Chapter 43 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Roncador Restored.

Captain Tres-Villas, now compelled to obey the order he had received from the commander-in-chief, proceeded to rejoin his regiment. Caldelas, at the same period, promoted to the rank of commandant, was summoned away from Del Valle; and the garrison of the hacienda which still remained fell under the command of Lieutenant Veraegui, a Catalan.

During the events which followed, Don Rafael saw a great deal of active service. He bore a conspicuous part in the battle of Calderon, where the Royalist general, Calleja, with only six thousand soldiers, routed the undisciplined army of Hidalgo, numbering nearly an hundred thousand men!

After being carried by the chances of the campaign into almost every province of the vice-royalty, Don Rafael was at length ordered back to Oajaca, to assist in the siege of Huajapam. It was while on his passage to this latter province from the fort of San Blas, that he appeared for a moment off the isle of Roqueta.

At the siege of Huajapam, his old comrade Caldelas re-appears as a general; while Don Rafael himself, less fortunate, has not risen above the rank of a colonel.

Such, briefly, is the history of the dragoon captain up to the time when the vaquero, Julian, arrived in the camp at Huajapam.

The announcement of this messenger caused within the bosom of Don Rafael an emotion sudden and vivid. Absence, remarks a moralist, which soon dissipates a slight affection, has the very opposite effect upon a profound passion. It only inflames it the more—just as the wind extinguishes the flame of a candle, while it augments the blaze of a conflagration. Absence had produced upon Don Rafael an effect of the latter kind. He lived in the hope that Gertrudis might some day send him a message of pardon and love. No wonder, then, that he was moved by the arrival of a messenger from that part of the country.

“Well, Julian,” said he, in a tone of assumed carelessness, “you have news for me—what is it, my lad? I hope the insurgents have not captured our fortress?”

“Oh no, master,” replied Julian; “the soldiers at the hacienda only complain of having nothing to do. A little scouting through the country—where they might have the chance of sacking a rich hacienda—would be more to their taste and fancy. As to that, the news which I bring to your Honour will probably procure them this opportunity.”

“You bring news of our enemy, I presume?”

The tone of disappointment in which the interrogatory was put, was sufficiently marked to strike even the ear of Julian.

“Yes, Captain,” replied he, “but I have other messages; and, to begin with that which is least important, I fancy it will be agreeable to your honour to know that I have brought along with me your favourite, Roncador.”


“Yes; the brave bay-brown you lost in your affair at Las Palmas. He has been recovered for you, and taken care of. Ah! he has been marvellously cared for, I can assure your Honour. He was sent back to the hacienda.”

“Who sent him?” hastily inquired Don Rafael.

“Why, who could it be, your Honour, but Don Mariano de Silva. One of his people brought the horse to Del Valle three days ago—saying that he supposed the owner of such a fine animal would be pleased to have him again. As the saddle and bridle had been lost, a new saddle and bridle were sent along with him. Ah! splendid they are—the bridle, with a pretty bunch of red ribbons on the frontlet!”

“Where are these ribbons?” hastily asked Don Rafael, carried away by the thought that a sight of them might enable him to divine whether the hand of Gertrudis had attached them to the frontlet.

“One of our people—Felipe el Galan—took them to make a cockade with.”

“Felipe is a silly fellow, whom, one of these days, I shall punish for his indiscretion.”

“I told him so, your Honour; but he would take them. I should add, your Honour, that the servant of Don Mariano also brought a letter for you.”

“Ah! why did you not tell me so at first?”

“I began at the beginning, your Honour,” replied the phlegmatic Julian. “Here is the letter.”

The messenger drew from the pocket of his jaqueta a small packet done up in a leaf of maize, inside which he had prudently concealed the letter. Unfolding the leaf, he handed the note to Don Rafael, whose hand visibly trembled on taking it.

In vain did he attempt to dissemble his emotion under the studied air of coolness with which he received the letter, which he permitted to remain unopened.

This letter, thought he, should be from Gertrudis; and he dwelt on the voluptuous pleasure he was about to enjoy while reading it alone.

“Well, Julian,” said he, after a pause, “anything else have you to tell me of?”

“Yes, your Honour; the most important of all. Arroyo, Bocardo, and their bandits have returned to the neighbourhood; and Lieutenant Veraegui has charged me to say to you—”

“Arroyo! Bocardo!” interrupted Don Rafael, all at once re-awaking from his sweet dreams to thoughts of vengeance. “Tell Lieutenant Veraegui to give double rations to his horses, and get them ready for a campaign. Say that in two or three days I shall be with him, and we shall enter upon it. The last assault upon Huajapam is to be made this very day, and the place must either fall, or we raise the siege. I shall then obtain leave from the Commander-in-chief, and by the Virgin! I shall capture these two ruffians, or set the whole province on fire. Vaya, Julian!”

Julian was about to depart, when Don Rafael’s eye, once more alighting upon the little billet which promised to yield him a moment of sweet happiness, called the messenger back to him.

“Stay a moment!” said he, looking around for his purse, “you have been the bearer of good news, Julian. Here!”

And, as he said this, he placed in the hands of the messenger an onza of gold.

Julian accepted the douceur with eagerness—not without profound astonishment at being so generously recompensed for reporting the re-appearance of Arroyo and his band! Nevertheless, his satisfaction at the perquisite far exceeded his surprise.

As soon as he had gone out of the tent, Don Rafael took the letter from the table—where he had for the moment deposited it—and held it for some seconds in his hand without daring to open it. His heart rose and fell in violent pulsations, for he had no doubt that the letter was from Gertrudis, and it was the first souvenir he had received from her for nearly two years—since he had embraced the Royalist cause.

In fine, he opened the note. Although written in a feminine hand, it was more like that of Marianita than Gertrudis, and contained only the following words:—

“The inmates of Las Palmas are not forgetful that they have received a kindness from Don Rafael Tres-Villas under very critical circumstances; and they believe that the Colonel Tres-Villas might be gratified at having restored to him the noble steed which the Captain Tres-Villas had such reason to esteem.”

“A kindness!” exclaimed Don Rafael, with bitter emphasis, “what ingratitude! A service rendered by the betrayal of an oath sworn over the head of my murdered father! They call it a kindness—an act of simple politeness, forsooth! Oh! I must endeavour to think no more of those who have forgotten me.”

And with a bitter sigh the Colonel strode forth from his tent, and proceeded towards the marquee of the Commander-in-chief—where the council of war was at that moment assembling.

Notwithstanding his chagrin, however, Don Rafael did not tear up the letter that had caused such disappointment, nor yet did he fling it away. Perhaps it had been touched by the hand of Gertrudis; and, with this thought passing through his mind, he placed the billet in a little pocket in his uniform, which chanced to be on the left side, just over his heart.

While passing towards head-quarters, another reflection crossed his mind, that exerted a consolatory influence upon his spirits. Gertrudis knew how much he prized the noble bay-brown—so often caressed by her hand. Was it for that reason the horse had been sent back to him? Was it she who had attached the rosette of ribbons to the bridle, to recall the flowers of the grenadine which in happier times she had placed upon his frontlet?

It was sweet happiness to believe it was she.