Chapter 38 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Capture of La Roqueta.

It was in vain that Don Cornelio attempted to sleep. Although more than a year of campaigning and the experience of many sanguinary engagements had inured him to danger, there was something in the peril to which he was now exposed that was altogether novel and unpleasant.

Their leader had provided against retreat, and to conquer or die had become a positive obligation of the expeditionary force. This was sufficient to keep the involuntary soldier awake for the remainder of the night.

He passed the time in reflecting upon the singular contretemps that had so interfered with his plans of life, and changed, as it were, his very destiny. He could now only entertain but one hope and wish, and that was that the fortress of Acapulco should be taken as soon as possible: since upon that event being completed, Morelos had promised to grant him leave of absence from the army.

In about an hour afterwards, Costal returned from his scout, and reported to him the result of his explorations, which he had already detailed to the Marshal.

According to the information collected by the Indian, the Spanish garrison consisted of about two hundred men; who were entrenched in a small earthwork on the southern side of the isle, and not more than cannon-shot distance from the Mexican encampment. Two field pieces, set in battery, defended the work; and the schooner, whose unlucky shot had swamped the canoe, lay at a cable’s length from the land, in a little bay that ran up to the fort.

The Mexican leader now knew the position of his enemy, their numbers, and means of defence; and, as soon as the dawn began to appear, he summoned his little band, and formed them into rank. At the same time he caused the signal rockets to be carried to an eminence that was near their encampment.

“Now, muchachos!” said he, addressing his soldiers in an undertone, “whatever point we attack, may be considered as taken. We are about to assault the enemy. We may therefore at once announce to our general-in-chief, without fear of disappointment, that the isle and fortress of La Roqueta are in our hands. I have promised it.”

And without awaiting a reply from any one, the Marshal took the cigar from his lips, and held the burning end of it to the fuse of one of the rockets.

The piece of hemp became kindled at the touch, and the moment after the rocket rose hissing into the air, and described a circle of vivid red against the grey background of the sky. A second rocket was sent up, which traced an ellipse of white light; and then a third, whose reflection was a brilliant green.

“Red, white, and green!” cried Galeana, “our national colour. It is the signal I agreed upon with our General, to announce to him the capture of the isle. Our comrades in the Mexican camp have by this time seen the signal. They believe we have triumphed, and we must not deceive them. Forward to victory!”

On issuing the command, Galeana bounded lightly forward and placed himself at the head of his men; and the whole troop, guided by Costal, advanced at a rapid pace towards the enemy.

As they approached the fort, cries of distress were heard in that direction, which at first filled the assailants with surprise. The cause, however, was soon apparent. The cries came not from the fort, but from the schooner, which was now seen through an opening between the trees struggling against the storm, and fast drifting among breakers! A row of jagged rocks stretched along to leeward; and from driving upon these rocks, the sailors aboard of her were vainly endeavouring to restrain the ill-fated vessel.

The latter, during the violence of the wind, had dragged her anchors, and was now fast hastening to destruction.

“Jesus Maria!” exclaimed Galeana at the sight. “Comrades, what a pity! She will undoubtedly be lost, and I had counted upon this magnificent bounty. Carrambo! we shall get nothing but a wreck.”

The dangerous situation of the schooner was of course known in the fort, where it had already created considerable confusion. This was now changed into consternation by the approach of the insurgents; and the wild war-cry of Galeana, as he sprang forward to the walls, echoed by his followers, and accompanied as it was by loud peals of thunder, produced something like a panic among the ranks of the Spanish garrison. So sudden was the attack, and so completely unexpected, that it could scarcely fail of success; and indeed, after a short hand-to-hand combat, one portion of the garrison fled, while the other surrendered without conditions to the triumphant Galeana.

Scarcely had the last shot been fired, and the fort delivered up to the victors, when the schooner, striking violently upon a sharp reef, leant over to one side, and, like a steed gored by the horns of the bull, the sides of the vessel were opened, and she began to sink among the foaming waves. The victors on shore thought no more of enemies, but now bent all their energies towards saving the unfortunate mariners, whose lives were thus placed in peril. By means of lazoes flung from the beach, most of the latter were rescued from the death that threatened them.

The sun soon after cast his yellow beams over the agitated bosom of the ocean, but his rising had no effect in calming the tempest. The storm continued to rage as furiously as ever.

Just as the last of the shipwrecked sailors had been got safely on shore, a flag running up to the signal-staff of the fort announced that a new sail was seen in the offing. In a few minutes after a vessel was perceived in the roadstead of the bay, struggling against the storm, and endeavouring to stand outward to sea.

This intention the adverse winds seemed trying to prevent; and driven by these out of her course, the strange ship passed so near the isle of Roqueta that those in the fort could see the people on board, and even distinguish the uniforms and faces of the officers upon the quarterdeck. It was evident that the vessel thus coasting past Acapulco was a man-of-war; and the uniforms of the officers aboard of her could plainly be distinguished as that of the Spanish navy. One was dressed somewhat differently from the rest. His costume was military, not naval. It was that of an officer of dragoons. Costal, Clara, and Captain Lantejas were standing on the parapet of the fort, observing the manoeuvres of the strange ship, when the keen eyes of the Indian became fixed on this officer.

He was a man in the full vigour of youth and strength—as was testified by his erect and graceful figure, and by the rich masses of dark hair that clustered under his laced cap; but an air of profound melancholy seemed resting upon his features, and it was evident that some secret care was occupying his thoughts far more than the storm or its dangers!

“Do you recognise the officer, yonder?” inquired Costal pointing him out to Clara and Don Cornelio.

“No,” replied Lantejas, “I don’t remember ever having seen him before.”

“He is the same,” rejoined Costal, “whom we three formerly knew as a captain of the Queen’s dragoons—Don Rafael Tres-Villas. He is now Colonel Tres-Villas.”

“Por Dios!” interposed a soldier who was standing near, and who had come from the state of Oajaca. “Colonel Tres-Villas! That is he who nailed the head of Antonio Valdez to the gate of his hacienda!”

“The same,” assented Costal.

“Carrambo!” cried another soldier, “that is the officer who, after capturing the town of Aguas Calientes, caused the hair to be cropped from the heads of three hundred women who were his prisoners!”

“It is said that he had his reasons for doing so,” muttered Costal, in reply.

“Whether or no,” said the soldier, “if he comes this way, he’ll get punished for it.”

Just as the soldier spoke, the ship became enveloped in a mass of fog—at that moment spreading over the water—and was lost to the view of the people on the isle. When she became visible again, it was seen that she was standing out to sea. By a favourable turn which the wind had taken, she was enabled to gain the offing, and was soon receding from view upon the distant horizon.

Costal was correct in his identification. The officer thus accidentally seen, and who was a passenger on board the man-of-war, was indeed Don Rafael Tres-Villas, who from one of the northern ports was now on his return to Oajaca, bearing with him to the shores of Tehuantepec a profound and incurable melancholy.

The capture of the isle of La Roqueta was an important step towards the taking of Acapulco. The town itself had fallen into the hands of the insurgents, almost at the same instant; for Morelos, according to agreement, on perceiving the signals of Hermenegildo, had directed his attack upon the town, and so brusquely that the place was carried by a coup de main.

The possession of La Roqueta enabled the insurgent general to intercept the supplies of the citadel garrison; and shortly after the fortress itself was compelled to surrender.

This conquest, with which the humble cura had been derisively entrusted, rendered him master of the whole southern part of Mexico—from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, almost to the gates of the capital of New Spain. Twenty-two battles had he gained from that day, when, accompanied by his two domestics, he rode forth from the village of Caracuaro to raise in Oajaca the banner of the insurrection. To that province, after the taking of Acapulco, it was necessary for him to proceed with his victorious army—in order to assist the insurgents then besieged in the town of Huajapam. Thither, but some days preceding him, shall we conduct the reader, in order that we may once more return to the hero of our predilection.