Chapter 42 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Bearding a Brigand.

In addition to the consequences that would arise from his resolve—already foreseen by Don Rafael Tres-Villas—there was one other of which he could not have had any foresight.

A glance into the interior of the hacienda will proclaim this consequence.

Within that chamber, already known to the reader, were Don Mariano de Silva, with his two daughters; and their situation was enough to justify the silence which succeeded to the summons of the dragoon. Inside the closed door, and by the side of the two young girls, stood Arroyo and Bocardo. Poignard in hand, the brigands were tracing out to Don Mariano the line of conduct he should pursue.

“Listen to me, Don Mariano de Silva,” said the former, with an air of brutal mockery that was habitual to him, “I rather think you are too loyal a gentleman to dishonour the laws of hospitality by delivering up your guests.”

“It is true,” replied the haciendado, “you may rest assured—”

“I know it,” continued Arroyo, interrupting him; “you would not betray us of your own accord. But this demon of a dragoon captain will break open the gate, and take us in spite of your intreaties. Now, listen! and hear what I wish you to do.”

“Can you suggest any means of preventing him from acting thus?”

“Nothing more simple, good Señor de Silva. This coyote of the devil is your personal friend. If in the quality of your serving-man—that is, in times past—I chanced to apprehend a little of what was going on, you cannot blame me. If I am not mistaken, the dragoon captain has a little weakness for the pretty Doña Gertrudis. For that reason he will pay some regard to the danger that now hangs over the young lady’s head.”

“Danger! I do not comprehend you.”

“You will, presently. You may say to the captain outside there, that if he persists in breaking open your gates, he may capture us alive. That he may do, beyond doubt; but as to yourself, and your two daughters, he will find nothing more of you than your dead bodies. You understand me now?”

Arroyo need not have been so explicit. Half the speech would have been enough to explain his fearful meaning. The air of ferocity that characterised his features was sufficiently indicative of his thoughts.

The daughters of Don Mariano, terrified at his looks, flung themselves simultaneously into the arms of their father.

At that moment the notes of the bugle resounded through the building; and the voice of the dragoon was heard for the second time pronouncing his summons.

The haciendado, troubled about the fate of his children—thus completely in the power of his unfaithful vaqueros, whose companions crowded the corridor—permitted the second summons to pass without response.

“Mil Devionios!” cried the bandit, “why do you hesitate? Come! show yourself at the window, and make known to this furious captain what I have told you. Carrai! if you do not—”

The bugle sounding for the third summons drowned the remainder of the brigand’s speech. As soon as the trumpet notes had ceased to echo from the walls, a voice was heard from without, the tones of which produced within the heart of Gertrudis at the same moment both fear and joy.

It was the voice of Rafael.

Quickly following it were heard the cries of the troopers as they called aloud—

“Death to the enemies of Spain!”

“One moment!” shouted Don Mariano, presenting himself at the window, where he could command a view of the plain below; “I have two words to say to your captain: where is he?”

“Here!” responded Don Rafael, riding a pace or two in front.

“Ah! pardon,” said the haciendado, with a bitter smile; “I have hitherto known Captain Tres-Villas only as a friend. I could not recognise him in the man who threatens with ruin the house where he has been a guest.”

At this imprudent speech—whose irony Don Mariano had not been able to conceal—the face of the Captain, hitherto deadly pale, became red.

“And I,” he replied, “can only recognise in you the promoter of an impious insurrection, which I have striven to crush, and the master of a mansion of which brigands are the guests. You have understood my summons? They must be delivered up.”

“In any case,” rejoined the haciendado, “I should not have betrayed those I had promised to protect. As it is, however, I am not left to my own choice in this matter; and I am charged to say to you, on the part of those whom you pursue, that they will poignard my two daughters and myself before suffering themselves to fall into your hands. Our lives depend on them, Captain Tres-Villas. It is for you to say, whether you still persist in your demand, that they be delivered up to you.”

The irony had completely disappeared from the speech and countenance of the haciendado, and his last words were pronounced with a sad but firm dignity, that went to the heart of Don Rafael.

A cloud came over it at the thought of Gertrudis falling under the daggers of the guerilleros, whom he knew to be capable of executing their threat; and it was almost with a feeling of relief that he perceived this means of escaping from a duty, whose fulfilment he had hitherto regarded as imperious.

“Well, then,” said he, after a short silence, and in a tone that bespoke the abandonment of his resolution, “say to the brigand, who is called Arroyo, that he has nothing to fear, if he will only show himself. I pledge my solemn word to this. I do not mean to grant him pardon—only that reprieve which humanity claims for him.”

“Oh! I don’t require your solemn word,” cried the bandit, impudently presenting himself by the side of Don Mariano. “Inside here I have two hostages, that will answer for my life better than your word. You wish me to show myself. What want you with me, Señor Captain?”

With the veins of his forehead swollen almost to bursting, his lip quivering with rage, and his eyes on fire, Don Rafael looked upon the assassin of his father—the man whom he had so long vainly pursued—the brigand, in fine, whom he could seize in a moment, and yet was compelled to let escape. No wonder that it cost him an effort to subdue the impetuous passions that were struggling in his breast.

Involuntarily his hand closed upon the reins of his bridle, and his spurs pressed against the flanks of his horse, till the animal, tormented by the touch, reared upwards, and bounded forward almost to the walls of the hacienda.

One might have fancied that his rider intended to clear the obstacle that separated him from his cowardly enemy—who, on his part, could not restrain himself from making a gesture of affright.

“That which I wish of the brigand Arroyo,” at length responded the Captain, “is to fix his features in my memory, so that I may know them again, when I pursue him, to drag his living body after the heels of my horse.”

“If it is to promise me only such favours that you have called me out—” said the bandit, making a motion to re-enter the chamber.

“Stay—hear me!” cried Don Rafael, interrupting him with a gesture; “your life is safe. I have said it. Humanity has compelled me to spare you.”

“Carrambo! I am grateful, Captain; I know the act is to your taste.”

“Gratitude from you would be an insult; but if in the red ditch-water that runs through your heart there be a spark of courage, mount your horse, choose what arms you please, and come forth. I defy you to single combat!”

Don Rafael in pronouncing this challenge rose erect in his stirrups. His countenance, noble and defiant, presented a strange contrast to the aspect of vulgar ferocity that characterised the features of the man thus addressed. The insult was point blank, and would have aroused the veriest poltroon; but Arroyo possessed only the courage of the vulture.

“Indeed?” responded he, sneeringly. “Bah! do you suppose me such a fool as to go down there? fifty to one!”

“I pledge my honour, as a gentleman,” continued the captain, “as an officer, in the presence of his soldiers; as a Christian, in the presence of his God—that whatever may be the issue of the combat—that is, if I succumb—no harm shall happen to you.”

For a moment the bandit appeared to hesitate. One might have fancied that he was calculating the chances of an encounter. But the address and valour of the dragoon captain were known to him by too many proofs, to allow him to reckon many chances in his favour. He dared not risk the combat.

“I refuse,” he said, at length.

“Mount your horse. I shall abandon mine, and fight you on foot.”

“Demonio! I refuse, I tell you.”

“Enough. I might have known it. One word more then, I shall still agree to your life being spared. I solemnly promise it, if you will allow the inmates of this hacienda to leave the place, and put themselves under the safeguard of a loyal enemy.”

“I refuse again,” said the bandit, with a demoniac sneer.

“Away, poltroon! you are less than man; and, by the God of vengeance, when this hand clutches you, you shall not die as a man, but as a mad dog.”

After delivering this terrible adieu, the captain put spurs to his horse, turning his back upon the bandit with a gesture of the most profound contempt.

The bugle sounded the “forward;” and the detachment, wheeling around the wall of the hacienda, once more took the road that led over the ridge.

Among other bitter reflections, with which this interview had furnished Don Rafael, not the least painful was his apprehension for the safety of Gertrudis. No wonder he should have fears; considering the character of the ruffians in whose power he was compelled to leave her.

The apprehensions of Don Rafael were only realised in part.

Two days afterwards he received information from one of his scouts—sent to Las Palmas for the purpose—that Arroyo and Bocardo had quitted the neighbourhood—this time in reality—and that Don Mariano and his daughters had suffered no further injury from them, beyond the pillage of their hacienda. This the robbers had stripped of every valuable that it was convenient for them to carry away.