Chapter 57 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Real Virago.

The two brigands remained for some time without saying a word, both reflecting on the scheme of murder and pillage which they now premeditated. At this moment the tent flap was raised, and a figure appeared in the entrance. It was a woman of masculine mien—a true virago—robust and hale; but whose countenance betrayed the ravage of evil passions rather than time. Her coarse hair clubbed around her head, and held in its place by a large tortoiseshell comb with gold pendants, showed no sign of advanced age. It was black as ebony. Around her neck were hung numerous chains of gold and glass beads, to which were attached a number of crosses, scapularies, and other golden ornaments; but in spite of this gaudy adorning her countenance was hideous to behold, and did not belie the portrait of Arroyo’s wife which had been sketched by Bocardo, for it was she. As she presented herself at the opening of the tent, rage was depicted in her countenance, exhibiting itself in the swollen veins of her neck and forehead, and in the rolling of her bloodshot eyes.

“A shame on you!” cried she, casting on Bocardo, whom she both hated and despised, the angry look she feared to give her husband, “a shame on you, that after the oath you have taken, there should still remain a stone of this nest of vipers, or a man to defend it!”

“Well—what now?” demanded Arroyo, in an ill-humoured tone. “What nest of vipers are you speaking of?”

“The hacienda Del Valle—what other should it be? There our men—the greater number of them at least—have been besieging it for three days without any result. No, not without result, for I’ve just this moment learnt that three of our people have been killed in a sortie, and that this accursed Catalan, who commands the place, has nailed their heads over the door of the hacienda!”

“Who has told you this?” quickly demanded Arroyo.

“Gaspacho. He is outside awaiting your orders. He has been sent to ask for a reinforcement.”

“By all the devils!” cried Arroyo in a rage. “Woman! who has given you the privilege of interrogating the couriers that are sent me?”

As he put this interrogatory the brigand sprang to his feet; and, seizing the bullock’s skull upon which he had been seated, made a motion as if he would crush with it that of his amazonian partner. Perhaps, influenced by the late councils of Bocardo, he would have decided on bearing the public execration upon his own shoulders, had it not been for that scapulary blessed by the Pope, and whose fatal influence he at the moment remembered.

Bocardo paid no attention to the threatening demonstration of his associate, but sat phlegmatically silent.

“Maria Santissima!” exclaimed the virago, as she retreated before the angry menace of her husband. “Will you not protect me, Señor Bocardo?”

“Hum!” replied the latter, without moving from his seat, “you know the proverb, worthy Señora? Between the tree and the bark—you understand? These little domestic broils—”

“Must not occur any more,” interposed Arroyo, quieting down; “and now, Señora,” continued he, addressing himself to his helpmate, “before receiving Gaspacho, I have a commission for you to execute.”

“What may that be?” brusquely demanded the woman, elevating her tone in proportion as that of her husband became lowered.

“It is a magnificent scheme conceived by me,” interrupted Bocardo.

“Ah!” exclaimed the virago, “if you had only as much courage as intelligence, Señor Bocardo!”

“Bah! Arroyo has courage enough for both of us.”

“That,” said Arroyo, suddenly turning his anger upon his associate, who had not the advantage of possessing a charmed scapulary, “that is as much as to say that you have the intelligence for both of us?”

“God forbid I should either say or think so,” rejoined Bocardo in an humble tone; “you are as intelligent as you are brave, Señor Arroyo.”

“Wife!” continued Arroyo, without appearing to listen to the fulsome flattery of his associate, “go and interrogate once more the prisoner we have taken. Find out if possible what errand he was on—”

“The bird still sings the same tune,” responded the woman; “he repeats that he is in the service of Don Mariano de Silva; and that he is the bearer of a message to that mad Colonel, as you call him, Don Rafael Tres-Villas.”

At this hated name the shade deepened upon the brow of the bandit.

“Have you found out what this message is?” he inquired.

“The fellow insists upon it that it is of no importance. What do you suppose I found in his pockets, when we were searching him?”

“A vial of poison, perhaps?”

“No; but something equally droll. A packet carefully put up, enclosing a small cambric handkerchief, sweetly scented with perfume, and inside this a tress of hair—a woman’s hair, long and beautiful, by my faith!”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Bocardo, in a significant tone; “and what have you done with it, Madame Arroyo?”

“What should I have done with it?” said the virago, with a disdainful toss of her head—“what but fling it back in the face of the messenger—the worthless thing. No doubt it is a love-token sent to this colonel of the devil.”

“The messenger took it back then?”

“Ah, indeed—with as much eagerness as if it had been a chain of gold.”

“So much the better,” said Bocardo, with a significant gesture. “I have an idea,” he continued, “if I am not mistaken—a superb idea! With this messenger and this love-token, we can give the Colonel Tres-Villas a rendezvous, where, instead of meeting his sweetheart, he may tumble into the middle of a score of our fellows, who may take him alive without the slightest difficulty. The thing’s as good as done. Only put me in communication with this messenger, and I’ll answer for the rest. What say you, Arroyo? What shall we do with the Colonel Tres-Villas?”

“Burn him over a slow fire—roast him alive!” responded the guerillero, with an expression of ferocious joy.

“But your wife will intercede for him?” ironically added Bocardo.

“Carrambo! Yes!” exclaimed the hag, “to burn him over the slow fire, and roast him alive—that I shall.”

And with a hideous laugh she walked out of the tent to give place to Gaspacho, who the next moment entered.

The courier thus named had all the appearance of an original character. He was tall and thin as the blade of a rapier, with a cynical expression of countenance, and long snaky tresses of hair hanging down over his shoulders, like thongs of smoked leather.

“Speak!” commanded Arroyo, as he entered. “Thou bearer of evil tidings, what have you to tell us now?”

“Perhaps, Señor Captain,” responded the brigand, who, notwithstanding his habitual air of importance, was evidently cowed by the scowl of his superior, “perhaps I have some good news as well?”

“First, then, deliver your bad ones!”

“Well, then, Señor Captain, there are not enough of us to take this hacienda by assault. The den of coyotes has proved stronger than we expected; and I am sent to ask for a reinforcement of men.”

“Who has sent you?—Lieutenant Lantejas?”

“Lieutenant Lantejas will never send another message. This morning his head was nailed over the gate of the hacienda along with that of Sergeant Yañez.”

“Tripes of the fiend!” exclaimed the guerilla leader, “Yañez, too!”

“Their heads are not the only ones, Captain. Besides them are those of Salinas and Tuerto, to say nothing of Matavidas, Sacamedios, and Piojento, who were taken prisoners and hung alive by the feet from the parapet of the building. We had to fire at them and kill them with our carbines, in order to put an end to their sufferings.”

“They deserved it—a fig for their lives! Why did they allow themselves to be taken alive?”

“That’s just what I told them,” said Gaspacho, with an air of assent. “I warned them that your honour would be very angry about it. But they did not mind what I said for all that.”

“So then there are now only forty-four of you laying siege to the accursed place?”

“Your pardon, Captain. I did not yet mention four others who have been hung up by the necks. Upon these we were not obliged to spend our powder—as they were dead enough already.”

“Carajo!” vociferated the brigand with a furious accent. “Ten of my men gone already! Demonios! Am I to lose this band like the other? Go on! You have given me enough of ill news. Let me hear some of what you call good ones!”

“Yesterday evening a horseman approached the hacienda riding towards it, as if he had nothing to do but present himself at the gate and be admitted. Before getting near, however, he was seen by two of our videttes, who at once charged upon him. After a fight, in which the horseman made a fierce resistance, he managed to escape.”

“Carajo!—the stupids!”

“Don’t be angry with the poor fellows, Señor Captain. I assure you they did not let him go without a struggle, which ended in one of them getting his shoulder fractured by a pistol-shot, and the other having his horse fall under him. Pressed by the latter, the Royalist horseman turned upon him, and rushing against his horse, brought the animal to the ground. Then grasping the vidette by the collar, he lifted him clean out of his stirrups, and dashed him to the earth, as one would do a cocoa-nut to break its shell. It was full two hours before the poor fellow came to his senses.”

“I know only one man strong enough to accomplish that feat,” said Bocardo, turning pale—“the damned Colonel Tres-Villas. It was just in that way that he killed Antonio Valdez.”

“It was Colonel Tres-Villas,” added Gaspacho. “Pepe Lobos is sure of it. He heard the snorting of that strange horse—the same he rode upon the day he came to Las Palmas. Besides, Pepe recognised his figure, and the sound of his voice—notwithstanding that it was in the night. Ten of our men have gone in pursuit of him, and by this he ought to be taken.”

“Holy Virgin!” exclaimed the guerillero chief, turning his eyes towards heaven, “I promise you a wax candle as big as a palm tree, if this man falls into our hands!”

“As big as a palm tree!” exclaimed Bocardo in astonishment.—“Camarado, do you mean it?”

“Hush!” said the other in a low voice. “Hold your tongue, Bocardo; it’s only to humbug the Virgin!”

“Well,” replied Bocardo, “whether they capture him or not, it don’t much matter. We shall take him all the same. If I understand his history, and the meaning of the message which this coyote has for him, he can be lured by it to the farthest corner of the earth.”

At this moment the wife of Arroyo re-entered the tent, her face exhibiting a still stronger expression of fury than before.

“The cage is empty!” cried she, “the bird has flown, and along with it the guardian left to watch it—the worthless Juan de Zapote!”

“Blood and fire!” vociferated Arroyo, “quick, pursue them! Hola!” continued he, raising the flap of his tent, “twenty men to horse! Scour the woods and the river banks. Bring back the two fugitives bound hand and foot. Above all, bring them back alive!”

The order created a brisk movement throughout the camp, where each seemed to compete with his fellow as to who should be the first to enter on the pursuit.

“Jesus Santo!” muttered Bocardo to himself, “if this Colonel should escape, and also the messenger, adieu to all my fine combinations! Well!” he continued, after the wife of Arroyo had gone out of the tent to hasten the departure of the pursuers. “Well, Señor Arroyo! if he should get away from us it will be a great pity sure enough. Still we shall find consolation at the hacienda San Carlos.”

“True,” replied the other, “and I have need of some distraction just now. This evening I mean to amuse myself. To-morrow we shall storm the fortress of Del Valle with all our force; and may the devil scorch me, if I leave one stone of it standing upon another!”

“Yes; to-morrow let us set seriously about it,” said Bocardo, gleefully rubbing his hands together. “But see!” he continued, glancing out of the tent, “our fellows are ready to start. If you take my advice, instead of twenty men, you’ll send only ten. That will be quite sufficient to capture those two droll devils who have escaped from us. After you have sent the reinforcement to Del Valle we’ll have no great number of men to remain at head-quarters here.”

The guerillero chief yielded to the counsel of his associate; and choosing from the horsemen that were ready ten of the best mounted, he directed them to enter upon the pursuit. The others were at the same time ordered to proceed to the hacienda Del Valle to reinforce the party already besieging the place.