Chapter 39 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Plain of Huajapam.

It was a morning of June, just before the commencement of the rainy season—at that period of the day and year when the tropic sun of Southern Mexico is least endurable. His fervid rays, striking perpendicularly downward, had heated like smouldering ashes the dusty plain of Huajapam, which lay like a vast amphitheatre surrounded by hills—so distant that their blue outlines were almost confounded with the azure sky above them. On this plain was presented a tableau of sadness and desolation, such as the destructive genius of man often composes with demoniac skill.

On one side, as far as the eye could reach, horsemen could be seen hurrying about the plain in the midst of pillaged houses—some of which had been given to the flames. Under the hoofs of these horses, as they dashed recklessly to and fro, were crushed rich treasures that had been sacked from the deserted dwellings, and now lay scattered upon the ground, tempting only the hand of the thievish camp-follower. The soil, defiled in every way, presented only a scanty growth of bruised herbage, upon which the horseman disdained to pasture his steed.

Here and there groups of black vultures told where some dead body of horse or rider had been abandoned to their voracity; while the coyotes trotted in troops far out from the mountain ridge, going to or returning from their hideous repast.

Looking over the plain in another direction, the standard of Spain could be seen floating over the tents of the royalist camp, whose night-fires still sent up their lines of bluish smoke; while from the same quarter could be heard the neighing of horses, the rolling of drums, and the startling calls of the cavalry bugles.

Farther off in the same direction—above the low, flat-shaped azotéas of a village—could be seen the domes and belfries of several churches, all breached with bombs or riddled with round shot. This village lay at the distance of a few hundred yards from the lines of the royalist camp, and was evidently besieged by the latter. Rude earthworks could be perceived extending between the scattered suburbs, upon which a few pieces of cannon were mounted, and pointing towards the entrenchments of the Spanish encampment. Between the hostile lines the plain was unoccupied, save by the dead bodies of men and horses that lay unburied on the dusty surface of the soil.

The village in question—or town it might rather be called—was the famous Huajapam, that now for more than three months had been defended by a body of three hundred insurgents against a royalist force of five times their number! The heroic leader of this gallant resistance was Colonel Don Valerio Trujano.

At mention of this name the reader will call to mind the noble muleteer Trujano, whose firm voice he has heard intoning the De profundis and In manus while struggling against the inundation. Beyond a doubt his religious zeal had inspired the besieged of Huajapam: for, every now and then, from out the sad and desolate town may be heard the voices of his men, chanting in chorus some sacred song or prayer to the God of battles!

In that moment when the priests of Huajapam have left the altar to take part in the defence of their town, there will be observed, neither in their acts nor words, aught to recall their former profession. At such a time Don Valerio Trujano may be said to reproduce one of those ascetic heroes of the old religious wars—great repeaters of paternosters, whose blows always fell without mercy, and who marched into battle reciting quotations from Scripture. Perhaps he might be more happily likened to one of the old Templars, careless of personal renown, kneeling to pray in front of the foe, and charging upon the Saracen to the accompaniment of that famous psalm, “Quare fremuerunt gentes?”

Such was the appearance which the plain of Huajapam presented on the morning in question: houses smoking and in ruins—dead bodies scattered over the ground—vultures wheeling above—the royalist banner face to face with the banner of the insurrection.

We shall first enter the camp of the besiegers, where the Brigadier Bonavia, governor of Oajaca, held command—assisted by the Spanish generals, Caldelas and Regules.

At an early hour of the morning two dragoons, who had been scouring the distant plain, were seen returning to the lines of the encampment, conducting with them a third horseman, evidently a stranger to the camp. This was on the side, opposite to that on which lay the town of Huajapam. The horseman, guided by these dragoons, was costumed as a vaquero—that is, he wore a jacket and wide calzoneros of brick-coloured deerskin, with a huge sombrero of black glaze on his head, and a speckled blanket folded over the croup of his saddle. He had already reported himself to the dragoons as the bearer of a message to the colonel—Don Rafael Tres-Villas. Furthermore, in addition to the horse on which he rode, he was leading another—a noble steed of a bay-brown colour.

This animal, startled at the sight and smell of the dead bodies among which they were passing, gave out from time to time a snorting of a peculiar character, which had drawn the attention of the dragoons.

These, after conducting the vaquero through a portion of the camp, halted in front of one of the largest tents. There a groom was saddling another steed, in strength and beauty but little inferior to that led by the vaquero. It was the war-horse of Colonel Tres-Villas, of whom the groom in question was the assistente.

“What is your name, amigo?” demanded the latter, addressing himself to the vaquero.

“Julian,” replied the stranger. “I am one of the servitors of the hacienda Del Valle. Colonel Tres-Villas is its proprietor, and I have a message for him of great importance.”

“Very well,” responded the other, “I shall tell the Colonel you are here.”

So saying, the assistente entered the tent.

On that day the besieging army was about to make the fifteenth attack upon the town, defended by Colonel Trujano, and Don Rafael was dressing himself in full uniform to assist at the council of war, called together to deliberate on the plan of assault.

At the word “messenger” pronounced by his military servant, a slight trembling was seen to agitate the frame of Colonel Tres-Villas, while his countenance became suddenly overspread with pallor.

“Very well,” stammered he, after a moment’s hesitation, and in a voice that betrayed emotion. “I know the messenger; you may leave him free; I shall answer for him. Presently let him come him in.”

The assistente stepped out of the tent and delivered this response of the Colonel. The dragoons rode off, leaving the vaquero free to communicate to his master the message of which he was the bearer.

It is here necessary for us to detail some portion of the history of Don Rafael, from the time when he took his departure at full gallop from the hacienda Del Valle, up to that hour when we again encounter him in the royalist camp before Huajapam.

When the first shock of grief, caused by the murder of his father—when that terrible struggle betwixt love and duty, had passed, and his spirit become a little calmer—the only line of conduct that appeared possible for him, was to repair at once to Oajaca; and, having found its governor, Don Bernardino Bonavia, obtain from him a detachment of troops, with which he might return and punish the insurgent assassins.

Unfortunately for Don Rafael, notwithstanding the distinguished reception accorded to him by the governor, the latter could not place at his disposal a single soldier. The province was already in such a state of fermentation, that all the men under his command were required to keep in check the revolt that threatened to break out in the provincial capital itself. Don Rafael therefore could not prevail upon the governor to enfeeble the garrison of Oajaca, by detaching any portion of it on so distant a service as an expedition to the hacienda Del Valle.

While negotiating, however, word reached him of a royalist corps that was being raised at no great distance from Oajaca, by a Spanish officer, Don Juan Antonio Caldelas. Don Rafael, urged on by a thirst for vengeance, hastened to join the band of Caldelas, who on his part at once agreed to place his handful of men at the disposal of the dragoon captain for the pursuit of Valdez. Of course Caldelas had himself no personal animosity against the insurgent leader; but believing that the destruction of his band would crush the insurrection in the province, he was the more ready to co-operate with Don Rafael.

Both together marched against Valdez, and encountered him and his followers at the cerro of Chacahua, where the ex-vaquero had entrenched himself. An action was fought, which resulted in Valdez being driven from his entrenchments, but without Don Rafael being able to possess himself of his person, a thing he desired even more than a victory over his band.

A fortnight was spent in vain searches, and still the guerilla chief continued to escape the vengeance of his unrelenting pursuer. At the end of that period, however, the insurgents were once more tempted to try a battle with the followers of Don Rafael and Caldelas. It proved a sanguinary action, in which the royalists were victorious. The scattered followers of Valdez, when reunited at the rendezvous agreed upon in the event of their being defeated, perceived that their leader was missing from among them.

Alive they never saw him again. His dead body was found some distance from the field of battle, and around it the traces of a struggle which had ended in his death. The body was headless, but the head was afterwards discovered, nailed to the gate of the hacienda Del Valle, with the features so disfigured that his most devoted adherents would not have recognised them but for an inscription underneath. It was the name of the insurgent, with that of the man who had beheaded him, Don Rafael Tres-Villas.

Valdez had fled from the field after the defeat of his followers. Before proceeding far, he heard behind him the hoarse snorting of a steed. It was the bay-brown of Don Rafael.

In a few bounds the insurgent was overtaken. A short struggle took place between the two horsemen; but the ex-vaquero, notwithstanding his equestrian skill, was seized in the powerful grasp of the dragoon officer, lifted clear out of his saddle, and dashed with violence to the earth. Before he could recover himself, the lasso of Don Rafael—equally skilled in the use of this singular weapon—was coiled around him; and his body, after being dragged for some distance at the tail of the officer’s horse, lay lifeless and mutilated along the ground. Such was the end of Antonio Valdez.