Chapter 25 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Mexican Major-Domo.

Don Mariano, the dragoon officer, and the two sisters rushed up to the azotéa, the hearts of all filled with a dread presentiment.

From the roof, already crowded with servants, a view of the ridge could be obtained—its whole slope from top to bottom being visible at a single glance. A horrible spectacle came under the eyes of all at once.

At the upper end of the path which led towards the Hacienda del Valle, a horse and horseman were seen lying upon the road close to one another. Both appeared to be wounded—the man struggling to regain his feet—the horse making only the slightest motion, as if in the last moments of life.

“Haste!” cried Don Mariano to his domestics. “Haste! Procure a litter, and have the wounded horseman carried down here to the house.”

“If my eyes don’t deceive me,” said the young officer, casting uneasy glances to the hill, “yonder unfortunate man is poor old Rodriguez, the oldest of my father’s servants.”

The head of the wounded horseman was in fact covered with grey hair, as could be seen from the azotéa.

“The name Antonio Valdez,” continued Don Rafael, “now recalls to me some facts connected with that wretch. I remember something of a punishment inflicted upon him; and I have a dark presentiment— Oh, heavens! Señor Don Mariano, such happiness to be thus interrupted—”

And without finishing his speech, the young officer hastily pressed the hand of his host, and rushed for the postern that opened towards the hills.

In a few seconds after, he was seen climbing the ridge, followed by the domestics of Don Mariano, who carried a litera.

On reaching the wounded man, Don Rafael had no longer any doubts about his being old Rodriguez; though having seen the latter only in his childhood, he remembered little more than the name.

Rodriguez, enfeebled by the loss of blood, and by the efforts he had been making to get upon his feet, was fast losing consciousness.

“Hold!” said Don Rafael to the domestic. “It is useless placing him on the litera. He will not be able to endure the motion. His blood has nearly all run out by this terrible wound.”

As the officer spoke he pointed to a large red spot upon the vest of the wounded man, beneath which the bloody orifice of a wound showed where the bullet had entered.

The dragoon captain had fairly won his spurs in the sanguinary wars of the Indian frontier. He had witnessed death in all its forms, and his experience had taught him to adopt the readiest means in such a crisis.

He first stopped the bleeding with his handkerchief, and then, taking the scarf of China crape from his waist, he bound it tightly over the wound. For all this he had but little hopes of the man’s recovery. The bullet had entered between his shoulders, and passed clear through his body.

Don Rafael only anticipated that, the haemorrhage once stopped, the wounded man might return for a moment to consciousness, he was, no doubt, the bearer of some important message from his master, and it behoved Don Rafael to learn its purport.

Some time elapsed before the old servant opened his eyes; but one of Don Mariano’s people at that moment came up, carrying a flask of aguardiente. A few drops were poured down his throat. Some of the liquid was sprinkled over his temples, and this had the effect of momentarily reviving him.

Opening his eyes, he beheld his young master bending over him. He had not seen Don Rafael since childhood, but he knew he was in the neighbourhood, and that the young officer must be he.

“It is I, Rodriguez,” said Don Rafael, speaking close to his ear. “I—Rafael Tres-Villas. You have a message from my father? Why has he sent you?”

“Blessed be God that He has sent you,” said the old man, speaking with difficulty. “Oh! Señor Don Rafael, I bring fearful news. The hacienda Del Valle—”

“Is burnt?”

The wounded man made a sign in the negative.

“Besieged, then?”

“Yes,” replied Rodriguez in a feeble voice.

“And my father?” inquired the officer with a look of anguish.

“He lives. He sent me to you—to Don Mariano’s—to ask assistance. I—pursued by the brigands—a bullet—here! Do not stay with me. Hasten to your father. If any misfortune happen—Antonio Valdez—Remember—Antonio Valdez—miscreant—taking vengeance for—oh, young master! Don Rafael—pray for poor old Rodriguez—who nursed you when a child—pray—”

The sufferer could speak no more, even in whispers. His head fell back upon the turf. He was dead. When the litter was set down in the courtyard of Las Palmas it carried only a corpse! Don Rafael had turned back for his horse, and to bid a hasty adieu to the family of his host.

“If Costal were only here!” said Don Mariano. “Unfortunately the brave fellow is gone away. Only a few hours ago he came to take his leave of me, with another of my people—a negro whom I had no great fancy for. Both, I believe, are on their way to join the insurgent army in the capacity of scouts or guides. Hola!” continued the haciendado, shouting to one of the peons, “send hither the mayor-domo!”

This functionary soon made his appearance; not a house steward—as the name might seem to imply—in white cravat, stockings, and powdered wig; but, on the contrary, a strapping energetic fellow, dressed in full ranchero costume, with a pair of spurs upon his booted heels, whose enormous rowels caused him to walk almost upon his toes, and with long black hair hanging to his shoulders like the manes of the half-wild horses he was accustomed to ride. Such is the mayor-domo of a Mexican hacienda, whose duties, instead of confining him to the dwelling-house, consist in the general superintendence of the estate, often equal in extent to the half of a county. It is, therefore, necessary for him to be a man of the most active habits, a first-class rider, ever in the saddle, or ready to leap into it at a moment’s notice. Such was the personage who presented himself in obedience to the summons of Don Mariano.

“Give orders,” said the latter, addressing him, “to my two vaqueros, Arroyo and Bocardo, to saddle their horses and accompany Señor Don Rafael!”

“Neither Arroyo nor Bocardo can be found,” replied the mayor-domo. “It is eight days since I have seen either of them.”

“Give each of them four hours in the xepo (stocks), as soon as they return!”

“I doubt whether they will ever return, Señor Don Mariano.”

“What! have they gone to join Valdez, think you?”

“Not exactly,” replied the mayor-domo; “I have my suspicions that the brace of worthies have gone to get up a guerilla on their own account.”

“Summon Sanchez, then!”

“Sanchez is laid up in bed, Señor Don Mariano. He has some bones broken by a wild horse—that he had mounted for the first time—having reared and fallen back upon him.”

“So, Señor Don Rafael,” said the haciendado with an air of vexation, “out of six servants which I counted yesterday I have not one to place at your service, except my mayor-domo here, for I cannot reckon upon those stupid Indian peons. The mayor-domo will attend you.”

“No,” rejoined Don Rafael; “it is not necessary. Let him remain here. I shall go alone to the assistance of my father, who, no doubt, will have plenty of people with him. It is more likely a leader that is wanted.”

The mayor-domo, dismissed by this answer, hurried towards the stables, to see that Don Rafael’s horse was made ready for the road.