Chapter 56 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Bandit Camp.

The bivouac fires appearing by the ford of the Ostuta were those of Arroyo and his guerilla.

At sunrise, this temporary encampment of the guerilleros presented a scene sufficiently animated and picturesque. A hundred men might be seen occupying themselves in grooming their horses. This they did in the most primitive fashion, some rubbing them down with bunches of dry grass, others with the first stone that offered, while still others, mounted on the bare backs of the animals, were swimming them through the stream, in order to wash and refresh them. On the bank the saddles were placed in a sort of irregular alignment, in the midst of bales of goods laid open, and of which only the coverings remained upon the ground, to tell of plunder taken from some unfortunate arriero.

On the right bank of the river—that side on which lay the hacienda San Carlos—was the principal encampment. There stood a large, rudely-shaped tent, constructed out of the covers of the despoiled packages—pieces of coarse hempen canvas and sack cloth, woven from the fibres of the maguey.

Two guerilleros, armed from head to foot, with carbines, swords, pistols, and knives, mounted guard on each side of it, pacing to and fro, but at such a distance from the tent that neither could hear what might be said within.

This rude marquee was the head-quarters of the two leaders, Arroyo and Bocardo, both of whom were at that moment inside. They were seated upon the skulls of bullocks, which served them for chairs, each smoking a cigarette rolled in the husk of Indian corn. From the attitude presented by Arroyo—his eyes bent upon the ground, which was cut up by the long heavy rowels of his spurs, it was evident that his astute associate was employing arguments to influence him to some deed of crime.

“Most certainly,” said the latter, with an air of drollery, “I am disposed to do justice to the good qualities of the Señora Arroyo; they are truly admirable. When a man is wounded, she volunteers to sprinkle red pepper over his wounds. Nothing can be more touching than the way she intercedes for the prisoners we condemn to death—that is, that they may be put to death as slowly as may be—I mean as gently as possible.”

“Ah, that is not selfishness on her part,” interrupted the husband. “She does so to please me rather than herself—poor thing.”

“True, she is greatly devoted to you—a worthy woman, indeed! Still, camarado,” continued Bocardo with a hesitation that told he had finished speaking the praises of Madame Arroyo; “you will acknowledge she is neither young nor very pretty.”

“Well—say she is old and ugly,” answered Arroyo, “she suits my purpose for all that.”

“That’s strange enough.”

“It’s less strange than you think for. I have my reasons. She shares with me the execration of the public; and if I were a widower—”

“You would have to bear it all on your own shoulders. Bah! they are broad enough for that!”

“True,” replied Arroyo, flattered at the compliment, “but you, amigo, have also a share of that load. It isn’t often that the name of Arroyo is cursed, without that of Bocardo being mixed up in the malediction.”

“Ah, there are too many lying tongues in this world!”

“Besides,” continued the brigand, returning to the subject of Madame Arroyo, “I have another good reason for wishing that no harm should come to my wife. She is in possession of a scapulary, blessed by the Pope of Rome; which has the wonderful power of causing the husband of whatever woman may carry it to die at the same time that his wife does.”

“Oh!” rejoined Bocardo in a tone of repudiation, “I did not mean that you should kill the Señora Arroyo—nothing of the kind. My idea is that she should be sent to a convent of penitents, where she might occupy her time in praying for the salvation of her soul, as well as that of her husband. Then replace her by a pretty young damsel, with eyes and hair as black as night, lips as red as the flowers of the grenadine, and skin as white as the floripondio. Now you can tell what for the last half-hour I have been killing myself to make you comprehend.”

“And do you know of such a pretty young damsel?” inquired Arroyo after an interval of silence, which proved that the arguments of his associate were not lost upon him.

“Of course I do, and so do you as well—one that you could lay your hands on at any moment.”

“Where?”

“Where? At the hacienda of San Carlos. Where else should she be?”

“You mean the Doña Marianita de Silva?”

“Precisely so.”

“Mil demonios, camarado! Do you intend us to save every hacienda in the country? Of course it is for the sake of pillaging the house, that you wish me to possess myself of its mistress?”

“The owner of San Carlos is a Spaniard,” rejoined Bocardo, without making any direct reply to the insinuation of his associate. “It would surely be no great crime to take either the wife or property of a Gachupino.”

“Hold, amigo! that Gachupino is as great a friend to the insurgent cause as you or I. He has furnished us with provisions, and—”

“True; but he does it out of pure fear. How can you suppose that any one is a true insurgent, who has chests filled with bags of dollars, drawers crammed with silver plate, and besides,” added Bocardo to conceal his true designs, “such a pretty young wife by his side. Bah! we were fools that we did not also take Don Mariano’s two daughters from him, at the same time that we disembarrassed him of his plate. We should have been better off now, and I too should have possessed a beautiful creature, whereas I am still a solitary bachelor. But it’s my luck, camarado, always to sacrifice my own interests to yours!”

“Look here, Bocardo!” said the brigand leader after a moment of pensive silence, in which he appeared to reflect upon the proposals of his astute associate, “we shall get ourselves into trouble, if we carry on in this fashion. It may end in our being hunted down like a pair of wild beasts.”

“We have a hundred and fifty devoted followers,” simply replied the other, “every one of them brave and true as his dagger.”

“Well!” said Arroyo, still speaking in a reflective tone, “I do not say, but—I shall think it over.”

The eyes of Bocardo flashed with a fierce joy as he perceived the undecided bearing of his associate. Well knew he that, before the end of that day, he should be able to obtain Arroyo’s full consent and co-operation in the dark and terrible deed he had designed to accomplish.