Chapter 45 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Valerio Trujano.

In Colonel Valerio Trujano the reader will recognise the ex-muleteer, who, it will be remembered, declined exposing his life to the chances of war before paying his debts. Though in full command at Huajapam, he was simply a leader of guerilleros—nothing more; and in these partisan chieftains the country at the time abounded. The renown, however, which Trujano had gained within the narrow sphere of his exploits, had already rendered him a subject of constant inquietude to the government of Oajaca; and to crush this formidable enemy had been the object of the march upon Huajapam, where Trujano chanced to be at the time. The Royalist officers believed that a favourable opportunity had offered, in the absence of two of Trujano’s ablest supporters—Miguel and Nicolas Bravo—both of whom had been summoned by Morelos to assist at the siege of Cuautla.

Such was the importance attached to the defeat of the religious insurgent, that the government employed against him nearly every soldier in the province—concentrating its whole force upon Huajapam.

The little town was at the time entirely without fortifications of any kind, and on all sides open to an enemy. All the more does the remarkable defence made by Trujano deserve to be immortalised. Fortunately for him the place was well supplied with provisions.

For all this, resistance against such a superior force would have been impossible, according to the ordinary rules of war; and it was not by these that Trujano succeeded in making it.

His first act was to store all the provisions in a common magazine; and these were served out every morning in rations to each soldier and each head of a family among the citizens. He also established a code of discipline, almost monastic in its severity; which discipline, from the first hour of the siege, in the midst of its most sanguinary episodes, during the long period of nearly four months, he managed to maintain without the slightest infraction. The energy of his character, combined with the prudence of his dispositions, obtained for him an irresistible ascendency over both soldiers and citizens.

The time was distributed for various purposes in the same manner as in a convent; and the most part of it that was not taken up by military duties, was spent in prayers and other devotional exercises. Orations and vespers were performed in public—every one, both soldiers and citizens, taking part; and in this remote village, cut off from all communication with the world, amidst a population little used to the pleasures of life, hourly prayers were offered up with that fervour with which the mariner implores the protection of God against the fury of the storm.

It must be acknowledged that these dispositions were somewhat droll and eccentric. They were prudent, however; since the followers of the insurgent chieftain, thus continually kept in occupation, had no time to become discouraged. If provisions were becoming scarce, they knew nothing about it. No curious gossips were permitted to explore the magazines, and report upon their emptiness. No indiscreet tongue was allowed to talk of approaching starvation. This arrangement could only lead to one of two issues: either the besiegers must destroy the last man in Huajapam, or themselves abandon the siege.

During more than a hundred days, as already stated, this strange condition of things existed in the town; and in all that time only one attempt had been made from without to relieve the place. This was by the insurgent leaders, Colonel Sanchez and the priest Tapia. The attempt had proved a failure; but even that did not shake the constancy of Trujano and his followers. The discouragement was altogether on the side of the Royalists.

Among the besieged perfect confidence was placed in their leader—a truly extraordinary man—one in whom were united the most brilliant qualities, and even those of a kind that are rarely found existing together.

Never did he permit the ardour of his courage to interfere with the prudence of his plans; and never did he advance them too hastily to maturity. Brave almost to rashness, he nevertheless calculated minutely the chances of a combat before commencing it. His frank open countenance had something so winning in it, that all freely yielded up their secret thoughts to him, while no one could penetrate his.

His gentleness towards his soldiers, tempered with a due measure of justice, had the effect of gaining their obedience by love rather than fear. An indefinable charm, in short, emanated from his person, which excluded all idea of disobedience to his will.

It may here be observed that at this period of the Mexican Revolution (1812), the Spaniards were in possession of all the resources of administration—the posts, and express couriers, with the principal highways of the country. The insurrectionary forces were in scattered and isolated bodies, either besieged in towns or pursued among the sierras. Bearing these facts in mind, it will not be wondered at, that although, while Trujano was besieged in Huajapam, and Morelos was in Cuautla, at the distance of only two or three days’ journey, the Mexican general was entirely ignorant of the situation of the ex-muleteer! Even a month after Morelos had evacuated Cuautla, and retired upon Isucar, the position of his compatriot still remained unreported to him. Fortunately Trujano had learnt the whereabouts of the general, and had despatched a messenger to him demanding assistance.

Enclosed as Huajapam was by the enemy—who guarded every approach with the strictest vigilance—it seemed impossible that any messenger could make his way through their lines. Several days had passed since the man—an Indian—had gone out of the town; but whether he had succeeded in safely reaching Morelos’ camp, or whether he might be able to return with the answer, were questions of prime importance to the plans of Trujano.

On that same day in which the council of war was held in the Spanish camp, Trujano had ordered a mass to be performed—specially devoted to prayer for the return of his messenger. It was in the evening, the hour succeeding twilight, that this mass was held; and all the population of the town, including the soldiers, was assembled in the public piazza, which was illuminated by torches of ocote, although the moon was shining brilliantly above. A church, whose dome was shattered with bombs, and rows of houses in ruins, surrounded the square. The temple in which the offering was made was the Piazza itself, and the roof was the starry canopy of the sky. There, under the red glare of the torches, might be seen the assembled people of Huajapam; the priests who assisted at the ceremony in their robes, covering a military garb underneath; the women, children, and aged, grouped around the walls of the houses; the soldiers, in ragged uniforms, with guns in hand; and the wounded seated upon doorsteps with bloody bandages—having dragged themselves thither to take part in the sacred ceremonial.

Profound silence reigned throughout the Piazza.

On the appearance of a man who advanced into the centre of the square, his countenance calm, and his eye beaming with religious enthusiasm, every head was uncovered, or bent in obeisance. This man was Trujano.

Stopping in the midst of the multitude, he made sign that he was about to address them. The silence, if possible, became more profound.

“Children!” he commenced in a sonorous voice, “the Scripture saith, ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ Let us pray, then, to the God of battles to watch with us!”

All bent down at the summons, the speaker kneeling in their midst.

“This evening,” said he, “we celebrate mass for a special purpose. Let us pray for our messenger; let us pray to God to protect him on his journey, and grant him a safe return. Let us sing praises to that God, who has hitherto preserved from evil the children who have trusted in Him!”

The speaker then intoned the verse of the well-known psalm—

“His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noon day.”

After each verse of the psalm, the people repeated—

“Lord have compassion upon us! Lord have mercy upon us!”

The devout Colonel, as if he expected that God would show him some signal mark of his favour, in more emphatic tone chanted the verse—

“I will deliver him because he hath known My name; I will protect him because he hath loved Me.”

And as if in reality the Divine interpretation had been granted, the messenger at that moment appeared entering the Piazza!

The man had seen Morelos, and brought back the glad news that the insurgent general would instantly place his army en route for the relief of Huajapam.

Trujano, raising his eyes to heaven, cried out—

“Bless the Lord! oh, bless the Lord, all ye who are His servants!”

He then proceeded to distribute the supper rations—giving them out with his own hands—after which the torches were extinguished, and the besieged betook themselves to sleep, trusting in Him who never slumbers, and whose protection was to them as a shield and buckler.