of scenery, and the many fresh vistas continually opening before them, rendered their voyage both cheerful and interesting. The many beautiful birds too, and new kinds of trees and animals which they saw, were a constant source of varied enjoyment, and furnished them with themes of conversation.
During the first day they made a journey of full forty miles. Having brought their balza close to the shore, and secured it to a tree, they encamped for the night. There was no opening of any extent, but for some distance the ground was clear of underwood, and the trunks of great old trees rose like columns losing themselves amidst the thick foliage overhead. A dark forest only could be seen, and, as night drew on, the horrid cries of the alouattes, or howling monkeys, mingling with the voices of other nocturnal animals, filled the woods. They had no fear of monkeys, but now and then they thought they could distinguish the cry of the jaguar, and of him they had fear enough. Indeed the jaguar possesses the power of imitating the cry of the other animals of the forest, and often uses it to draw them within reach of him.
In addition to the fire upon which they had cooked their supper, as soon as night had fairly set in, they kindled others, forming a sort of semicircle, the chord of which was the bank of the river itself. Within this semicircle the hammocks were stretched from tree to tree; and, as all were fatigued with the day's exertions, they climbed into them at an early hour, and were soon asleep. One alone sat up to keep watch. As they thought they had heard the jaguar, this was deemed best; for they knew that fire will not always frighten off that fierce animal. As the neighbourhood looked suspicious, and also as it was their first encampment, they, like all travellers at setting out, of course were more timid and cautious.
To Leon was assigned the first watch; for Leon was a courageous boy, and it was not the first time he had taken his turn in this way. He was to sit up for about two hours, and then wake Guapo, who would keep the midnight watch; after which Don Pablo's turn would come, and that would terminate in the morning at daybreak. Leon was instructed to rouse the others in case any danger might threaten the camp.
Leon from choice had seated himself by the head of the hammock in which slept the little Leona; in order, no doubt, to be nearer her, as she was the most helpless of the party, and therefore required more immediate protection. He had both the pistols by him—ready to his hand and loaded—and in case of danger he knew very well how to use them.
He had been seated for about half-an-hour, now casting his eyes up to the red and wrinkled trunks of the trees, and then gazing into the dark vistas of the surrounding forest, or at other times looking out upon the glistening surface of the river. Many a strange sound fell upon his ear. Sometimes the whole forest appeared to be alive with voices—the voices of beasts and birds, reptiles, and insects—for the tree-frogs and ciendas were as noisy as the larger creatures. At other times a perfect stillness reigned, so that he could distinctly hear the tiny hum of the mosquito; and then, all at once, would fall upon his ear the melancholy wailing of the night-hawk—the "alma perdida," or "lost soul"—for such is the poetical and fanciful name given by the Spanish Americans to this nocturnal bird.
While thus engaged Leon began to feel very drowsy. The heavy day's work, in which he had borne part, had fatigued him as well as the others; and, in spite of the odd voices that from time to time fell upon his ear, he could have lain down upon the bare ground and slept without a feeling of fear. Snakes or scorpions, or biting lizards or spiders, would not have kept him from going to sleep at that moment. It is astonishing how the desire of sleep makes one indifferent to all these things, which at other times we so much dread. Leon did not fear them a bit, but kept himself awake from a feeling of pride and honour. He reflected that it would never do to be unfaithful to the important trust confided to him. No; that would never do. He rubbed his eyes, and rose up, and approached the bank, and dipped his hands in the water, and came back to his former place, and sat down again. Spite of all his efforts, however, he felt very heavy. Oh! when would the two hours pass that he might rouse Guapo?
"Car-r-ambo! I nev-er was so s-s-sleepy. Vamos! Leon! you mustn't give in!"
And striking himself a lively slap on the chest, he straightened his back, and sat upright for a while.
He was just beginning to get bowed about the shoulders again, and to nod a little, when he was startled by a short sharp exclamation uttered by the little Leona. He looked up to her hammock. He could perceive it had moved slightly, but it was at rest again, and its occupant was evidently asleep.
"Poor little sis! she is dreaming," he muttered half aloud. "Perhaps some horrid dream of jaguars or serpents. I have half a mind to awake her. But, no, she sleeps too soundly; I might disturb them all;" and with these reflections Leon remained upon his seat.
Once more his head was beginning to bob, when the voice of Leona again startled him, and he looked up as before. The hammock moved slightly, but there was no appearance of anything wrong. From where he sat he could not see well into it, but the outlines of the child's body were easily discernible through the elastic netting; and at the farther end he could just perceive one of her little feet, where it had escaped from the covering, and rested partly over the edge.
As he continued to gaze upon the delicate member, thinking whether he had not better cover it against the mosquitoes, all at once his eye was attracted by something red—a crooked red line that traversed from the toe downward along the side of the foot. It was red and glittering—it was a stream of blood!