Chapter 49 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Between Two Fires.

After the first moment of confusion had passed, the Royalists commenced preparing to receive the attack, with that coolness which springs from practised discipline. In a short while every one was at his post.

The sun was just appearing above the horizon, disclosing to each army the view of its antagonist. The advanced sentinels along the lines had already retired from their posts, and were hurrying towards the camp. In the town could be heard the voices of the besieged, in solemn chorus chaunting the psalm “Venite exultemus Domine,” while shouts of “Viva Morelos!” came from the opposite direction, and loud above all could be heard the noted war-cry of the marshal, “Aqui esta Galeana!”

Almost at the same instant a double fusillade opened its formidable dialogue from the two separate wings of the Spanish army. Trujano and Morelos replied to it; one attacking in front, and the other upon the rear. The hour of retaliation had come: the besiegers were now besieged in their turn.

Meanwhile Morelos, having given orders to Galeana to direct the movement, had posted himself upon a little hill; where, telescope in hand, he stood watching the progress of the action.

After having coolly arranged his plan of attack, Trujano impetuously launched himself upon the camp of Regules, at the same instant that Galeana was advancing upon that of Caldelas.

On both sides the firing was of short duration. Neither the Marshal nor Trujano were the men to remain long at a distance from their enemy; and both, charging impetuously forward, brought their men hand to hand with the Royalists.

Although inferior in numbers to their enemies, the guerilleros of Trujano made such a desperate attack upon the soldiers of Regules, that the latter, unable to sustain the shock, were thrown for a moment into confusion. Their general, however, succeeded in rallying them; and Trujano, with his handful of men, was held for a time in check.

Meanwhile, Bonavia and Caldelas, having united their forces, were using all their efforts to resist the desperate charges made by Galeana; who, notwithstanding the impetuosity of his attack, found himself unable to break through their line and form a junction with Trujano.

There are men in whose company it is impossible not to feel brave—or at least have the appearance of it—especially when fighting by their side. Trujano was one of this character. His ardent valour was contagious; and alongside of him, Lantejas had no difficulty in sustaining his reputation for courage.

Nevertheless, the battle seemed to the Captain to be hanging a long time undecided; and he was growing fearfully troubled that the day would go against them, when Trujano, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, cried out to him—

“Captain Lantejas! I fear we shall never be able to break their line with such a handful of men. Put spurs to your horse, and gallop round till you find General Morelos. Ask him to reinforce me with two or three battalions. Say that I have great need of them, and that the success of the day depends upon it. Ride quickly; and I shall endeavour to sustain the attack till your return. Vaya! Capitan!”

The aide-de-camp, on receiving the order, went off at a gallop, lance in hand.

At the same instant an officer rode forth from the camp of Regules, on a similar mission to the Commander-in-chief of the Spanish army. The latter, however, succeeded in executing his commission more promptly than Don Cornelio; and Bonavia hastened, notwithstanding the protest of Caldelas, to send to Regules the reinforcement he had demanded.

“That man will be our ruin,” said Caldelas to Tres-Villas, as the battalions were drawn from his brigade.

Don Rafael, mounted upon his favourite steed, El Roncador, was at this time making every effort to reach the Marshal, whose defiant war-cry, so often pealing in their ears, was beginning to create terror among the ranks of the Royalists.

“Mil demonios!” exclaimed Caldelas, “if Regules prove the cause of our defeat, I shall blow out his brains, and afterwards my own!”

As the brigadier pronounced this threat, his soldiers, pressed by a violent movement in front, commenced to give ground; and that which he had foreseen was likely to be realised. His brigade, weakened by the battalions sent as a reinforcement to Regules, was unable to withstand the desperate charges of Galeana; and, in a minute or two after, his troops broke line, fell back, and then scattered in full retreat.

Blinded by rage, Caldelas turned his horse, leaving to Don Rafael the duty of collecting the dispersed soldiers, and, furiously plying the spur, he galloped off towards the ground where Regules was still contesting the issue with Trujano.

Meanwhile Don Cornelio was going at full speed on his message to Morelos. He was not proceeding in a very direct line, however. Not desiring to get again embroiled in the battle, he had resolved on making a wide circuit round a vast field of maize, that extended along the edge of the plain, and slightly elevated above it. Every now and then he endeavoured to discover whether he was opposite the position held by Morelos; but in this he was unsuccessful; for the blades of the maize plants rising above his head hindered him from having a view over the plain. He at length reached a crossroad; and, deeming that he had ridden far enough to put him beyond the ground occupied by the Royalist forces, he turned his horse along the road, still going at a gallop.

The combatants were hidden from his view by a thicket of low bushes that skirted the side of the road. This, however, at length terminated abruptly; and Don Cornelio, riding into the open ground, all at once found himself in the presence of a large body of Spanish soldiers, who appeared in front of him forming a semicircle of swords, bayonets, and lances.

Terrified at the excess of his involuntary boldness, he turned his horse upon the instant, and plunged back into the crossroad; but he had scarce made three lengths of his horse in the back direction, when he saw riding towards him a Spanish officer, who, pistol in hand, and with a countenance red with rage, was uttering the most emphatic threats and protestations. In another instant they must meet face to face.

The advancing horseman had his eyes fixed upon the field of battle; and, although he did not appear to be aware of the approach of Don Cornelio, the latter had no other belief than that he himself was the object of the blasphemous menaces. If the Spaniard was not expressly searching after him to kill him, why should he thus cut off his retreat by the crossroad—the only direction that offered him a chance of escape?

Believing that the horseman was advancing to assail him, and suddenly nerved by despair, the Captain, on his side, charged forward; and delivering a vigorous thrust with the lance, he pierced his unsuspecting antagonist through the body, striking him lifeless out of his saddle!

A cry of grief reached the ears of the ex-student, coming from another part of the field; but not staying to see who had uttered it, he again spurred his steed along the crossroad—determined this time to make a détour sufficiently wide before heading towards the position of Morelos.

He had not gone far, however, when he heard a loud voice hailing him from behind; while the hoarse snorting of a horse was mingled with the cries—a snorting that resembled the roaring of a jaguar, and for that reason awakened within him the most terrible souvenirs.

“It is surely the horse of the Apocalypse?” muttered the ex-student of theology, while using every effort to maintain the distance that lay between himself and this mysterious pursuer.

In order to gallop more freely, he had flung away the lance, and was now plying the spurs with all the energy of a racing jockey; but still the singular snorting appeared to grow louder, and the pursuer was evidently gaining upon him.

To say the least, the situation of Captain Lantejas was becoming critical—to judge by the fierce zeal exhibited by his pursuer. Perhaps in all his life the ex-student had never been in a position of greater peril than at that moment.

Just as he was about reaching the crossing of the roads, he heard close behind him the breathing of the man who was in pursuit of him; and, glancing over his shoulder, he saw the head of the animal he had termed the horse of the Apocalypse—almost on a level with the croup of his saddle.

In another moment, a vigorous hand seized him by the collar, that lifting him out of his stirrups, dragged him backward, till he felt that he was lying across the pummel of his adversary’s saddle.

Don Cornelio now saw a poignard raised to strike, which flashed before his sight like the sword of an archangel. He closed his eyes, believing his last hour had come; when all at once the arm fell, and a voice cried out—

“Tomal Why it is Don Cornelio Lantejas!”

The ex-student reopened his eyes; and, looking up, recognised the young officer in whose company he had journeyed, on his way to San Salvador, whom he had afterwards met at the hacienda Las Palmas.