Chapter 61 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Fugitives in Danger.

El Zapote and his confrère, the messenger, after making a wide détour through the forest, came out on the Huajapam road. Their intention was to journey on to Huajapam—where they supposed the royalist army still held the place in siege, and where they expected to find Colonel Tres-Villas, to whom the messenger had been sent. Little did either the ex-guerillero or his companion suspect that it was the colonel himself from whom they had just parted.

“By my faith!” remarked the messenger, as they journeyed along, “it’s a pity now that we did not ask that gentleman his name. It is likely enough that he is some grand officer belonging to the royalist army.”

“Bah!” replied Zapote. “What good would it be to us to know his name? He’s a lost man, I fear. It matters little, therefore, what name he carries.”

“Quien sabe?” doubtingly rejoined the messenger.

“I am more vexed,” continued Zapote, “that we were not able to do anything for him. It can’t be helped, however; and just now, let me tell you, my brave Gaspar, that we have got to look out for ourselves. We are yet far from being out of danger.”

The two men pursued their route, gliding silently and cautiously under the shadow of the underwood.

Scarce ten minutes had elapsed when they again heard the voices of those who were beating the wood in search of the hiding-place of Don Rafael. Both stepped behind a screen of bushes and listened. In the midst of a profound silence, they heard the crackling of branches; and the moment after a man appeared at a short distance from where they stood. He was advancing with stealthy step, carbine in hand, and almost at the same instant two others made their appearance, coming up behind him, and moving forward with like caution.

All three were stealthily gliding from tree to tree—making a temporary rampart of the trunks, as they reconnoitred the ground before them.

One of these men was recognised by Zapote as an old comrade.

“Eh, Perico!” cried he, speaking loud enough to be heard by the men.

“Hola! Who calls me?” responded Perico.

“I—Juan el Zapote.”

“Zapote! how is it that you are here? Where did you come from?”

“From the camp,” replied Zapote, with wondrous impudence. “Our Captain has sent—”

“Oh! the Captain knows, then, that we are in pursuit of a royalist who has taken shelter in the chapparal? We have had a time of it after him, and he’s not found yet. We have scoured the thicket all the night in search of his hiding-place; and, out of ten of us who came after him, eight only remain. Two, Suarez and Pacheco, he has killed somewhere; but if I may judge by the signal cries to which we have responded, there should be at least twenty of our comrades at present looking after him.”

At this moment another man joined company with the three already on the ground. Fortunately for Juan el Zapote and the messenger, these four were precisely the same whom Pepe Lobos had ordered to go round by the Huajapam road, and as they had not yet been in communication with the party from the camp, they were ignorant of the fact that their old comrade, Zapote, was himself being pursued as a deserter. “Well,” continued Zapote, “as I was saying, our Captain has sent me on an errand with my companion, Gaspar, here; and we are in the greatest haste.”

“What errand?” demanded Perico.

“Carrambo! A secret mission; one that I daren’t disclose to you. Adios, amigo! I am in a terrible hurry.”

“Before you go,” cried one of the men, “tell us if you saw anybody?”

“Saw anybody? Who? The royalist you are in search of?”

“Yes; the mad Colonel.”

“No; I met no mad colonel,” said Zapote, turning away.

“Eh! hombre?” exclaimed Perico, with a significant glance; “make it appear you are ignorant that it is the Colonel Tres-Villas we are pursuing? You know that well enough. You wish to capture him alone, and get the five hundred dollars to yourself?”

“Colonel Tres-Villas?” cried Zapote and the messenger in the same breath.

“Five hundred dollars reward!” exclaimed Zapote the instant after, raising his hand to his head, as if about to pluck out a fistful of his hair.

“Certainly, that same; a grand gentleman, with black moustachios, a felt hat of the same colour, a soldier’s infantry jacket, and gold-laced cavalry pantaloons.”

“And he has killed two of our people?”

“Four. Since Suarez and Pacheco have not returned, we may also reckon them as dead men.”

Zapote no longer doubted that the man from whom they had just parted was he to whom they were bearing the message of Gertrudis de Silva, in other words, the Colonel Tres-Villas. He exchanged a significant glance with the messenger.

For a moment the new resolution of honesty made by the ex-bandit wavered upon its foundation, still but weakly laid; but the mute appealing glance of Gaspar, and the remembrance of the promise of fidelity he had just made, conquered the instinct of cupidity that had momentarily been aroused within him.

“Well—we have neither met nor seen any one,” he remarked drily; “but we are losing our time. Adios!”

“Vete con Dios!” (God be with you), responded Perico.

Zapote and Gaspar, saluting the others, walked away—going at a moderate pace so long as they were in sight of the insurgents; but as soon as they were behind the bushes advancing with all the speed in their power.

Their object now was to put themselves as distant as possible from the danger; since their projected journey to Huajapam was no more to be thought of. When they had got to such a distance as not any longer to fear pursuit, Zapote flung himself down upon the grass with an air of profound disappointment.

“What are we to do now?” inquired Gaspar, in a lugubrious tone.

Zapote, overcome by his emotions, made no reply. About a minute after, however, he sprang suddenly to his feet, as if some interesting idea had occurred to him.

“A grand idea!” he exclaimed, “a superb idea!”

“Ah! What is it?”

“Listen, camarado! I am known to those who are laying siege to the hacienda Del Valle: you are known to those who defend it. Well, we shall thus be able to get in. Once inside, you can pass me off for one of the servants of your master, Don Mariano de Silva.”

“That might be possible, my dear Zapote,” naïvely answered Gaspar, “if it were not for your devil of a physiognomy.”

“Never mind that. I shall alter it to suit the occasion. You shall see. All I ask is, that if I extricate the Colonel from his present dilemma, I am to have a reward of a thousand dollars. I risk my life for it; and the sum would be only a fair one. I shall take fifty men, and deliver him from danger. As to your message, he will pay for that separately, and you may have all the bounty to yourself.”

“It would be a great stroke of business, if we could so manage it,” assented Gaspar.

“You see, after all,” philosophically remarked the ex-bandit, “that honesty is the best policy.”

“But suppose the Colonel should be taken prisoner, or killed?” suggested Gaspar.

“We must take the chance of that. If he be, we shall endeavour to capture Arroyo. In either case, I ought to have a reward; and, cost what it will, I mean to try for one.”

“It is possible,” again suggested Gaspar, “the Colonel may be able to reach the bamboo brake on the river bank. If so, we might still be in time to save him.”

“In less than two hours we can get back here with the men to rescue him. They can easily make a sortie from Del Valle, now that nearly all the others are scouring the forest. Quick, then, let us make for the hacienda.”

Excited by the hope of being able to accomplish their design, the two adventurers started off, gliding through the thicket as rapidly as they could make their way in the direction of the hacienda Del Valle.