Chapter 27 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Duty versus Love.

The last beams of the sun were gilding the summit of the ridge that bounded the plain of Las Palmas, when Don Rafael Tres-Villas crossed it on his way to the hacienda Del Valle. To recover the time he had lost, he pressed his horse to his utmost speed, and descended the slope on the opposite side at a gallop. As the brave steed dashed onward, a hoarse snorting sound was heard to issue from his nostrils, caused by the singular operation which the arriero had performed upon him.

On reaching the level of the valley in which stood the hacienda Del Valle, the horseman drew bridle and listened, he was sufficiently near the house to have heard any unusual commotion that might be there going on. He fully expected to have distinguished the shouts of men engaged in fight, or the tumultuous murmur of a siege.

No sound, however, reached his ear—not a murmur. Silence ominous and profound reigned throughout the valley.

With clouded brow, and heart anxiously beating, the officer continued on his course. He had unbuckled his carbine from the saddle, and carried the piece in his hand ready for use.

The silence continued. Not a cry awoke the solitude—not the flash of a fusil lit up the darkness of the twilight. The sleep of death seemed to be upon everything.

As already stated, Don Rafael had not visited the hacienda of Del Valle since he left it when only a child: he therefore knew nothing of the way that led to it beyond the directions he had received from his late host.

He was beginning to think he had gone astray, when a long wide avenue opened before him. This was bordered on each side by a row of tall trees, of the species taxodium disticha—the cypress of America. He had been told of this avenue, and that at its extremity stood the hacienda he was in search of. The description was minute: he could not be mistaken.

Heading his steed into the avenue, he spurred forward beneath the sombre shadow of the trees. In a rapid gallop he traversed the level road, and had arrived nearly at its further extremity, when all at once the walls of the hacienda came in view directly in front of him—a dark mass of building, that filled up the whole space between the two rows of trees.

The main entrance in the centre appeared to be only half closed, one wing of the massive gate standing slightly ajar. But no one came forth to welcome him! Not a sound issued from the building. All was silent as the tomb!

Still pressing forward, he advanced towards the entrance—determined to ride in through the open gateway; but, just at that moment, his steed made a violent bound, and shied to one side.

In the obscurity of the twilight, or rather from the confusion of his senses, Don Rafael had not observed the object which had frightened his horse. It was a dead body lying upon the ground in front of the gateway. More horrible still, it was a body wanting the head!

At this frightful spectacle a cry broke from the lips of the officer—a cry of fearful import. Rage, despair, all the furious passions that may wring the heart of man, were expressed in that cry—to which echo was the only answer. He had arrived too late. All was over. The body was that of his father!

He needed not to alight and examine it, in order to be convinced of this terrible fact. On a level with his horse’s head an object appeared hanging against one of the leaves of the great door. It was a head—the head that had belonged to the corpse. It was hanging from the latch, suspended by the hair.

Despite the repugnance of his horse to advance, Don Rafael drove the spur into his flank; and forced him forward until he was himself near enough to examine the fearful object. With flashing eyes and swelling veins, he gazed upon the gory face. The features were not so much disfigured, as to hinder him from identifying them. They were the features of his father!

The truth was clear. The Spaniard had been the victim of the insurgents, who had respected neither his liberal political sentiments, nor his inoffensive old age. The authors of the crime had even boasted of it. On the gate below were written two names, Arroyo—Antonio Valdez.

The officer read them aloud, but with a choking utterance.

For a moment his head fell pensively forward upon his breast. Then on a sudden he raised it again—as if in obedience to a secret resolve—saying as he did so, in a voice husky with emotion—

“Where shall I find the fiends? Where? No matter!—find them I shall. Night or day, no rest for me—no rest for them, till I have hung both their heads in the place of this one!”

“How now,” he continued after a pause, “how can I combat in a cause like this? Can a son fight under the same flag with the assassins of his father? Never!”

“For Spain, then!” he cried out, after another short moment of silence. “For Spain shall my sword be drawn!” And raising his voice into a louder tone, he pronounced with furious emphasis—

“Viva Espana! Mueran a los bandidos!” (Spain for ever! Death to the brigands!)

Saying this, the dragoon dismounted from his horse, and knelt reverentially in front of that ghastly image.

“Head of my venerable and beloved father!” said he, “I swear by your grey hairs, crimsoned with your own blood, to use every effort in my power, by sword and by fire, to nip in the bud this accursed insurrection—one of whose first acts has been to rob you of your innocent life. May God give me strength to fulfil my vow!”

At that moment a voice from within seemed to whisper in his ear, repeating the words of his mistress:—

“May all those who raise an arm in favour of Spain be branded with infamy and disgrace! May they find neither a roof to shelter them, nor a woman to smile upon them! May the contempt of those they love be the reward of every traitor to his country!”

Almost the instant after, another voice replied—“Do your duty, no matter what may be the result.” In presence of the mutilated remains of his father, the son hearkened only to the latter.

The moon had been long up before Don Rafael finished the melancholy task of digging a grave. In this he respectfully placed the headless corpse, and laid the head beside it in its proper position. Then, drawing from his bosom the long plait of Gertrudis’ hair, and taking from his shoulders the embroidered sun-scarf, with like respectful manner, he deposited these two love-tokens alongside the honoured remains of his father.

Convulsed with grief, he threw in the earth, burying in one grave the dearest souvenirs of his life.

It was not without difficulty that he could withdraw himself from a spot thus doubly consecrated by filial piety and love; and for a long while he stood sorrowing over the grave.

In fine, new thoughts coursing through his bosom aroused him to action; and, leaping into his saddle, he spurred his steed into a gallop, taking the road that conducted to the capital of Oajaca.