Chapter 65 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Lantejas Beheaded.

The short interval of bluish light between daybreak and sunrise in the tropics was nearly over, when Captain Lantejas and his two trusty followers climbed into their saddles to proceed towards the ford of the Ostuta. A difficulty yet lay in the way of their reaching it: since before gaining the river it would be necessary for them to pass within sight of the hacienda Del Valle, and they might be seen, as they supposed, by the sentinels of the royalist garrison. As yet the three travellers were ignorant that the place was blockaded by the guerilla of Arroyo.

“If we were to pass it by night,” said Costal, “it would look more suspicious. Better to go in full daylight. Clara can ride ahead of us. If any one stops him, he can ask permission for a merchant and his servants who are travelling southward. If, on the other hand, he sees no one, he may ride on; and we can follow him without further ceremony.”

The advice was to the liking of the Captain; and they accordingly commenced advancing along the road that would conduct them past the hacienda.

In about a quarter of an hour they arrived in front of it, near the end of the long avenue already mentioned. Costal and Don Cornelio halted at some distance behind while Clara rode forward; and, to make sure that no one was there, even entered the avenue itself.

Not a human being could be seen. The place appeared deserted—all was silent as upon that night when Don Rafael rode up to the house to find only desolation and death.

Still further to guard against surprise, Clara rode on up the avenue; but he had scarce gone a hundred paces from the main road when a soldier appeared behind the parapet of the hacienda, evidently watching his approach.

The black seeing that he was discovered kept on straight for the building.

The distance hindered Don Cornelio and Costal from distinguishing the words that passed between Clara and the sentry; but they could see that the latter was pointing out something to the black which was to them invisible. Whatever the object was, it appeared to excite the risible faculties of the negro: for, distant as he was, they could distinctly hear him laughing.

Meanwhile the sentinel disappeared, and as Clara continued to indulge in his hilarity, it was evident he had obtained the permission asked for. At all events, Don Cornelio and Costal regarded his behaviour as a good omen.

Nevertheless he seemed to hesitate about returning to the road; and instead of doing so, the moment after, he made signs to Don Cornelio and Costal to advance up the avenue.

Both instantly obeyed the invitation; and when they had arrived near the walls, Clara, still shaking his sides with laughter, pointed out to them the object which had given origin to his mirth.

On beholding it, Don Cornelio believed that his eyes were deceiving him. In truth the spectacle, to which he was thus introduced, had very little in it to justify the merriment of the black. In place of the heads of wolves and other noxious animals, which may often be seen nailed up against the walls of country houses, here there were three human heads! They were not yet desiccated, but appeared as if freshly cut off from the bodies to which they belonged.

“Wretched man!” cried Don Cornelio, addressing himself to Clara, “what is there in such a sight to excite your gaiety?”

“Carrambo!” exclaimed the negro, answering to the reproach by a fresh burst of laughter,—then, in a whisper, he continued, pointing to one of the heads—

“Señor Captain, don’t you see? One of the heads is yours!”

“Mine?” muttered the ex-student, suddenly turning pale, though, as he felt his head still upon his shoulders, he believed that the negro was only mocking him.

“So the sentry has just told me,” affirmed Clara, “but, Señor Captain, you who know how to read may satisfy yourself.”

As the negro spoke he pointed to an inscription, that appeared over one of the heads. Don Cornelio, despite the gloomy shadow which the tall cypresses cast over the wall, was able to read the inscription: “Esta es la cabeza del insurgente Lantejas.” (This is the head of the insurgent Lantejas.)

It was in reality the head of an insurgent of the same name as Don Cornelio himself—one of Arroyo’s followers, who, as already known, by the report of Gaspacho, had been captured during a sortie of the besieged.

Don Cornelio turned his eyes away from the hideous spectacle presented by the head of his namesake; and anathematising once more the unfortunate name which he had inherited from his father, made all haste to ride off from the spot.

In proportion as the distance between him and the hacienda increased, his terror became diminished, and at length ended in a melancholy smile at the odd coincidence of the encounter with his beheaded homonyme.

But the profound silence that surrounded him as he journeyed along, and the knowledge that in a few minutes he would find himself face to face with the redoubtable guerillero, once more imbued the mind of the Captain with the darkest presentiments.

Without permitting his companions to suspect the sentiments that were troubling him, he would willingly have proposed deferring for another day his interview with the bandit chief. Both Costal and Clara, however, as they rode along by his side, presented an appearance of such stoical indifference to danger, that he felt ashamed of showing himself less brave than they; and, thus restrained, he continued to travel on in silence.

Shortly after, they came in sight of the river, and at the same time could command a view of the banks on both side of the ford. Don Cornelio became reassured at the sight. Neither horse, horseman, nor tent, was to be seen. Noisy and bustling as the place had been in the morning, it was now in the evening completely silent and deserted. Not a trace remained of the encampment of Arroyo—save the smouldering bivouac fires, and the débris of various articles that lay scattered over the ground.

“If I know,” said Costal to the Captain, “how to pick the truth from the lies which that scurvy fellow has told us—he who took such a marvellous fancy to your cloak—I should say we are on the road that will guide us to the man you are in search of. He is at this moment, I venture to say, at the hacienda San Carlos—notwithstanding that the droll humbug appeared to make such a mystery of his whereabouts.”

“But suppose the hacienda San Carlos to be occupied by a Spanish garrison?” suggested the Captain.

“Let us first cross the river,” said Costal, “you can remain upon the other side with Clara, while I go forward and make a reconnaissance.”

This proposition was agreed to by Don Cornelio; and the three travellers having forded the stream, Costal prepared to separate from them.

“Be cautious, good Costal,” said Lantejas, “there is danger on every side of us.”

“For me and Clara,” remarked the Indian, with an ironical smile; “one who has already lost his head should have nothing more to fear, Señor Captain!”

Saying this, Costal went off at a trot, leaving the Captain and Clara on the bank of the river.

The Indian had scarce passed out of sight, when a plunging in the water announced that horses were crossing the ford. Looking around, Don Cornelio beheld two horsemen riding out on the bank where he and Clara had halted. One of them carried behind him a pair of canvas alforjas, which appeared to have some large roundish objects inside. Merely exchanging a brief salute, the horsemen were passing on; when the Captain, in hopes of obtaining some information from them, inquired if the hacienda of San Carlos was far distant.

“No,” replied one, “only about a quarter of a league.”

“Are we likely to be well received there?” further asked Don Cornelio.

“Ah!” replied the second horseman, “that depends—”

The muttered voice, and the distance which he had already gained, hindered Don Cornelio from perceiving the tone of irony in which he spoke; but almost at the same instant the speaker elevated his voice to a high pitch, though only the last words were heard with distinctness.

These were, “Mejico e independencia.”

The phrase was well-known to Don Cornelio.

“What word came before it?” inquired he of his companion; “viva, was it not?”

“No, it was muera,” replied the negro.

“You are mistaken, I think, Clara.”

“No, I repeat it,—it was muera!”

Not having inquired from the horsemen whether San Carlos was in the power of the royalists or insurgents, Don Cornelio remained as undecided upon that point as ever.

A considerable time passed, and still Costal did not return.

“Suppose I gallop forward a bit,” suggested Clara, “and see whether I can meet him?”

The Captain having become uneasy about the prolonged absence of Costal, assented to this proposition; but at the same time directed the black to return in a quarter of an hour, if Costal did not make his appearance within that time.