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ENCOUNTER WITH A JAGUAR.
to it to do it any damage with my little charge of small shot, I ran along towards the sound, which was continued at intervals of a few seconds. Seeing a large animal moving amongst the thick bushes, only a few yards from me, I stopped, when, to my amazement, out stalked a great jaguar (like the housekeeper's rat, the largest I had ever seen), in whose jaws I should have been nearly as helpless as a mouse in those of a cat. He was lashing his tail, at every roar showing his great teeth, and was evidently in a bad humour. Notwithstanding I was so near to him, I scarcely think he saw me at first, as he was crossing the open glade about twenty yards in front of me. I had not even a knife with me to show fight with if he attacked me, and my small charge of shot would not have penetrated beyond his skin, unless I managed to hit him when he was very near to me. To steady my aim, if he approached me, I knelt down on one knee, supporting my left elbow on the other. He was just opposite to me at the time, the movement caught his eye, he turned half round, and put down his neck and head towards the ground as if he was going to spring, and I believe he could have cleared the ground between us at a single bound, but the next moment he turned away from me, and was lost sight of amongst the bushes. I half regretted I had not fired and taken my chance ; and when he disappeared, I followed a few yards, greatly chagrined that in the only chance I had ever had of bagging a jaguar, I was not prepared for the encounter, and had to let “I dare not,” wait upon “I would.” I returned the next morning with a supply of ball cartridges, but in the night it had rained heavily, so that I could not even find the jaguar's
tracks, and although afterwards I was always prepared, I never met with another. From the accounts of the natives, I believe that in Central America be never attacks man unless first interfered with, but when wounded is very savage and dangerous. Velasquez told me that his father had mortally wounded one, which, however, sprang after him, and had got hold of him by the leg, when it fortunately fell down dead.
The path up Peña Blanca hill gets steeper and steeper, until about fifty yards from the rock it is too precipitous and rugged to ride with safety, so that the rest of the ascent must be made on foot. Tying my mule to a sapling, I scrambled up the path, and soon emerging from the dark forest, stood under the grey face of the rock towering up above me. It has two peaks, of which the highest is accessible, footholds having been cut into the face of it, and the most difficult part being surmounted by a rude ladder made by cutting notches in a pole. Above it the rock is shelving, and the top is easily reached. I found a strong north-east wind blowing, which made it rather uncomfortable on the top, but the view was very fine and varied. To the southeast and east the eye roams over range beyond range all covered with dark forest, that partly hides the inequalities of the ground, the trees in the hollows growing higher than those on the hills. On this side the rock is a sheer precipice, going down perpendicularly for more than three hundred feet; the face of the cliff all weathered white. The tops of the trees are far below, and as one looking down upon them hears the various cries and whistles of the birds come up, and marks the vultures wheeling round in aërial circles over the trees Ch. VIII.]
VIEW FROM THE PEÑA BLANCA.
far below one's feet, then it is that you realise that at last the forest, with its world of foliage, has been surmounted. Looking down on the trees, every shade of green meets the eye, here light as grass, there dark as holly, whilst the fleecy clouds above cast lines of dark shadows over hill and dale.
Directly south-east is a high rock, about three miles distant, and beyond it the Carca and the Artígua rivers must meet, judging from the fall of the country. The course of the Carca is marked by some patches of light green, that look like grass, and are probably clearings made by the Indians.
To the south the eye first passes over about six miles of forest, then savannahs and grassy ranges stretching to the lake, which is only dimly seen, with the peaks of Madera and Ometepec more distinct, the latter bearing south-west by west. Alone on the summit of a high peak, with surging green billows of foliage all around, dim misty mountains in the distance, and above the blue heavens, checkered with fleecy clouds, that have travelled up hundreds of miles from the north-east, thoughts arise that can be only felt in their full intensity amid solitude and nature's grandest phases. Then man's intellect strives to grapple with the great mysteries of his existence, and like a fluttering bird that beats itself against the bars of its cage, falls back baffled and bruised.
Another shower of rain came on, quickly followed by sunshine again. Great banks of vapour began to rise from the forest, and fill the valleys, and now looking down over the precipice, instead of foliage there was a glistening white cloud spread out below, up through which came the cries of birds. The hills stood up through the cloud of mist like islands. To the southwest, over the savannahs, the air was clear, and the peak of Ometépec was a fine object in the distance. A white cloud enveloping its top looked like a snow-cap, and this, as the night came on, descended lower and lower,
mantling closely around it, and conforming to its outline. That the savannahs should not give off the same vapour as the forest has been ascribed, and, I believe, with reason, to the fact that their evaporating surfaces are much smaller than those of the latter, with their numberless leaves heated by the previous sunshine.
DESCENT OF THE PEÑA BLANCA.
As night came on, a wetting mist drove over the top of the peak, and the wind increased in strength, making it very cold and bleak, for there was no shelter of any kind on the summit. Such a night was not a favourable one for insects, but I got a few beetles that were new to me on the very top of the rock, where only rushes are growing. They appeared to be travelling with the north-east trade wind, and were sifted out by the rushes as they passed over. On a finer night I have no doubt many species might be obtained. I suppose that the wind was moving at the rate of not less than thirty miles an hour, so that the beetles, when they got up to it from the forest below, where it was comparatively calm, might easily be carried hundreds of miles without much labour to themselves. I added two fine new Carabidæ to my collection; and about eleven o'clock started back again, having many a fall on the slippery steep before I reached the place where I had left my mule. It was a very dark night, and the oil of my small bull's-eye lanthorn was exhausted, but the mule knew every step of the way, and, though slipping often, never fell, and carried me safely home.