Chapter 63 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

An Unwilling Ambassador.

On the afternoon of that same day—a little after the time when Don Rafael buried himself among the bamboos—the ex-student of theology, accompanied by Costal and Clara, was riding along the Huajapam road, at no great distance from the ford of the Ostuta. When near to this famous crossing, the three halted; and while their horses were picking up a little grass, Costal kept on a little further afoot—for the purpose of reconnoitring the ground upon the banks of the river.

Meanwhile Clara busied himself in roasting, over a fire he had kindled, some green ears of maize corn, which, with a few pieces of dried beef (cecina), were to constitute the dinner of the party. Clara had taken the materials from his alforjas.

After an interval of silence, the Captain commenced a conversation with the object of making to the negro a communication evidently deemed by him of some importance.

“Listen to me, Clara!” said he; “we are entrusted with a commission which I need not tell you will require us to act with the greatest circumspection. I need not tell you that our carrying to this Captain Arroyo the threats of the General is a sufficiently dangerous errand. No more need I assure you that to enter the town of Oajaca is of a similar character. There the Royalists think no more of the head of an insurgent, than you of one of those ears of corn that you are roasting in the fire. What I wish of you, then, is—that you will drop the bad habit you have of calling me by the name of Lantejas; which, up to the present time, has brought me nothing but ill fortune. It was under that name I was proscribed; and I beg of you, therefore, that, for the future, both you and Costal will know me only by the name of Don Lucas Alacuesta. This last is the name of my mother’s family, and it will serve my purpose as well as any other.”

“Enough said, Captain,” rejoined the negro; “I shall not forget to obey your orders—even though I should have the axe of the executioner raised over my neck.”

“I am satisfied you will not. Meanwhile, until Costal returns, you may serve me with some of those morsels you are roasting, which seem to be done enough. I am dying of hunger.”

“And I too,” added the negro, casting a greedy glance towards the cecina.

Clara spread out before the Captain his saddle-cloth to serve as a napkin; and, taking some pieces of the broiled meat from the coals, placed them upon it. To this he added two or three of the roasted ears. Then, seating himself close to the fire, he drew from the ashes the remaining portions of meat, and commenced eating with an earnestness that was likely to prove fatal to Costal’s share in the banquet.

“Ho!” cried the Captain, “if you continue on in that fashion, your comrade Costal will be likely to go without his dinner.”

“Costal will not eat before to-morrow,” replied the negro in a grave tone.

“That I can easily believe,” assented Don Cornelio. “There will be nothing left for him to eat, I fancy.”

“You misunderstand me, Señor Captain. To-day is the third after midsummer, and to-night the moon will be at the full. That is why Costal will not eat, in order that by fasting he may prepare himself to hold communion with his gods.”

“You fool! Do you believe in the wretched fables of the pagan Costal?”

“I have reason to believe them,” gravely replied the negro. “The God of the Christians dwells in the sky; those of Costal inhabit the Lake of Ostuta, Tlaloc, the god of the mountains, lives on the summit of Monopostiac; and Matlacuezc his wife, the goddess of the water, bathes herself in the waters of the lake that surround the enchanted mountain. The third night after the summer solstice—at the full of the moon—is the time when they show themselves to the descendants of the caciques of Tehuantepec—to such as have passed their fiftieth year—and Costal intends to invoke them this very night.”

As Don Cornelio was about endeavouring to bring the negro to a more rational religious belief, Costal strode silently up.

“Well,” said the Captain, “is our information correct? Have you learnt whether Arroyo is really encamped on the banks of the Ostuta?”

“Quite true,” answered the Indian, “a peon of my acquaintance, whom I chanced to meet, has told me that Arroyo and Bocardo are by the ford, where they intercept the passage of all who come this way. It is close by, so that this evening you can deliver your message. After that is done, I would ask leave of absence for Clara and myself for the night. We wish to spend it on the shore of the Sacred Lake.”

“Hum!” muttered Don Cornelio, without noticing the request. “So near!” continued he, speaking to himself, and abruptly ceasing to eat. “What else did your peon acquaintance make known about Arroyo and Bocardo?”

“Only that they are more thirsty than ever—the one for blood, the other for plunder.”

Costal imparted this information in a tone but little calculated to inspire the Captain with a relish for his mission.

He endeavoured to conceal his uneasiness, however; and, raising his voice to a tone of assumed boldness, he inquired:—

“It is to the ford of the Ostuta, then, we are to go?”

“Yes, Señor Captain, whenever it pleases your honour to move forward.”

“We have plenty of time,” replied Don Cornelio, evidently reluctant to make any further advance. “I wish to take a few hours of rest before going thither. And your old master, Don Mariano de Silva—did you hear anything of him?”

“Yes. He has long ago left the hacienda Las Palmas, and is living in Oajaca. As to that of Del Valle, it is still occupied by the Royalist garrison.”

“So then we have enemies on all sides of us?” rejoined the Captain.

“Arroyo and Bocardo,” said Costal, “should scarcely be enemies to an officer bearing despatches from the General Morelos. As for Clara and myself, we are that sort whom these bandits never frighten.”

“I agree with you there,” rejoined the Captain, “certainly I do—meanwhile—nevertheless—I should prefer—ah! who is that horseman who is galloping in this direction, carbine in hand?”

“If one may judge the master by the servant, and if this fellow chances to have a master, that master ought to be one of the greatest rogues on earth.”

As Costal was delivering this figurative speech, he stretched forth his hand and seized hold of his own old and trusty piece.

The horseman in question was no other than Gaspacho—the courier who had brought to Arroyo the evil news from the hacienda Del Valle.

He rode forward as one rides in a conquered country; and without making any obeisance addressed himself to the Captain—who, from being a white, appeared to him the most considerable of the three strangers.

“Tell me, friend—” said he.

“Friend!” cried Costal, interrupting him, and evidently ill pleased with his looks, “a captain in the army of General Morelos is no friend to such as you.”

“What does this brute of an Indian say?” demanded Gaspacho, regarding Costal with an air of contempt.

The eyes of Costal fairly blazed with rage; and his movements promised for Gaspacho a terrible chastisement, when Don Cornelio interposed to prevent it. “What is your wish?” asked he of the follower of Arroyo.

“To know if you have seen anything of that rascal, Juan de Zapote, and his worthy companion, Gaspar?”

“We have seen neither Zapote nor Gaspar.”

“If they’re not found, then, my friend Perico—who met and permitted them to pass him—is likely to spend a most uncomfortable quarter of an hour—when he appears in the presence of our Captain Arroyo.”

“Ah! you are in Arroyo’s service then?”

“I have the honour.”

“Perhaps you can tell me where I shall be most likely to find him?”

“Quien sabe? By the ford of the Ostuta you may find him—if he’s not gone elsewhere—to the hacienda of San Carlos, for example.”

“This hacienda does not belong to the royalists then?” inquired the Captain.

“Perhaps I may be mistaken,” ironically answered Gaspacho. “In any case, if you wish to see the Captain—which rather astonishes me—you will have to cross the ford all the same; and there you may hear of his whereabouts. My faith! that is a splendid cloak you have got on your shoulders. It appears a mile too big for you; and looks as if it would just fit a man of my dimensions.”

On saying these words, the bandit put spurs to his horse and galloped off—leaving Don Cornelio with an unpleasant impression upon his mind, caused by his ambiguous speeches and the admiration the stranger had expressed for his cloak.

“I fear we have fallen among wicked people here,” said he, addressing himself to Costal. “You see how little this ragged fellow makes of an officer of Morelos; and doubtless his master will make still less. Well—we must be prudent, and wait until night before we attempt to go forward among them.”

“Prudence is not always a bad substitute for courage,” remarked Costal, with a shrug. “We shall do as you desire, Señor Captain; and I shall be careful we do not fall either into the hands of the loyalists, or those of the followers of Arroyo, before arriving in the presence of that gentleman himself. Otherwise, I might lose the one peculiar day of my life, that I have so long looked forward to. Trust to me. I think you can say that I never let you remain long in a dangerous situation?”

“You are my providence,” cried the Captain, with friendly warmth. “It is true; and it will always give me pleasure to acknowledge it.”

“No, no,” interrupted Costal, “what I may have done for you is not worth talking about. Meanwhile, we will act wisely to take a wink of sleep—Clara and myself more especially: since, during all this night, we shan’t have another opportunity to close our eyes.”

“You are right—I perfectly agree with you. Let us all have some sleep then.”

As the sun was still hot, Clara and Costal stretched themselves under the shadow of a spreading tree, and both, with that indifference to danger to which a life of adventures had habituated them, were soon buried in profound slumber; during which the negro was constantly endeavouring, in dreams, to capture the Siren with dishevelled hair, and force her to reveal to him some rich placer of gold.

As for Don Cornelio, he lay for a long time awake: anxious and apprehensive about the result of his approaching interview with the guerilla chief. At length, imitating the example of his two compagnons de voyage, he also fell asleep.