Chapter 47 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Decoy Sentry.

On the same evening while the besieged were celebrating mass in the Piazza of Huajapam, other scenes were occurring not many leagues distant. Behind the chain of hills which bounded the plain of Huajapam, and in the rear of the Royalist encampment, a third army had suddenly made its appearance—though still invisible to the Spanish sentries. Morelos, true to his promise, with a thousand soldiers under his command, was hastening forward to the relief of Trujano. These were all the regular troops at his disposal; as he had been compelled to leave a strong garrison in the town of Chilapa, which he had also recently taken from the Royalists.

Besides his regulars, however, he was accompanied by a large force of Indians, armed with bows and slings.

At a short distance behind the General-in-chief, the Marshal Galeana and Captain Don Cornelio Lantejas were riding side by side.

Notwithstanding the distinguished position which he held in the insurgent army, the ci-devant student of theology seemed ill at ease. Some secret grief was troubling his spirit.

“The General is quite right in refusing you leave of absence,” said Galeana. “A brave and experienced officer like you cannot be well spared; and your persistence in asking for leave has greatly offended him, I can assure you. As for that, my dear Lantejas, leave it to me. I am much mistaken if I don’t soon find you an opportunity of achieving some bold deed, which will be certain to reinstate you in the General’s favour. You will only have to slay three or four Spanish soldiers, or a Royalist officer of high rank, and that will set you all straight with Morelos.”

“I should prefer slaying the officer, I think,” answered Lantejas, scarce knowing what to say in reply.

To him, who had hitherto been only a hero by simple accident, the idea of premeditating any act that would distinguish him, only brought a fresh shadow upon the horizon of his future; and he would gladly have resigned the honours he had already gained for leave to escape being the candidate for new ones.

As soon as Morelos’ army had halted for the night, the General and Galeana commenced deliberating on some plan by which they might give the enemy a decisive blow. The strategy which appeared most to recommend itself was to get the Royalist army between two fires; that is, while the troops of Morelos himself assaulted the Spanish camp in the rear, those of Trujano should make a sortie from the town, and attack the enemy on his front.

To the carrying out of this design the chief obstacle that presented itself was the difficulty of communicating with the besieged. The messenger of Trujano had left the camp of Morelos before the idea of such an attack had been conceived. Was there any one in the insurgent army who could pass the Royalist lines, and carry a message into the town? That became the question, which, as it so happened, Don Cornelio Lantejas was able to answer in the affirmative.

The Captain was in command of the Indians, one of whom had informed him that he knew a secret way by which the town could be entered. The patriotic Indian at the same time declared his willingness to carry a message to Colonel Trujano.

On communicating this information to the General, Lantejas had no thought of the honourable commission it would be the means of obtaining for himself. Perhaps, had he suspected what was in store for him, he would have withheld it. He did not do so, however; and, on disclosing the fact to Morelos, the General at once ordered him to accompany the Indian, taking along with him some half-dozen of his trustiest men.

An honour thus offered by the Commander-in-chief of an army cannot, without difficulty, be declined; and Don Cornelio was constrained to accept it.

Choosing for his companions Costal and Clara, with some half-dozen others, and, preceded by the Indian guide, he set forth towards the town.

After two hours spent in climbing the hills, they came within sight of the bivouac fires of the Spanish camp—towards which they proceeded without making stop, until they had arrived near the line of pickets. Here the guide halted the party, concealing them behind a ruined wall.

From this point a road, deeply sunk below the surface of the plain, ran past the place where one of the Spanish pickets held post. It was the same post where, but a short while before, the earless Indian had succeeded in deceiving the sentry. The one now on post was not the same. The guard had been meanwhile relieved and another sentry had taken the place; who, by the uneasy glances which, from time to time, he kept casting around him, was evidently under the belief that his position was a dangerous one.

Many causes combined to render the new sentinel sufficiently uncomfortable. The night was disagreeably cold; the companionship of the corpses, whose mutilated state presented death before his eyes in its most hideous aspect; their odour horribly infecting the air;—all these causes, coming together, could not fail to inspire the soldier with a secret fear.

To chase away his unpleasant reflections—as well as to keep his blood warm against the chill breeze—he walked to and fro in double quick time. The only moments when he remained motionless were at those intervals when it was necessary for him to pause and call out the usual phrase: “Alerta, centinela!”

“I am sorry for the poor devil!” said Costal, “we must send him to keep guard in the next world.”

The wall behind which they had halted, although tumbled down and in ruins, still rose sufficiently high to screen the party from the eyes of the sentinel. Moreover, between the latter and the ruin, the ground was thickly studded with aloe plants and bushes of wild wormwood.

“Let us first get rid of the sentry,” said Costal; “that accomplished, scatter yourselves among the bushes, and leave the rest to me.”

On giving this counsel, the Zapoteque borrowed a sling from one of the Indians, in which he placed a stone carefully chosen. Then ordering two others to make ready their bows, he continued, addressing himself to Don Cornelio—

“You, Señor Captain, can give the signal. Take two stones—strike them together so that the fellow may hear you—strike them twice. And you,” continued he, turning to the bowmen, “on hearing the second stroke, take good aim, and let fly your arrows.”

Costal stood holding the sling in readiness. It was one of those rare occasions when the bow and the sling serve better than any kind of firearm.

Lantejas brought the two stones into collision with a loud crack.

The sentry heard the concussion, suddenly halted in his steps, brought his piece to the “ready,” and stood listening.

The Captain gave the second signal. The stone and arrows hissed simultaneously through the air; and, struck by all three, the soldier fell dead without even uttering a cry.

“Go! scatter yourselves among the bushes,” cried Costal, hurriedly; “the rest I can manage better without you.”

Don Cornelio and the Indians, in obedience to Costal’s injunction, glided from behind the wall, and crept forward among the aloes.

As they were advancing, directly in front of them, there arose the cry, “Alerta, centinela!” It came from the place where the sentry had just fallen; and Don Cornelio, on looking in that direction, perceived, to his horror and surprise, that the man was once more upon his feet, and walking his rounds as if nothing had happened!

Lantejas turned to demand an explanation from Costal, but the latter was nowhere to be seen. The Captain then faced towards the other Indians; but these, instead of concealing themselves any longer behind the bushes, had risen erect, and were running past the sentinel, who seemed to take no notice of them!

A ray of light broke upon the mind of the innocent Lantejas.

“Santissima!” cried he, “the sentinel—it must be Costal himself!”

And so it was. The living had replaced the dead; and so aptly did Costal imitate the voice and movements of the soldier who had fallen, that the other sentries along the line had not the slightest suspicion of the change that had taken place.

On comprehending the situation of affairs, Don Cornelio sprang to his feet; and, passing the decoy sentinel, ran on at full speed towards the walls of the town—where his Indians had already preceded him.

Seeing his captain clear through the lines, Costal flung away the shako and musket of the soldier, and hastened after.

Soon overtaking Don Cornelio, he cried out, “Quicker, run quicker, Señor Captain! The others will give the alarm as soon as they have missed their comrade!”

As he spoke, he caught Don Cornelio by the wrist, and dragged him along at such a rate that the Captain was scarce able to keep upon his feet.

In a few seconds they reached the line of the Mexican sentries, who, already warned of their approach by the Indians, permitted them to enter the town without opposition. On entering the Piazza they encountered Trujano himself; who, with his sword girded on, was making a round of the village before retiring to rest.

While Don Cornelio was delivering to him the message of Morelos, the Colonel directed scrutinising glances both upon the Captain and his Indian companion. He had some vague recollection of having once before seen the two men, but he could not remember where. At the moment that Don Cornelio finished speaking, his recollection had become more clear upon the point, “Ah!” exclaimed he, “I was thinking where I had met you. Are you not the young student who had such confidence in the mandate of the Bishop of Oajaca, and who, at the hacienda of Las Palmas, denounced the insurrection as a deadly crime?”

“The same,” answered Lantejas, with a sigh.

“And you,” continued Trujano, addressing himself to Costal, “are you not the tiger-hunter of Don Mariano de Silva?”

“The descendant of the caciques of Tehuantepec,” answered Costal proudly.

“God is great, and his ways are inscrutable,” rejoined the ex-muleteer, with the inspired air of a prophet of Judah.

After having more substantially repeated his message, Don Cornelio was conducted by the Colonel to his quarters, and shown the apartment in which he was to sleep.

It only remained for him to seek the few hours’ rest that would intervene before daybreak—the hour fixed for the decisive battle which was to take place. Wrapped in his cloak, he flung himself upon the wooden bench that served for a bed—vowing to himself as he fell asleep to attempt no heroic deeds on the following day, beyond those which were rigorously necessary for the defence of his own person.