Chapter 30 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Soldier against his Will.

As soon as the man had gone out of the apartment the student looked under his pillow. Sure enough there lay a document, which proved upon examination to be an ensign’s commission, granted to Don Cornelio Lantejas, and signed by the commander-in-chief of the insurgent army—Don José Maria Morelos y Pavon.

An overwhelming anguish seized the spirit of the student; and once more he sprang from his couch and rushed towards the window. This time it was with the design of disavowing all participation in the insurrection—like the early Christians, who in the midst of an idolatrous host of persecutors still continued to avow their faith in God.

But the evil genius of Don Cornelio was yet by his side; and, at the moment when he was about opening his lips to deny all complicity with the enemies of Spain, his senses again gave way; and, without knowing what came out of his mouth, he cried in a loud voice, “Viva Mexico, muera el tyran!” Then, overcome by the effort, he staggered back to his couch.

This time his syncope was of short duration. On recovering his senses, he perceived that his bed was surrounded by armed men; who, judging from their looks and speeches, were examining him with more than ordinary interest. Among others he recognised the voice of Morelos himself!

“How can one explain this sudden sympathy with our cause?” Morelos was inquiring. “It seems as if the young man was under the hallucination of his fever?”

“Something more than that, General,” suggested an officer of the name of Valdovinos. “If the most ardent patriotism was not boiling at the bottom, the foam would not thus rise to the surface.”

“No matter!” rejoined Morelos, “but I cannot think that my ascendancy—”

A new-comer interrupted the speech of the cura of Caracuaro, just as Lantejas had got his eyes fairly open. This was a man of robust and vigorous appearance, with a noble martial air, and a bold open countenance. His large beard, and hair slightly grizzled, betrayed his age to be somewhere near fifty.

“And why not, General?” said he, taking hold of the hand which Morelos stretched out to him. “Why should not this brave young man have submitted to your ascendancy at first sight, just as I have done? It is only this morning I have seen you for the first time, and yet you have no follower more devoted than myself. I shall answer for this young stranger. He is one of us, beyond doubt.”

As the new-comer pronounced these words, he cast upon Lantejas a glance so winning and at the same time so severe, that it completely subjugated the spirit of the student with a sort of invincible charm, and hindered him from making any attempt to contradict the engagement which was thus made in his name. On the contrary, he rather confirmed it with an involuntary gesture, which he could not restrain himself from making.

The man who had thus intervened was he whom historians delight to call the grand, the terrible, the invincible Hermenegildo Galeana—the Murat of the Mexican revolution; he who afterwards, in more than a hundred actions, was seen to place his lance in rest, and dash into the thickest of the enemy’s lines, like a god of battles, vociferating his favourite war-cry, Aqui esta Galeana! (Here comes Galeana!) A redoubtable enemy—a friend tender and devoted—such was Don Hermenegildo Galeana.

More fortunate than Murat, Galeana met his death on the battle-field, in the midst of hosts slain by his own hand. Still more fortunate than the French warrior, he died faithful to the principles as well as to the inn to whom he had consecrated his life.

“Well—however the thing may be,” said Valdovinos, pursuing the subject of Don Cornelio’s dubious patriotism, “I know this, that General Calleja has set a price upon this young man’s head as well as on our own.”

“Come, Alferez Don Cornelio!” added Galeana, “get ready to start in the morning; and show yourself worthy of the commission that has been bestowed upon you. You will soon find opportunity, I promise you.”

At that moment the report of a cannon reverberated under the window, to the astonishment of Morelos himself: who had not yet been made aware that he had a piece of artillery under his orders.

“Señor General,” said Galeana, explaining the presence of the gun, “that cannon is part of the patrimonial inheritance of our family. When a Galeana is born or one dies, it serves to signalise our joy or our sorrow. To-day we consecrate it to the service of the whole Mexican family. It is yours, as our swords and lives are yours.”

As Galeana finished speaking, he advanced towards the window; and in that formidable voice which often struck terror into the hearts of the Spaniards, he cried out—“Viva el General Morelos!”

Responsive vivas rose up from the court below, mingled with the clanking of sabres, as they leaped forth from their scabbards, and the crashing jar of fusils dashed heavily against the pavement; while the horses, catching up the general enthusiasm, sent forth a loud, wild neighing.

In another instant the chamber was emptied of its guests. Morelos had gone down into the courtyard to press the hands of his new adherents, and the other officers had followed him.

Far from partaking of the universal warlike ardour, the student was suffering at the moment the most terrible anguish of heart. The thought of his theological studies being thus interrupted, in order that he might figure in the middle of an insurgent camp, was rendering him completely miserable; but still more the unpleasant information he had just received, that he had been declared a rebel, and that a price was set upon his head. All this, too, had been brought about by the shameful stinginess of his father, in providing him with that sorry mule—just as his former misfortunes had arisen, from his having no better horse than the old steed of the picador.

It is scarce necessary to say, that under these circumstances he passed a wretched night of it, and that his dreams were a continued series of horrid visions. He fancied himself engaged in numerous sanguinary battles: and that the insurgent army in which he was enrolled had suddenly changed into a legion of demons, with horns and hoofs!

On waking with the first dawn of day, his dreams, instead of being terminated, appeared to be continued. He heard a noisy tumult in the court below; and rising far above the general clamour could be distinguished a strange trumpet-like sound, now shrill, now hoarsely bellowing—as if the fiend himself was sounding the signal of “Boots and Saddles” to his infernal legions. Bathed in a cold sweat, he started up from his couch; and approaching the window, cast a glance into the courtyard. As before, he saw that it was crowded with armed men in every kind of equipment. The cannon was there, standing in the middle of the court. A negro was reloading it. It was not without surprise that Don Cornelio recognised in the negro the same man who, along with the tiger-hunter, had conducted him to the hacienda of Las Palmas.

Yes, the artillerist was no other than Clara; who was thus improvised as full commander of the solitary piece of cannon—the first which Morelos had at his disposal, and which, under the name of El Nino, became afterwards so celebrated in the history of the Mexican revolution. The student also saw the instrument that had been bellowing forth those infernal tones, which he had been fancying he had heard somewhere before. His fancy was not at fault, as he now ascertained—on seeing near the cannon a tall Indian, who was holding to his lips an immense sea-shell, from which proceeded the mysterious sounds. It was Costal and his conch, at that moment performing the métier of first bugler in the army of Morelos. Morelos himself, surrounded by a staff of officers, stood at one end of the spacious courtyard, in the act of distributing fusils to the newly enrolled troops.

Lantejas perceived the necessity of making ready for the departure which was evidently about to take place; and having dressed himself, he descended to the court and mingled among the other officers—beyond doubt the most lugubrious ensign in all the insurgent army.

The first person he encountered was the terrible Galeana; and he trembled lest the piercing glance of the warrior should detect under the lion’s skin the heart of the hare.

Luckily for him, however, Galeana had at that moment something else to think of, than to scrutinise the thoughts of an obscure ensign; and all the rest were deceived by the martial air which he had done his best to assume.

Morelos, as stated, was at the moment making a distribution of fusils, a large quantity of which appeared by his side piled along the pavement of the courtyard.

It is necessary to explain how these arms had fallen so appropriately into the hands of the insurgent general—which they had done by a circumstance that might appear almost providential.

While retiring from the hacienda of San Luis, on account of the insane demonstrations of the student, and with the latter transported in a litter, Morelos encountered near San Diego the insurgent leader, Don Rafael Valdovinos. The latter, already at the head of a small guerilla was just on his way to join the cura of Caracuaro.

Having received information that the Spanish Government had forwarded a large number of fusils to the neighbouring village of Petitlan, for the purpose of equipping a corps of militia belonging to that place, the insurgent general thought that these guns might serve better in the hands of his own followers; and with the band of Valdovinos he made a rapid march upon Petitlan, and succeeded in capturing them.

The rumour of this dashing action had reached San Diego before Morelos himself; and, shortly after his arrival there, his troops were further strengthened by the followers of Galeana—who stood in need of this well-timed supply of weapons.

Almost on the instant that Lantejas presented himself in the courtyard, the cannon, El Nino, thundered forth another discharge. It was the signal of departure; and the little army, putting itself in motion, marched off from the hacienda of San Diego—the new alferez taking his place with the rest.

Morelos was shortly after joined by other partisans, till his troop had grown into a small army; and, after two months of long marches, and sharp skirmishes with the Spanish troops—out of which he always issued victorious—the insurgent general found himself in front of the town of Acapulco, on the Pacific Ocean. He was now besieging that place—which he had been ironically commanded to take—and with a fair prospect of obtaining its speedy surrender.

As for the student of theology, two months’ campaigning had somewhat soldierised him. He had obtained a great reputation for courage; although his heart in moments of danger had often been upon the point of failing him.

On the first occasion that he was under fire, he was by the side of Don Hermenegildo Galeana, who had acquired a complete ascendancy over him, and whose terrible glances he more dreaded than even the presence of the enemy. Don Hermenegildo of course fought in the foremost rank; where, with his lance and long sabre, he was accustomed to open a wide circle around his horse, that no enemy dared to intrude upon, and which, for the sword of the trembling ensign, left absolutely nothing to do. Lantejas having learnt, in the first encounter, the advantage of this position, ever afterwards took care to keep well up with the redoubtable Don Hermenegildo.

There was another man, who, from habit, always fought alongside Galeana, and who scarce yielded to the latter either in courage or dexterity. This was Costal, the Zapoteque; and protected by these two, as by a pair of guardian angels, Lantejas scarce ran any danger in the hottest fight; while at the same time he was constantly gaining fresh laurels by keeping the position.

For all this, his glory sat upon him like a burden too heavy for his back, and one that he was not able to cast from his shoulders. To desert from the insurgent army was impossible: a price was set upon his head. Besides, Morelos had given to that corner of the Sabana river occupied by his camp the quaint title of Paso de la eternidad (the road to eternity)—to signify that, whoever should attempt either to abandon the entrenchments, or make an attack upon them, would be forced to embark upon that long journey.

Lantejas had already written to his father, informing him of all that had happened; how—thanks to the valuable roadster with which his parent had provided him—he was now sustaining his thesis with the sword; and that, instead of having only his hair shorn, he was more likely to lose his head.

To these letters—for there had been several written by him—he had at length received a response. This, after complimenting him upon the valorous deeds he had achieved—and which his worthy parent had hardly expected to hear of—ended by informing him that the latter had obtained from the Viceroy a promise of pardon for him, on the condition of his forsaking the insurgent cause, and throwing the weight of his sword into that of Spain.

This condition was hardly to the taste of Lantejas. In the ranks of the Spanish army he might seek in vain for two such protectors as he now had by his side. Moreover, were he to join the Spaniards, he might some day, as an enemy, be brought face to face with the formidable Galeana! The very thought of such a contingency was enough to make his hair stand on end!

It was some time before he could bring himself to any definite resolution as to what he should do. At length, however, he resolved upon a course of action. Instead of attempting to run away from the insurgent ranks, he determined to say nothing to the General about the contents of his father’s letter, but to obtain from him, if possible, a short leave of absence: which it was his intention should be prolonged to an indefinite period.

It was for this purpose he had entered the General’s tent, and was now standing, hat in hand, in front of the Commander-in-Chief of the besieging army.