Chapter 60 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

El Zapote and Gaspar.

Just about the moment when Pepe Lobos and his comrades had made their dispositions for advancing into the thicket, Don Rafael awoke from his prolonged slumber. On first opening his eyes, the glare of the sunlight so dazzled them, that he inquired of himself where he was. Presently, however, objects appeared more distinctly; and he became aware of the extraordinary situation in which he had placed himself.

He had scarce time for a single reflection, when his attention was drawn to a rustling among the leaves at a short distance off; and, looking diagonally downward, he perceived two men on foot advancing towards the cedrela.

On first awaking, he had felt such an extreme lassitude throughout all his limbs, that he could scarce believe himself to have slept as long as he had done. The height of the sun, however, proclaimed that he had slumbered for many hours.

Notwithstanding the strong desire he had to descend from his uncomfortable couch, at the sight of the two men he prudently deferred his intention. He took the precaution, however, to untie the sash that bound him to the branches—doing this as gently as possible—while he kept his eyes fixed upon the new-comers, who, to say the least, presented a suspicious appearance.

The costume of both was odd enough, and altogether unsuited for traversing such a thorny jungle as that through which they were passing. It consisted merely of a shirt and cotton drawers—while each of them carried in hand a large parcel. Although the night had been dry throughout, the garments of both pedestrians appeared saturated with water!

Without the slightest suspicion that Don Rafael was in the tree, or that any other human being was near, the two men were nevertheless moving with cautious steps. Now they looked to the right, and then to the left, with quick earnest glances—as if they were either searching for something, or in dread that an enemy might be concealed in the bushes.

“These droll fellows,” said the Colonel to himself, “are either searching for some one, or fear that some one is searching for them—which of the two?”

He watched them, listening attentively.

The same reason which had induced Don Rafael to select this part of the wood as a hiding-place—that is the impenetrability of the thicket that surrounded it—seemed to have influenced in like manner the two thinly-clad pedestrians.

“We had better stop here,” said one to the other, as both came to a halt, “at least until we can put on our clothes again.”

“Agreed,” was the response; “but we must make our stay as short as possible: we should by this time have been far along the road to Huajapam.”

Each at the same moment untied the parcel which he carried, and which consisted of his upper garments that had been kept dry. Then stripping off their wet shirts and drawers, they commenced dressing themselves in their proper habiliments.

“So, amigo!” said the first speaker, pointing to a small packet which the other had been carrying, “that, you tell me, is worth its weight in gold?”

“Yes; and you shall soon find that you have nothing to regret in helping me to escape, and sharing with me the douceur we shall receive on presenting it. If we are only lucky enough to get away from this neighbourhood—I have no doubt they will pursue us.”

“We may be certain of that, compadre; but don’t be uneasy about their finding us. If we should fall into the hands of any of those who are besieging Del Valle, trust me for getting clear of them. As they are my comrades, and don’t know yet that I have run away, I shall be able to mislead them. I can tell them, that I have been sent along with you, to receive the ransom of one of our prisoners.”

“What if they should carry us back to Arroyo’s camp?”

“Why, in that case we shall both be hanged. What matters it, a little sooner or later—it is the common lot?” philosophically added Juan el Zapote—for it was he, in company with the messenger whom he had aided in making his escape. “Never mind, compadrito,” he continued in a more cheering tone, “I shall do my best to get you clear of the scrape anyhow.”

“Santa Virgen!” mentally ejaculated the Colonel. “This droll fellow, who thinks it is the lot of all men to be hanged sooner or later, appears to be so sure of the fact, that it would not expose him to much more risk to conduct me also to a safer harbour.”

And in making this reflection, Don Rafael caught hold of the llianas by which he had climbed up; and at the risk of leaving some of his garments behind him, sprang out from between the branches, and dropped down between the two pedestrians with a suddenness that stupefied them.

The man who was to pay so dear for the precious packet sent him by Gertrudis, was now face to face with the messenger who bore it; and yet neither of them knew the other!

“Hush!” said the Colonel, taking the initiative, “you have nothing to fear. I promise you my protection; but first lay down your arms!”

Zapote had drawn his long dagger, and stood ready to use it against the first enemy who came near, with that indifference peculiar to one who believed in the rope or garotte as the necessary termination of his life. But Don Rafael had at the same instant caught hold of his arm, which he held with a grasp, that proved he could also become as terrible an antagonist as he might be a powerful protector.

“Who are you?” simultaneously inquired the two fugitives.

“Ah! it might be indiscreet in me to tell you that,” replied Don Rafael. “I am a young man who has just sprung down from the tree above you, as you may see by my hat still sticking up there among the branches.”

Without letting go his hold of Zapote the Colonel raised himself on his toes; and, stretching his arm upwards, proceeded to disengage the insurgent’s hat from among the branches.

“So, amigos!” continued he as soon as he had recovered his hat. “You are fleeing from the guerilleros of Arroyo? Well—so am I: that is enough for you to know at present. You are two and I only one; but let me plainly tell you, that if you do not make common cause with me, I shall be under the necessity of killing you both. Now you may choose—Yes or no!”

“Carrambo!” exclaimed Zapote, not ill pleased with the frank, off-hand manner of the stranger, “what a capital trader you would make with your roundabout way of coming to terms! Well, cavallero! what can we do for you?”

“Pass me off with these fellows of Arroyo: as you are intending to do your comrade here. Say that I am charged with the ransom of a prisoner at the hacienda Del Valle, and thus obtain for me permission to pass the lines. If you do this, I promise you a recompense. And since you are both about to share the bounty of some one between you—”

“Only a little commission,” interrupted Zapote; “and if you knew what it is—”

“Oh, I have no intention of claiming my third in the reward. I don’t care to know what it is.”

“But you shall know, for all that,” replied Zapote, apparently carried away by an irresistible desire of giving his confidence. “Among friends—for we are so at present—there should be no concealment.”

“Well, then, what is it?” inquired the Colonel.

“It is the will of a rich uncle in favour of a nephew who believed himself disinherited, and to whom we are now taking it. You may fancy whether we have just grounds for expecting a good perquisite.”

“Are you sure that the will is not a false one?” inquired the Colonel, not without suspicions as to the veracity of Zapote.

“Neither of us knows how to read,” replied the ex-guerillero, with an air of affected innocence.

“But take my word for it, cavallero,” he hastily added, “we had better get out of this place as quickly as we can. We have already lost too much time.”

“But my horse,” objected the Colonel, “what’s to be done with him?”

“Oh, you have a horse? Well, then, the best way is to leave him behind: he will only embarrass you.”

“He would certainly do so,” interrupted the messenger, “if he was like a horse I once knew. Ah, that was a devil of an animal! If you had only heard—”

The man was alluding to a horse he had once seen in the stables of his master, Don Mariano de Silva, and which was no other than Roncador himself. He was about to recount the peculiarities of this famous steed—which would no doubt have led to a recognition between himself and Don Rafael—when his speech was interrupted by voices heard in different directions, as if men were approaching the spot from different sides.

Both Don Rafael and the messenger interrogated with anxious regard the countenance of Zapote.

“Carrambo!” exclaimed the latter, “it may be more serious than I thought.”

The voices had now broken forth into shouts and cries—as if uttered by men engaged in a chase; and the sounds expressed a sort of vengeful resolve—on the part of those who uttered them—not to show mercy or give quarter.

El Zapote looked for some moments with fixed gaze upon the royalist fugitive, who with the felt hat of an insurgent, the jacket of an infantry soldier, and the pantaloons of a dragoon officer, presented a somewhat motley appearance.

“You are a man who has just dropped down from a tree,” said he. “I will not deny that fact; but if you are the only one about here, I should say there is a royalist in this wood, that these fellows are about to hunt to death.”

“On my side I shall be frank with you,” answered Don Rafael. “You have guessed rightly: I am in the King’s cause.”

“These shouts,” continued Zapote, “the meaning of which I understand full well, denote that there is a royalist hidden in these woods, who is to be taken dead or alive. Have the men who are pursuing you ever seen you?”

“I killed two of their number yesterday evening. There were others who, no doubt, saw me.”

“Then there is no hope of my being able to pass you off as an ordinary prisoner, like my companion here, who is neither royalist nor insurgent.”

“It is very doubtful, to say the least,” remarked Don Rafael, in a desponding tone.

“Altogether impossible; but I can promise you one thing, however: that we shall not betray you, should we fall in with these pursuers. Moreover, I shall endeavour to throw them off your scent: for I am beginning to tire of this brigand life of theirs. On one condition, how ever.”

“Name it!” said the Colonel.

“That you will permit us to part company with you. I can do nothing to save you—you know it—while you may only ruin us, without any profit to yourself. On the other hand your fate has become in a manner linked with ours; and to abandon you in the midst of danger would be a baseness for which I could never pardon myself.”

There was in the words of Zapote an accent of loyalty, which moved the Colonel to admiration, in spite of himself.

“Have no care for me,” resolutely rejoined Don Rafael. “Go which way you please without me; and I hope,” he added with a smile, “that you will reach that nephew you speak of, and safely deliver to him his uncle’s will!”

“After all, amigo,” he continued in a more serious tone, “I have but little reason to care for life more than yourself. A little sooner or a little later, what matters it? Only,” added he, smiling, “I should not exactly fancy to be hanged.”

“Thanks for your permission that we should part from you,” said Zapote; “but, Señor Cavallero, a word before you go. If you take my advice, you will climb back into that tree where no one will suspect your presence.”

“No,” interrupted Don Rafael. “Up there I should be as a jaguar pursued by hounds—without the power to defend myself; and I am like the Indians, I wish, on entering the other world, to send as many enemies before me as possible.”

“Well, then, do better still—make towards the river; keep due south from this place; and, on reaching the banks of the Ostuta, you will see a vast thicket of bamboos—in which my comrade and myself have just found a refuge, and where we might have remained safe from enemies till the day of judgment, had we not to go forward upon our errand. If you can only succeed in reaching the bamboos, you are saved.”

Saying this El Zapote, followed by his companion, turned his face northward, and striking off into the thicket but were soon lost to Don Rafael’s sight.