Chapter 41 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Rude Reception.

Don Rafael had now become known throughout all Oajaca as one of the most energetic foes of the insurrection. Among the country-people, therefore—the majority of whom were of Creole blood, and of course revolutionary in principle—he need not expect to meet many friends. Every man whom he might encounter was pretty certain of being his enemy. For this reason, although it was only a league from the hacienda Del Valle to that of Las Palmas, he deemed it prudent to take half-a-dozen of his troopers along with him—a wise precaution, as the event proved.

After crossing the chain of hills that separated the two estates, the dragoon captain and his escort rode direct for the postern of the hacienda Las Palmas, that opened to the rear of the building. This, for some reason, had been recently walled up; and it became necessary for them to go round to the main entrance in front. Scarce, however, had the horse of Don Rafael doubled the angle of the wall, when he and his little band were suddenly confronted by a score of horsemen of ruffianly aspect, who opposed the passage, the leader of them vociferating loudly:—

“Muera al traidor—mueran los coyotes!” (Death to the traitor!—death to the jackals!)

At the same instant one of the assailants, charging recklessly forward, brought his horse into collision with that of Don Rafael, and with such a violent shock that the steed of the dragoon officer was thrown to the ground.

In this crisis the agility of Don Rafael, along with his herculean strength, enabled him to save himself. Instantly disengaging his limbs from the body of his horse, he sprang upon that of one of his escort who had just fallen from his saddle, thrust through by one of the insurgents; and after a short struggle, in which several of the assailants succumbed, Don Rafael, with his five remaining followers, was enabled to retreat back to the ridge, where their enemies had not the courage to follow them.

One of his men killed—with the loss of his favourite bay-brown—such was the result of Don Rafael’s attempt to justify his conduct after two months of silence! No wonder that with bitter emotions he retraced his steps to the hacienda Del Valle.

His heart was wrung with grief and disappointment. This hacienda of Las Palmas, where two months before he had been the honoured guest, now sheltered the enemies that were thirsting for his blood.

These, after their unsuccessful attempt to possess themselves of the person of Don Rafael, hastened back towards the entrance of the building.

“You stupid sot!” exclaimed one of them, speaking in angry tones, and addressing a companion by his side; “why did you not allow him to get into the hacienda? Once inside, we should have had him at our mercy, and then— Carajo!”

The speaker, a man of ferocious and brutal aspect, here made a gesture of fearful meaning, as an appropriate finish to his speech.

“Don Mariano would not have permitted it,” rejoined the other, by way of excusing himself for having been the cause of the dragoon officer’s escape. “Once under his roof, he would never have consented to our molesting him.”

“Bah!” exclaimed the first speaker. “It’s past the time when we require to ask Don Mariano’s permission. We are no longer his servants. The time is come when the servants shall be the masters, and the masters the servants, Carajo! What care I for the emancipation of the country? What I care for is blood and plunder.”

The fierce joy that blazed in the eyes of the speaker as he pronounced the last words, told too plainly that these were his veritable sentiments.

The second of the two brigands who, though smaller in size and of a more astute expression of countenance, was equally characterised by an aspect of brutal ferocity—for a moment appeared to quail before the indignation of his companion.

“Carajo!” continued the first, “we have got to shift our quarters. If that furious captain finds out that we are here, he will set fire to the four corners of the hacienda, and roast us alive in it. Fool that I was to listen to you!”

“Who could have foreseen that he would get off so?” said the lesser man, still endeavouring to excuse himself.

“You, Carrai!” thundered the bandit; and overcome by rage and chagrin at the escape of his mortal enemy, he drew his poignard, and struck a left-handed blow at the bosom of his associate. The latter severely wounded, uttering a cry of pain, fell heavily from his horse.

Without staying to see whether or not he had killed his comrade, the guerillero dashed through the gate of the hacienda; and, dismounting in the courtyard, ran, carbine in hand, up the stone stairway that led to the azotéa.

Meanwhile Don Rafael and his five horsemen were ascending the hill that sloped up from the rear of the building.

“Santos Dios! it is very strange!” remarked one of the troopers to a companion. “It’s the general belief that Arroyo and Bocardo have quitted the province, but if I’m not mistaken—”

“It was they, to a certainty,” interrupted the second trooper. “I know them well, only I didn’t wish to tell our captain. He is so furious against these two fellows, that if he had only known it was they who attacked us, we should not have had much chance of being permitted to retreat as we have done.”

The man had scarce finished speaking when the report of a carbine, fired from the roof of the hacienda, reverberated along the ridge, and the trooper fell mortally wounded from his saddle.

A bitter smile curled upon the lips of Don Rafael, and a sharp pang shot through his heart, as he compared the adieu he was now receiving from the inhabitants of the hacienda, with that which had accompanied his departure but two months before.

The fatal bullet had struck that very trooper who had judged it prudent to conceal from his officer the names of his assailants.

“’Tis Arroyo who has fired the shot!” involuntarily exclaimed the other, who also believed that he had recognised the insurgent.

“Arroyo!” exclaimed the captain, in a tone of angry surprise; “Arroyo within that hacienda, and you have not told me!” added he, in a furious voice, while his moustachios appeared to crisp with rage.

The trooper was for the moment in great danger of almost as rude treatment as Arroyo had just given his associate. Don Rafael restrained himself, however; and, without waiting to reflect on consequences, he ordered one of his followers—the best mounted of them—to proceed at once to the hacienda Del Valle, and bring fifty men well armed, with a piece of cannon by which the gate of Las Palmas might be broken open.

The messenger departed at a gallop, while Don Rafael and his three remaining troopers, screening themselves behind the crest of the ridge, sat in their saddles silently awaiting his return.

It was long before Don Rafael’s blood began to cool; and in proportion as it did so, he experienced a degree of sorrow for the act of hostility he was about to undertake against the father of Gertrudis.

A violent contest commenced within his breast, between two opposing sentiments of nearly equal strength. Whether he persisted in his resolution, or retreated from it, both courses seemed equally criminal. The voice of duty, and that of passion, spoke equally loud. To which should he listen?

The struggle, long and violent, between these antagonistic sentiments, had not yet terminated, when the detachment arrived upon the ground. This decided him. It was too late to retire from his first determination. On towards the hacienda! Don Rafael drew his sword, and, placing himself at the head of his troop, rode down the hill. The bugle sounding the “advance,” warned the inhabitants of the hacienda that a detachment of cavalry was crossing the ridge.

A few minutes after, the squadron halted before the great gate, at a little distance from the walls. A horseman advanced in front of the line, and once more having sounded the bugle, in the name of Don Rafael Tres-Villas, Captain of the Royalist army, summoned Don Mariano de Silva to deliver up, dead or alive, the insurgents, Arroyo and Bocardo.

The demand having been made, Don Rafael, with pale face, and heart audibly beating, sat motionless in his saddle to await the response.

Silence—profound silence alone made reply to the summons of the horseman and the sound of his trumpet.