Chapter 58 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

An Unexpected Reception.

From that portion of Gaspacho’s report which related to Don Rafael Tres-Villas, the reader will easily guess the purpose of the eight horsemen assembled in the glade of the forest of Ostuta: they were no other than the soldiers who from the besieging party had gone in pursuit of the Royalist Colonel. It will be remembered, however, that ten was the number mentioned by Gaspacho, while only eight now composed the group that occupied the clearing.

We shall presently learn how their number became thus reduced: but first let us recount the adventures of Don Rafael himself—from the time of his quitting the camp of Huajapam, to the moment when we find him asleep upon his arboreal couch.

As soon as the song of triumph raised by the soldiers of Trujano had ceased to echo in his ears, Don Rafael proceeded to reflect upon his own situation. He perceived at once that, in order to traverse with safety some thirty leagues of a country almost entirely in the hands of the insurgents, certain precautions would be absolutely necessary. His gold-laced uniform, his helmet, all his equipments, in short, would betray him to an insurgent enemy. Moreover he was badly armed—having broken his sword in the conflict; and for such a perilous journey it was necessary to be provided with better weapons than a dagger and pistols.

He knew it was impossible to return to his marquee to re-equip himself. The camp was already filled with the insurgent soldiers, and no doubt his tent had been pillaged long before that time.

After a moment’s reflection it occurred to him that on the field of battle—that part of it most distant from Huajapam, where Callejas had sustained the first shock of Morelos’ army—he might find the necessary articles he desired; and turning a little out of his course, he directed himself thither.

His judgment proved correct. A two-edged sword soon rewarded his search; and he was able to exchange for his dragoon helmet the felt hat of an insurgent soldier, with a brass front-plate, bearing in ill-formed letters the inscription, Independencia o’ muerte!

Scornfully tearing off the tablet and trampling it under his feet, Don Rafael placed the felt hat upon his head, and continued his explorations. Shortly after he exchanged the jaqueta of an insurgent soldier for his cavalry uniform; and then looking to the state of his pistols, and seeing that his cartridge-box was well garnished he put spurs to Roncador and rode briskly away from the ground.

It is not necessary to detail the many precautions which he adopted from hour to hour to keep out of the hands of the insurgents, who were on all sides scouring the country through which he had to pass. Suffice it to say that for the most part he journeyed only by night. Even travelling thus, he was not always safe; and more than once he found occasion to employ all the courage and presence of mind with which Nature had endowed him.

On the evening of the third day, just at the hour of twilight, he arrived in the neighbourhood of his own hacienda. He was expecting soon to be in security within its walls, when the two videttes already mentioned perceived and rushed forward to capture him. This behaviour was in conformity with the orders of Arroyo, who had commanded that every one seen near the hacienda should be made prisoner and brought into his presence.

Don Rafael was at first uncertain as to the enemy with which he had to deal; but he was not the man to submit tamely to conduct so brusque and uncourteous as was that of the videttes. His resistance ended in putting both of them hors de combat; but the circumstances of the encounter, for certain reasons, had been somewhat misrepresented by Gaspacho.

It is true that one of the two soldiers had his shoulder fractured by a shot; but the bullet had also passed so near his heart, that the man was dead in an hour after. As to the other, it was true that the Colonel dashed him to the ground as described; but, before doing so, he had taken the precaution to plunge his dagger into the breast of this second adversary.

Although he had left both deprived of the power to give the alarm, unfortunately the report of his pistol had betrayed his presence to the guerilleros. In a few moments half a score of them were riding in pursuit; for, by the orders of their chief, one half their horses were kept saddled and bridled both day and night.

After disembarrassing himself of his two adversaries, the Colonel had hesitated a moment, as to whether he should return on his path or continue on to the hacienda. It was during this interval of hesitation that the pursuing horsemen drew near, and that one of them (Pepe Lobos by name) caught sight of and recognised him, while the snorting of Roncador as he galloped off confirmed the guerillero in his belief.

It is likely enough that the extreme hatred which Arroyo bore for the Colonel was at this crisis the means of saving his life. The guerilleros, knowing the desire of their chief that Tres-Villas should be captured alive, reflected upon the rich recompense they might expect if they should so take him. Otherwise the volley of carbine shots, which they would have delivered on the instant, might have terminated the existence of their dreaded foe.

On seeing the horsemen, Don Rafael suddenly wheeled round and galloped back as he had come. His hope lay in being able to distance his pursuers, and afterwards find a temporary refuge in the thick forest he had just been traversing, and through which ran the road to Huajapam. With this purpose in view, he returned along the route at full gallop.

When he deemed himself at a sufficient distance in advance of his pursuers, he wheeled suddenly from the road and headed his steed into the thick underwood, through which he spurred onward, until his passage was fairly barred up by an impenetrable network of vines and bushes. Here he halted; and, dismounting, led his horse to a tree. He then commenced groping about, to find some spot where he might in safety obtain a few hours of repose, after the fatigues he had encountered during the day.

A few paces further on he perceived a cedrela tree of gigantic dimensions, and so thickly loaded with leaves that it seemed to promise a secure hiding-place among its branches. Still apprehensive that his pursuers might discover his track, Don Rafael resolved to climb the cedrela, whose dark foliage would screen him from the sharpest eyes. On approaching the tree, he perceived by the vast circumference of its trunk that he could not climb up by embracing it. Neither could he reach to even the lowest of its limbs. A means, however, presented itself of getting over the difficulty.

An enormous lliana, stretching from among the top branches, reached the ground in a diagonal direction; and up this Don Rafael was enabled to make his ascent.

Placing his body between two large boughs, he disposed himself, as best he could, to pass the remainder of the night, leaving it for the day to bring him to some further determination.

He commenced reflecting upon the pursuit. He was in hopes that his pursuers, having lost his track, might separate into small parties of two or three, in order the more thoroughly to scour the woods. In this case, he might be able to defeat the whole party, taking them in detail, and favoured by his own superior courage and strength, in which he felt the most perfect confidence.

The night had already advanced, and the moon from the high vault of the starry heavens poured down her floods of light over the spray of the forest. A few feeble raylets, penetrating through the thick masses of foliage, reached the retreat where Don Rafael had hidden himself.

He remained for some moments listening attentively. He could hear nothing—at least no sound that betokened the presence of human beings. The breeze sighing among the leaves, the distant howl of the coyote, the sweet note of the mimic night-thrush, or perchance the rustling caused by the iguana as it scampered over the dead leaves, were the only sounds that broke the stillness of the night.

The fresh balmy air that he was breathing, the shadow of night that enwrapped him, the imposing tranquillity that reigned around, all conspired to beget the desire for repose. He felt his eyelids gradually grow heavier and heavier; and after a while an invincible torpor seized upon his whole frame.

Without being in any great degree uneasy about his situation, Don Rafael nevertheless felt the necessity of keeping awake as long as he might be able. With this intent he struggled for a time against sleep, but in vain. Seeing that it was about to overpower him, he unwound the sash from his waist, and with this attached himself firmly between the branches. Having thus provided against the danger of a fall, he surrendered himself the moment after to a profound and silent slumber.