Chapter 37 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Deed à la Cortez.

Notwithstanding the alarm given by the schooner, the barges of Galeana found no difficulty in effecting a landing upon the isle—but on the opposite side to that where the war vessel lay. The stormy night favoured the attempt; the garrison of La Roqueta not dreaming that on such a night any attack would be made upon the fort.

Lantejas still remained unconscious; and, when at last he came to his senses, he found himself on land, the branches of tall trees extending over him, through which the wind was whistling with all the fury of a tempest. The rustling of the leaves was the sweetest melody he had ever heard: since it told him he was once more on terra firma—though at the same time the thunder rolling around appeared to shake the foundations of the isle.

On awakening to consciousness, he looked around him. He saw men reclining, or sitting in groups—most of them with arms in their hands. He recognised them as the people of the expedition.

Costal, asleep, was lying upon the ground close at hand.

“Where are we, Costal?” inquired Lantejas, after rousing the Indian from his slumber.

“Where? Por Dios! where should we be, but on the isle of Roqueta?”

“But how did we get ashore?”

“Easily enough, Señor Capitan. We had no opposition to contend against. Not one of the Spanish garrison suspects our presence here; for who would think of sixty men venturing to sea on such a night as this? We shall take the enemy completely by surprise.”

“And what hinders the Marshal from attacking them now?”

“We have not yet found them. We neither know where the fort is, nor where we are ourselves. Don’t you see that the night is as dark as the inside of a cannon, and one can’t make out his finger before him? They’re safe enough while this storm lasts; and, by good luck, so are we.”

It was in truth to the storm that the Mexicans owed their present security. Few in numbers, and ignorant of the locality in which they had landed, an attack by the troops of the garrison might have proved fatal to them. Thanks to the tempestuous character of the night, they had not only found an opportunity of debarking on the isle, but time to mature their plans for assaulting the fort.

It was now about four in the morning, and the wind, still blowing with all its fury, was causing the large waves to roll up against the beach, threatening to break the cables by which the barges were moored to the shore. Don Cornelio cast glances of fear upon that mighty ocean that, but a few hours before, had come so near engulfing him within its dark depths.

While he sat with his face turned seaward, his eye fell upon the figure of a man who was passing from the spot where the groups were scattered downward to the beach. This man having approached the place where the barges were moored, for some moments appeared to be occupied with them, as if looking to their security. This was Don Cornelio’s first impression on seeing the figure bending over the cables; but the moment after, the blade of a knife glancing in the man’s fingers, was revealed by a flash of lightning; and this gave a sudden turn to the captain’s thoughts.

“What is he about to do?” inquired he of Costal, at the same time pointing out the individual so mysteriously occupied about the barges.

“Carrambo! he is cutting the cables!” cried the Indian, springing to his feet, and rushing towards the boats, followed by Don Cornelio.

On drawing nearer the beach, both recognised, under the pale reflection of the foaming waves, the Marshal himself—Don Hermenegildo Galeana!

“Ah! Captain Lantejas, it is you!” cried the Marshal as they approached. “Good. I want you to lend me a hand here in cutting these hawsers: they are hard as iron chains.”

“Cut the hawsers!” echoed the astonished captain. “And what, General, if we are compelled to retreat before a superior force?”

“That’s just what I wish to provide against,” replied Don Hermenegildo, laughing. “Some people fight but poorly when they know they may run away; and I wish our people to fight well.”

Don Cornelio saw it was no use to attempt remonstrance with the chivalric Galeana, and both he and Costal went to work to assist the Marshal in his daring design.

“All right, comrades!” cried Don Hermenegildo, as soon as the three hawsers were parted; “it only remains for us to get the signal rockets out of the boats, and then let them go to sea of themselves.”

So saying, the energetic leader stepped aboard one of the barges, seized hold of the rocket case, and, assisted by Costal and Don Cornelio, carried it on shore. Then, giving each of the boats a shove from the beach, the Marshal had the satisfaction—not shared by the Captain, however—of seeing all three of them the next moment carried far away from the shore, and still tossing seaward on the crests of the foaming waves! Retreat was no longer possible. The people of the expedition must either conquer or succumb.

“Now, Captain Lantejas,” said the Marshal, addressing Don Cornelio, “you had better go and get some sleep. You have need of rest, after what you have passed through. I shall cause you to be awakened in good time. Meanwhile Costal will make a reconnaissance, to discover, if possible, the whereabouts of our enemy. By daybreak both the fort and schooner must be ours.”

With this finish to the conversation, Don Hermenegildo folded his cloak around him and walked away. Costal and the captain returned to the temporary encampment among the trees. There the Indian, without communicating his thoughts to his companion, silently divested himself of the little remnant of clothing that remained to him, and glided off among the bushes—like a jaguar advancing through the underwood to surprise the gaunt alligator on the bank of some solitary lagoon.