Chapter 54 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Topographical Details.

In proportion as the insurrection spread through the province of Oajaca did the Royalists increase their watchfulness in the capital; and Don Mariano, having become suspected of a leaning towards the insurgent cause, was ordered to leave the place.

Before taking his departure, he had despatched a messenger—the same already made mention of—to the hacienda Del Valle. Upon what errand? We shall know presently.

On the same day that the messenger had presented himself to the Catalan lieutenant, and almost at the same hour, Don Rafael Tres-Villas was galloping as a fugitive through the plain of Huajapam. On that morning, also, Don Mariano de Silva took his departure from Oajaca, en route for the hacienda San Carlos. The haciendado was accompanied by his daughter Gertrudis, borne in a litter, and attended by a number of mounted domestics. The pale cheeks of the young girl, contrasted with the purplish circles around her eyes, proclaimed the mental agony she had endured.

Finally, on that same day, only at a later hour, another important personage of our history—the Captain Don Cornelio Lantejas—rode out from the camp of Morelos—evidently bent upon a journey, as was testified by the travelling costume that had replaced his military uniform. He was accompanied by two men, easily recognised as the scouts Costal and Clara.

Don Cornelio had been ordered by the insurgent general on a mission, confidential as it was dangerous.

The summer solstice was close at hand; and the black and the Indian—the latter having now accomplished his half century of years—were discussing between themselves the best plan for raising the Siren of the dishevelled hair from the waters of the mysterious lake, Ostuta, on whose banks they expected to encamp, before Don Cornelio had finally accomplished his mission.

Although this mission was of a secret and confidential character, it will be no betrayal of confidence on our part to state at once what it was.

The taking of the capital of Oajaca would not only render Morelos master of the whole province, but of all the southern part of New Spain—from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The insurgent general was, therefore, anxious to complete this magnificent conquest before the closing of that year’s campaign.

Nevertheless, in the prospect of attacking a town so populous and well garrisoned as Oajaca, he deemed it prudent to gain some information as to its actual resources; and it was chiefly upon this errand he had despatched his aide-de-camp Lantejas.

The mission of the Captain had another object, of secondary importance, which, however, was the first to be accomplished. To the honour of the cause which Morelos upheld, it was of urgent necessity to put an end to the depredations of the two notorious guerilleros, Arroyo and Bocardo; whose deeds of cruel atrocity were rapidly producing the effect of rendering the insurrection as odious to its partisans as to its enemies. The force which these two leaders had under their command was as little known as the whereabouts in which they might be found; but their bloody deeds had rendered them as much dreaded as if a numerous army had been under their orders. The rapidity of their movements gave them the opportunity of multiplying, to an indefinite extent, their acts of ferocity, though at the same time a pursuer in search of them might easily have found them by the ensanguined track which marked their passage.

Arroyo, ever ready to imbrue his hands in blood—no matter whose—seemed to find a savage pleasure in destroying life; and one of his favourite habits was to be himself the executioner of his victims. He was endowed with some brute courage, a quality altogether wanting to his associate, Antonio Bocardo; for the latter was both cowardly and cruel, though in general more inclined to robbery than murder.

Morelos had been apprised of the outrages committed by these two bandits; and a message to them was one of the commissions with which Captain Lantejas had been charged. The message was in the form of a simple threat—it was to say to them, on the part of the insurgent general, that, unless they discontinued those outrages which had so long dishonoured the insurgent cause, they should both be drawn and quartered.

From the reputation which these two brigands had acquired, of being little mindful of military authority—as well as on account of the rigid guard which the Spaniards had established in Oajaca—it will be seen that we have spoken only the simple truth in saying that the mission of Captain Lantejas was anything but a safe one. With melancholy mien, therefore, he traversed the road leading from Huajapam to the Ostuta river—upon the banks of which it was reported that Arroyo and his band were at that time encamped.

Before proceeding farther, it will be necessary to give, at a bird’s-eye view—if we may use the expression—the topography of the country lying in the triangle between Huajapam, Oajaca, and the Lake Ostuta: for this is now to become the arena of the future events of our narrative.

Regarding Huajapam and the town of Oajaca as on the same line, we find a road running from each—the two gradually converging until they meet. The point of union is upon the banks of the Ostuta river, not far from the lake, and where a ford crosses the stream. Before arriving at this ford, the hacienda Del Valle lies to one side of the Oajaca road, while about an hour’s journey after crossing the river the domain of San Carlos is reached. These two estates—each embracing an immense tract of territory—would be contiguous to each other, but for the river which flows between and separates them.

Arroyo, having returned to the neighbourhood, with the number of his followers augmented by recent successes, as well as by the more favourable prospects of the insurrection, had sworn not to leave a stone of the hacienda Del Valle standing in its place; and to accomplish this vow was the object of his presence on the banks of the Ostuta.

His band, divided into two encampments, held both sides of the river, just by the crossing. Thus disposed, he could direct himself at will either against San Carlos or Del Valle.

It was not only possible, but probable, that the messenger of Don Mariano de Silva, going from Del Valle to Huajapam, would meet Don Rafael coming in the opposite direction, and about half way; since, as already stated, both had set out about the same time. It was also likely enough that Don Mariano and his daughter, en route for San Carlos, would encounter Captain Lantejas, travelling from Huajapam somewhere not far from the crossing of the Ostuta. The time at which both had started on their respective journeys would favour this probability. Finally, Don Rafael, making for the hacienda Del Valle, unless some accident should detain him, might meet all those personages almost at the same instant of time.

The principal characters of our history would thus be once more united on the banks of the Ostuta.