Chapter 31 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Pepe Gago.

Besides his military chapeau, the lieutenant of cavalry held in his hand a piece of folded paper; and although he had already stated his errand, his countenance exhibited considerable embarrassment.

“What, leave of absence?” said the General, smiling benignantly upon his aide-de-camp. “You, friend Lantejas—you think of quitting us? and at such a time, too, when all is going well!”

“It is necessity, General, that drives me to make the application. There are family affairs that require me at home, and—” Lantejas here paused, as if inwardly ashamed of the deceit he was practising. “Besides, General, to say the truth, this soldier’s life is not suited to me, nor I to it. I was born to be a priest, and would greatly desire to complete my theological studies, and enter upon that career to which my inclinations lead me. Now that success has crowned your army, you will no longer require me?”

“Vita Cristo!” exclaimed Morelos, “not require you! Ah, friend Lantejas, you are too valiant a soldier of the Church militant to be spared so easily as that. Like that faithful adherent of some French king, whose name I do not now remember, you would be the very man to wish yourself hanged if Acapulco were taken without you. I must refuse your application, then, although I see it vexes you. I refuse it, because I am too well satisfied with your services to let you go. You were my first follower; and do you know what people say, that the three bravest men in our little army are Don Hermenegildo Galeana, Manuel Costal, and yourself? And what at this moment still more endears you to me is, that you propose leaving me just as fortune is showering her favours upon me; whereas, with most other friends, the reverse is usually what may be expected. I have just heard that the Captain Don Francisco Gonzales has been killed in the affair of Tonaltepec. You will replace him in the command of his company—Now? Captain Lantejas?”

The new captain bowed his thanks in silence, and was about to retire.

“Do not go yet!” commanded the General; “I have something more to say to you. You have, I believe, some relative or relatives living near Tehuantepec. Well, I have a commission for some one to that part of the country, and I require a man of courage and prudence to execute it. I have thought of sending you, as soon as we have taken Acapulco—which I trust will be in a very short time.”

Lantejas was about to open his mouth, and inquire the nature of this confidential mission, when he was interrupted by the entrance of two men into the tent. One of these was Costal the Indian; the other was a stranger both to Morelos and the captain. The latter was again about to retire, when Morelos signed him to stay.

“There’s the General,” said Costal, pointing out the commander-in-chief to the man who accompanied him, and who was in the costume of a Spanish officer.

The latter regarded for an instant, and not without surprise, the simply-clad individual whose name at that moment had become so widely renowned. Although evidently a person of imperturbable coolness, the stranger said nothing, leaving it to the General to open the conversation.

“Who are you, my friend, and what do you want?” inquired Morelos.

“To speak a word in confidence with you,” replied the man. “This individual,” continued he, pointing to Costal, “whom I encountered philosophising upon the sea-beach, has promised me that his word would enable me to obtain an interview with your Excellency, and safe conduct through your camp. On this promise I have followed him.”

“Costal,” said the General, “was my first bugler, and with his great conch sounded the signals to less than twenty horsemen, who at that time composed my whole army. I confirm the parole he has given you. Speak freely.”

“With your Excellency’s permission, then, my name is Pepe Gago. I am a Gallician, an officer of artillery, and command a battery in the castle of Acapulco—which your Excellency, if I am not mistaken, desires to capture.”

“It is a pleasure which I intend affording myself one of these days.”

“Perhaps your Excellency is confounding the castle with the town? The latter you can take whenever it pleases you.”

“I know that.”

“But you would not be able to hold it, so long as we are masters of the citadel.”

“I know that also.”

“Ah, then, your Excellency, we are likely to understand one another.”

“It is just for that reason that I decline taking the town till I have first captured the castle.”

“Now I think we are still nearer comprehending each other: since it is just that which you wish to have, that I come to offer you. I will not say to sell: for my price will be so moderate that it will deserve rather to be called a gift I am making you. Apropos, however, of the price—is your Excellency in funds?”

“Well, you have heard, no doubt, that I have just captured from the Spanish general, Paris, eleven hundred fusils, five pieces of cannon—to say nothing of the eight hundred prisoners we have made—and ten thousand dollars in specie. That is about ten times the price of a fortress, which in a short time I may have for nothing.”

“Be not so sure of that, your Excellency. We have no scarcity of provisions. The Isle of Roqueta—”

“I shall capture that also.”

“Serves us,” continued the Spaniard, without noticing the interruption, “as a port of supply, by which the ships can always throw provisions into the castle. But not to dispute the point, am I to understand that your Excellency fixes the price at a thousand dollars? I agree to that sum. You say you have captured ten thousand. Unfortunately for me, I have the opportunity of selling the fortress only once.”

“A thousand dollars down, do you mean?” inquired the General.

“Oh, no,” replied the artilleryman; “what security would you have of my keeping my word? Five hundred, cash down, and the balance when the castle is delivered up to you.”

“Agreed! And now, Señor Pepe Gago, what are your means for bringing about the surrender?”

“I shall have the command of the portcullis guard from two till five to-morrow morning. A lantern hung up on the bridge of Hornos to advise me of your approach—a password between us—and your presence. I presume your Excellency will not yield to any one the taking of the place?”

“I shall be there in person,” replied Morelos. “With regard to the password, here it is.”

The General handed to the Gallician a scrap of paper, on which he had written two words, which neither Costal nor Lantejas were near enough to read.

A somewhat prolonged conversation was now commenced between Morelos and Pepe Gago, but carried on in a tone so low that the others did not understand it import. At length the Spaniard was about to take his departure, when Costal, advancing towards him, laid his hand firmly on his shoulder.

“Listen to me, Pepe Gago!” said he to the Gallician in a serious voice. “It is I who am responsible for you here; but I swear by the bones of the Caciques of Tehuantepec—from whom I have the undoubted honour of being descended—if you play traitor in this affair, look out for Costal, the Zapoteque. Though you may dive like the sharks to the bottom of the ocean, or like the jaguars hide yourself in the thickest jungles of the forest, you shall not escape, any more than shark or jaguar, from my carbine or my knife. I have said it.”

The Spaniard again repeated his declarations of good faith, and retired from the tent under the safe conduct of Costal.

“By-and-by,” said the General to Lantejas when the others had gone, “I shall speak to you of the mission I intend sending you upon. Meanwhile, go and get some rest, as I shall want you at an early hour in the morning. At four o’clock I shall myself take a party of men up to the castle. As it is best that no one should know our intention, you and Costal must hang a lantern on the bridge of Hornos. That is to be the signal for our approach to the gate.”

Saying this, the commander-in-chief dismissed his captain—who strode forth out of the marquee, with no very sanguine anticipations of obtaining a tranquil night’s rest.