Chapter 59 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Careless Search.

Most of the guerilleros of the band of Arroyo were country-people—rancheros, vaqueros, and the like. Many of them, from their habits of life, were skilled in following the tracks of animals. It was not likely, therefore, they should fail to discover the place where the Colonel had turned off from the road; and in reality they perceived it, and there came to a halt. The uncertain light of the moon, however, hindered them from following his tracks through the underwood; and, unable to guess the direction he had taken, they remained for some minutes deliberating on what was best to be done.

To go forward in a body would be to diminish the chances of finding his traces—more especially if they proceeded on horseback. It was resolved, therefore, that all should dismount; and, separating into twos, thus scour the thicket in front. Afterwards, if unsuccessful in their search, they were to reunite in the glade where they had picketed their horses.

This resolution was carried out; and in pairs the guerilleros scattered off into the wood.

Although adopting all necessary measures of prudence, on account of the terrible name of him they were in search of, at first the pursuers conscientiously performed their work. By little and little, however, their ardour became abated; and then a very similar idea presented itself to the minds of all of them at the same time. They remembered how easily the Colonel had overcome his two adversaries, the videttes; and it now occurred to them that they had acted very rashly in thus weakening their strength by division.

As it would never do to return at once to the appointed rendezvous, each couple perceived the necessity of allowing some time to elapse before going back, for the sake of saving appearances. They continued their search, therefore; but rather by way of passing the time than with any ardour in the accomplishment of their original design.

“Carrambo! what a lovely moon!” remarked Pepe Lobos to his partner in the search; “it gives me an idea—”

“That the Colonel may see us before we discover him?” interrupted his companion.

“Bah! nothing of the kind,” rejoined Pepe; “that devil of a royalist is not to be found. What I was thinking of is, that, since it is almost as clear as daylight, there’s a good opportunity for your showing me that which you have so long promised.”

“What is it, camarado?”

“The trick of cards by which one may always win an albur at monte.”

“Of course I cannot show you without having the cards.”

“But I have them, hombre—a brand-new pack too.”

“Ah! it is easier to do that trick with an old pack,” replied Pepe’s comrade with a knowing shrug of the shoulders. “However, since I have promised you, and, as you justly remark, there is no chance of finding this royalist colonel, I agree to your request.”

The two insurgents seated themselves on the turf—in a spot where the moon fell with a clear light—and Pepe Lobos, having drawn a pack of cards from his pocket, the lesson commenced. Between the ardour of the master and the docility of the pupil, the lesson was prolonged to such a time, that the Colonel, asleep between his two branches, could have dreamt all the dreams that might present themselves to his imagination before either of these worthies was likely to awaken him.

Not far distant two others of the searchers put in practice, as regards Don Rafael, a very similar courtesy.

“So, Suarez,” said the first of these two to the other, “five hundred dollars, isn’t it, that the Captain promises the man who may take this royalist colonel alive?”

“Yes,” replied Suarez, “five hundred dollars, and a good round sum it is. But should one get an arm shot off, or a leg disabled, in capturing the demonio, will the Captain allow anything extra for that, do you think?”

“Ah! I can’t say. I should fancy so.”

“Well, then, hear me, friend Suarez. I have no doubt it will be a good thing; and for you who are married and have a family to support, this five hundred dollars would be a windfall. I am single, and don’t require it. I am therefore willing to surrender my chance to you, and you can look for the Colonel by yourself.”

Saying this, the soldier stretched himself along the grass, and disposed himself for a sleep.

“For the last two nights,” continued he, “I haven’t had a wink, and I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. When you have captured the Colonel, come back and rouse me; but, whether you take him or no, mind you, good Suarez, come this way and wake me before daylight—else I may sleep too long.”

“Coward!” exclaimed Suarez, “I shall keep on without you, and get the reward for myself.”

The answer to these remarks was a loud snore, for Suarez’ comrade had fallen asleep on the instant.

Of the ten enemies of Don Rafael three had thus withdrawn themselves from the pursuit.

Two others, at no great distance off, held the following conversation.

“Santissima!” exclaimed one, looking up to the sky. “Did you ever see a moon so ridiculously clear? This Royalist Colonel, if hidden about here, cannot fail to see us.”

“That would be unfortunate,” rejoined the second. “If he should see us, he would be certain to make off.”

“Ah! hum!” muttered the first speaker, “I’m not so sure about that: he’s not one of the kind that cares about making off. Have you heard how he lifted Panchito Jolas out of his stirrups?”

“Yes; I have myself had some falls from a horse, but when I think of poor Jolas it makes my blood run cold. Ave Maria! did you not hear something?”

The two searchers stopped in their tracks, and stood listening: with far more fear in their hearts than could be in that of him for whom they were searching.

It was only a false alarm; but it had the effect of causing them to betray to one another the dread with which the fame of the Colonel had inspired them. The mask thus removed, mutual confidence became established between the two; and both were equally agreed upon the prudence of at once returning to the appointed rendezvous.

The other four pursuers continued to advance; but with such easy nonchalance that in two or three hours afterwards eight of the ten had returned to the glade, all equally unsuccessful in their search.

As to the two who were still missing the reason for their absence was simple enough. As soon as Suarez had parted from his somnolent companion, the thought occurred to him that since the latter, only a single man, was so careful of his life, he, being married, and with a family, had still greater reason for being careful of his. Having given his companion a proof of his courage, which had cost him nothing, he resolved to imitate the latter in another respect. After going a hundred paces farther, he also stretched himself along the grass, and entered into the land of dreams—perhaps dreaming of his wife; and how upon his bed of moss he was enjoying the good fortune of escaping from her ill temper. Before falling asleep he had promised himself to awake at an early hour, and after rousing his companion to abuse him for his cowardice.

Unfortunately for Suarez, he reckoned without his host, when supposing he could awake himself; and both he and his partner slept, until long after the other eight had reassembled at the rendezvous, and commenced deliberating upon a more earnest prosecution of the search.

The moon had already gone down, and the day was beginning to dawn. The grey light falling upon the group of insurgent horsemen—dressed in their half-military, half-peasant costumes, soiled and tattered by long campaigning—presented a tableau of the most picturesque character.

Around the glade, their horses, tied to the trees, were endeavouring to satisfy their hunger by gnawing at the leaves and twigs. Even this miserable pasture was scarce attainable, on account of the bitts which the animals still had in their mouths, and which were heard constantly clanking between their teeth. The eight insurgents had seated themselves in the centre of the glade; and with their carbines resting across their knees, and their daggers sticking in their boot tops, were listening to the discourse of Pepe Lobos.

“Suarez and Pacheco will never return,” continued Pepe, in answer to the conjectures of his comrades. “It is as good as certain that this Colonel of Beelzebub has settled the affair with both—just as he did with poor Panchito Jolas; and since we have searched all night without finding any trace—”

“We explored our route with the greatest care!” interrupted one of the beaters who had exhibited the greatest dread of encountering the Colonel.

“We have done the same,” added Pepe Lobos. “Ask my partner there. Although his trace has escaped our observation, it is evident the Royalist is somewhere in this wood—else what has become of Suarez and Pacheco? Yes, he is in it yet, be assured; and my advice is that we go back to the place where he left the main road, and follow the track of his horse from there. That will be the more likely plan to bring us to the place where he is at this minute.”

The other seven gave in their consent to this plan, and it was resolved that it should be carried into execution.

“As for the reward of five hundred dollars,” continued Pepe Lobos, “that’s all very well. But I say vengeance before everything; and we will do better to kill this fierce devil at once. A fig for the bounty, say I!”

“Perhaps the Captain will pay one half, if we bring him in dead?” suggested one of the insurgents.

“When we have ascertained exactly where he is hid,” continued Pepe, without heeding the suggestion, “we can then separate into two parties of four each. One can approach from one side, and the other party in the opposite direction. We shall thus have him between us; and let whoever sets eye on him fire at him as at a mad dog. That is the only way to make sure; besides, if he should be only wounded and we can carry him to camp with a little life in him, we shall still be entitled to the reward.”

The counsel of Pepe Lobos met with a universal approbation; and it was finally resolved that as soon as day had fairly broken, they should all return to the main road and recommence the search.

Just as the sun commenced gilding the lofty summits of the palm-trees, the eight guerilleros scattered themselves along the road to examine the hoof tracks, and if possible discover the point at which Don Rafael had turned off into the woods. This was by no means so easily accomplished: for the ground was now trodden by their own horses in such a fashion that it seemed impossible to distinguish which of the trails was that of the Royalist dragoon. A native of Europe would have examined them in vain; but to a vaquero of Mexico, a gaucho of Chili, or in fact a native peasant of any part of Spanish-America, it was simply a work of time and patience. In fact, scarce ten minutes had passed, before Pepe Lobos called to his comrades to announce that he had discovered the track they were in search of.

Besides the hoof-prints of a horse, a twig broken from the branch of a tree, and some fresh leaves of sassafras laurel lying upon the ground, showed clearly the place where Don Rafael had passed through the underwood.

After following his trail for some paces, all believed that the fugitive could not be far distant from the spot. The two parties were then formed: one to advance directly on the trail, the other to make a circuit and enter the thicket from the opposite direction.

While the latter was executing the movement agreed upon, the four men who composed it came suddenly upon the horsemen whom Arroyo had sent in pursuit of Juan de Zapote and the fugitive messenger. By their known watchword the two parties of insurgents recognised each other; and, after joining their forces, they agreed to separate again into three bodies, and thus advance towards the spot where it was conjectured Don Rafael might be hidden. Four parties were now closing in upon a common centre; and just in that centre stood the great cedrela in which Don Rafael had ensconced himself.

As all four were acting under a common understanding that the Royalist Colonel was to be shot down upon sight, it will be perceived that the position of Don Rafael was now one of imminent danger. The very least misfortune that seemed to menace him would be to have the opportunity to die sword in hand—fighting to the death: for this would be far preferable to falling into the hands of his pitiless foeman, the brigand Arroyo. With the Royalist Colonel it was in reality a moment of extreme peril.