Chapter 44 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Council of War.

The Commander-in-chief Bonavia, the generals of brigade—Caldelas and Regules—were seated around a table covered with a green cloth, when Don Rafael entered the marquee. The council had not yet commenced.

“Ah! Colonel,” cried Bonavia, addressing Don Rafael, as he entered, “I understand you have received a message from Del Valle. Is it of a private nature, or one that may assist the Royalist cause?”

“The lieutenant who commands the garrison of Del Valle informs me that those two guerilleros, whom both sides now regard as outlaws—Arroyo and Bocardo, I mean—have returned to Oajaca with their band. I have the honour to solicit from your Excellency that, after this place is taken, you will grant me permission to go in pursuit of these brigands, and hunt them as wild beasts.”

“You shall have leave to do so, Colonel. I know no one better qualified to perform such a duty.”

“I can promise your Excellency that no one will set about it with more zeal, nor follow it up with more perseverance.”

The war council was then inaugurated without further delay.

Without reporting all that passed at Huajapam, we shall give a few details that may render more clear the relative situation of the besieged and the besiegers at this memorable blockade of Huajapam.

“Gentlemen,” began Bonavia, addressing himself to his assembled officers, “it is now one hundred and fourteen days since we opened siege upon this paltry town. Without counting skirmishes, we have made fourteen regular attacks upon it; and yet we are at this hour no nearer capturing it than we were on the first day!”

“Less nearer, I should say,” interposed Regules, when the Commander-in-chief had ceased speaking. “The confidence of the besieged has grown stronger by the success of their obstinate resistance. When we first invested the place, they possessed not a single cannon. Now they have three pieces, which this Colonel Trujano has caused to be cast out of the bells of the churches.”

“That is as much as to say that General Regules is of opinion we should raise the siege?”

This speech was delivered by Caldelas in a tone of irony, which plainly expressed that a certain animosity existed between these two generals. Such was in reality the fact—a feeling of rivalry having long estranged them from each other. Caldelas was an energetic officer, brave, and of undoubted loyalty; while Regules, on the other hand, was noted for unnecessary severity, while his courage was more than questionable.

“It is just that question I have summoned you to discuss,” said Bonavia, without giving Regules time to reply to the taunt of his rival, “whether we are to raise the siege or continue it. It is for Colonel Tres-Villas, who is the youngest of you, and of lowest grade, to give his advice first. Pronounce, Colonel!”

“When fifteen hundred men besiege a place like Huajapam, defended by only three hundred, they should either take it, or to the last man die upon its ramparts. To do otherwise, would be to compromise not only their own honour but the cause which they serve. That is the opinion I have the honour of submitting to your Excellency.”

“And you, General Caldelas, what is your advice?”

“I agree with the Colonel. To raise the siege would be a pernicious example for the Royalist troops, and a deplorable encouragement to the insurrection. What would the brave Commander-in-chief of our army—Don Felix Calleja—say to our raising the siege? During a hundred days he besieged Cuautla Amilpas, defended by a general far more skilful than Trujano—Morelos himself—and yet on the hundredth day he was master of the town.”

“Morelos evacuated the place,” interposed Regules.

“What matter if he did? By so doing, he acknowledged himself defeated; and the Spanish flag had the honours of a successful siege.”

It was now the turn of Regules to give his opinion.

He reviewed at full length the delays and difficulties they had experienced; the fruitless assaults and sanguinary skirmishes they had made. He argued that it was impolitic to stand upon an empty point of honour consuming the lives and courage of one thousand soldiers in front of a paltry village, while Morelos was at that moment marching on the capital of Oajaca.

“And when I say a thousand soldiers,” continued he, “I do not speak without reason. The Colonel, in speaking of fifteen hundred, must have counted our dead along with the living. Up to the present time, in all other parts of the vice-kingdom, our troops have only encountered enemies, inspired by what they please to designate ‘love of their country;’ while here, in our front, we have a host of religious fanatics, whom this droll muleteer, Trujano, has imbued with his own spirit, and it must be confessed, with his courage as well. It is not three hundred enemies against whom we are contending, but a thousand fanatics who fight under the influence of despair, and die with a song upon their lips. While we are here wasting time in useless attempts, the insurrection is spreading in other parts of the province, where we might be profitably employed in crushing it. My advice, then, is to raise a siege that has been disastrous in every point of view.”

“The besieged no doubt recall the exploits of Yanguitlan,” ironically remarked Caldelas. “That is why they defend themselves so well.”

At this allusion to Yanguitlan, which will be understood in the sequel, Regules bit his lips with suppressed chagrin, at the same time darting a look of concentrated hatred upon his rival.

To the view of the case presented by Regules, the General-in-chief was disposed to give in his adhesion. Less accessible to mere punctilios of honour than his younger officers, he saw in the advice of the brigadier reasons that were not wanting in a certain solidity. Without, however, availing himself of the full authority of his rank, he proposed an intermediate course. It was, that on the morrow, they should try one last and powerful attack; and if that should prove a failure then they might raise the siege.

While Bonavia was still speaking a singular noise reached the tent, as if coming from the besieged town. It appeared as a chorus of many voices intoning some solemn chaunt. This was followed by the clangour of horns and trumpets, and the explosion of fireworks—as if let off upon the occasion of a jubilee.

“These rejoicings,” remarked Regules, “are an ill omen for us. It is not to-morrow that the siege should be raised, but this very day.”

“That is to say,” rejoined Caldelas, “that we should take to flight before an exhibition of fireworks!”

“Or, like the walls of Jericho, fall down at the sound of trumpets!” added the Colonel.

“Well,” said Regules, “perhaps before long you may learn to your cost that I have been right.”

In spite of his opinion, however, a last assault was determined upon, to take place on the following morning; and after the plans were discussed and arranged, Bonavia dissolved the council; and the officers proceeded to their respective tents.

Don Rafael hastened towards his: he was anxious to be alone. He desired to indulge in reflection—to ponder upon the meaning of the message he had received—and above all to caress the sweet ray of hope which had lately entered his heart, so long desolate and sad.

He did not even deign to lend an ear to the tumultuous rejoicings that came swelling from the beleaguered town; although the whole Royalist camp was at that moment occupied with these demonstrations, the soldiers deeming them, as Regules had pronounced, sounds of sinister import.