Chapter 66 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Don Cornelio a Captive.

Almost as soon as Clara had ridden out of sight, Don Cornelio began to count the minutes. The quarter of an hour appeared a whole one; and, when it had passed, with no signs of either returning, he became more than uneasy—he felt alarm.

In order to create some distraction for his thoughts, he rode gently forward—on the same path by which his two companions had gone. Not meeting either, he kept on for another quarter of an hour. Becoming still more alarmed, he was about to make a halt, when he saw lights that seemed to go and come along the summits of the trees that appeared at some distance before him. These lights had flashed into view at a turn of the road.

On looking more attentively, he perceived that the ground sloped up from the place which he occupied; and he was now enabled to distinguish the outlines of a vast building, the windows of which were so brilliantly illuminated from the inside, that one might have fancied the house to be on fire. Outside, upon the azotéa, blazing torches appeared to be carried backward and forward. It was these that had first attracted the eye of Don Cornelio, who, on account of the elevation at which they were seen, fancied them to be moving among the tops of the trees!

There was something too unnatural in these blazing torches, agitated by the night breeze—but more especially in the strange lights that shone through the windows—now red, now blue, and then of a pale violet colour, and in an instant changing from one hue to another—something so fantastically singular, that Don Cornelio suddenly drew up, without daring to advance a pace further.

The superstitious ideas with which Costal had entertained him during their journey now came into his mind; and, despite his disbelief in them, he could not help conjuring up fancies almost as absurd. He remembered the bull fulminated against the insurgents by the Bishop of Oajaca—representing them as spirits of darkness—and he began to fancy there must be some truth in it, and that he was now within view of these very demons. The silence that reigned around tended to strengthen this fancy—which was now further confirmed by the sight of a phantom-like figure clothed in white, seen for a moment gliding among the trees, and then as suddenly vanishing out of sight. The phantom appeared to have come from the direction of the illuminated building—as if fleeing from some danger that there menaced it.

The Captain made the sign of the cross, and then sat motionless in his saddle—uncertain whether to remain where he was, or to gallop back to the ford.

While thus irresolute, and asking himself whether the phantom he had seen might have been a stray reflection of one of the torches, the lights all at once disappeared from the upper part of the building.

At the same moment four or five horsemen issued forth from the shadow of the walls, and galloped towards him, uttering loud yells. Don Cornelio perceived that his presence was discovered; but to put this beyond doubt, a light at the moment flashed up among the horsemen, followed by the report of a carbine, and the hissing of a bullet, which passed close to his ears.

He no longer hesitated as to whether he should stand or fly. The bullet was sufficient cue for flight; and, wheeling round, he set off in full gallop towards the river.

Trained by the misfortunes which had occurred to him, from the mistaken economy of his worthy father, Don Cornelio had ever since felt an aversion to second-rate horses, and on the present journey he had taken care to provide himself with a good one. Knowing the fact, he had fair hopes of being able to distance his pursuers. Driving his spurs deeply into the ribs of his horse, he permitted the animal to choose its own course—so long as it carried him in a direction opposite to that from which he was pursued.

Forgetting all about Costal and Clara, he rode away like the wind; and, in all likelihood, would have got clear beyond the reach of his pursuers, but for an unforeseen misfortune. In passing a gigantic cypress his horse stumbled upon its projecting roots, and came head foremost to the ground—flinging his rider out of the saddle with such force that, but for the softness of the spot on which he fell, some of his bones would undoubtedly have suffered fracture.

He was but little damaged by the fall, and, before he could get to his feet, and recover his horse, one of the pursuers had ridden up, and casting out a lazo, noosed him round the body.

To whom was the captain a prisoner?

Of this he was completely ignorant, still uncertain as to who were in possession of the hacienda. As soon as he had regained his feet, however, a voice cried out, interrogatively, “For Spain, or the Independence?”

Before making answer, Don Cornelio looked up. Half-a-dozen men had arrived upon the ground, and encircled him in their midst, forming a menacing cordon around him. Of one and all the aspect was sinister and doubtful.

“Spain, or the Independence?” repeated the voice, in a more threatening tone.

Thus brusquely called upon to proclaim his colours, the Captain, not knowing those of the party who surrounded him, hesitated to make answer.

“Very well, cavallero!” cried one of the men, “answer or not, as you please. No doubt of it,” he continued, addressing himself to a comrade, “this fellow is in company with the other two. Bring him along to the hacienda!”

At these words one of his captors seized Don Cornelio by the arm, and commenced dragging him along toward the illuminated building.

“Hold!” cried the first speaker, as, under the glare of the distant lights, he saw that their prisoner was neither negro nor Indian. “Por Dios! this fellow is white.”

“Red, black, and white!” added another. “We want only a mestizo to complete the collection.”

From these speeches Don Cornelio conjectured that his comrades, Costal and Clara, had been already captured by the same party who were making him their prisoner.

He was still ignorant, however, as to whether his captors were royalists or insurgents; and, before proceeding further, he determined, if possible, to settle that question.

“What do you want with me?” he inquired, in the hope of obtaining some clue in the answer.

“Not much,” replied the spokesman of the party. “Only to nail your head in the place of that of Lantejas.”

“Lantejas!” exclaimed Don Cornelio, inspired with a fresh hope. “That is my name. It is I who am the insurgent Lantejas, sent here to Oajaca, by General Morelos.”

The declaration was received with a burst of savage laughter.

“Demonio!” cried one of the guerilleros, coming up with the horse of Don Cornelio, “I have had trouble enough in catching this accursed brute. It is to be hoped he carries something to repay me for it.”

Don Cornelio fancied he knew the tone of this voice, but he had no time to reflect upon where he had heard it, before its owner again cried out, “Alabado sea Dios! (Blessed be the Lord!) there is my cloak!”

Don Cornelio recognised the man who the day before had taken such a fancy to his cloak. In a word, the speaker was Gaspacho.

“What a lucky fellow I am to meet you again,” continued the brigand; “that cloak is much too large for you. I told you so yesterday.”

“Such as it is, it satisfies me,” meekly responded the Captain.

“Oh! nonsense,” rejoined Gaspacho, at the same time throwing off his own tattered scrape, and making a significant gesture to Don Cornelio to uncloak himself.

The latter hesitated to comply with this rude invitation; but almost on the instant Gaspacho snatched the garment from his shoulders, and coolly wrapped it round his own.

“Now, amigo,” cried one of Gaspacho’s confrères, “surely a man without a head has no need of a hat? Yours appears as if it would just fit me,” and saying this, the bandit picked the hat from Don Cornelio’s head, at the same time flinging his own battered sombrero to the ground.

As there was nothing more upon the person of the prisoner to tempt the cupidity of the brigands, the lazo was unloosened from around his arms, and he was ordered to accompany his captors to the hacienda. This he did willingly enough: for the presence of Gaspacho told him that he was in the hands of the guerilleros of Arroyo.

“Can I see the Captain?” he inquired.

“What Captain?”


“Ah! you wish to see him?” responded Gaspacho. “That rather surprises me. You shall have the pleasure of seeing him soon enough, I fancy. Come along!”

The guerilleros continued on to the house, conducting their prisoner along with them.

As they drew near to the walls, the attention of Don Cornelio was again attracted to the singular lights that seemed to be burning within the house. It could not be the flame of a conflagration, else the building would long since have been consumed.

A few minutes brought them up to the gate. It was shut, and one of the men knocked against it with the hilt of his sabre, at the same time giving utterance to a password, which Don Cornelio did not understand. What he did comprehend was, that the moment had come when, bon gré mal gré, he was called upon to acquit himself of the commission with which Morelos had entrusted him.

It often happens that danger in prospective is more dreaded than when it is present; and so was it in this instance: for, on his arrival at the gate, Don Cornelio felt less embarrassed with apprehensions than he had been ever since his departure from the camp at Huajapam.

The huge door turned upon its heavy hinges to admit the horsemen—in the midst of whom the prisoner was carried into a large, paved courtyard, illuminated by the flames of several fires that burned in the open air. Around these fires could be distinguished the forms of men—to the number of one hundred or more—grouped in different attitudes, or lying asleep upon the pavement. Along the walls stood as many horses, completely equipped for the road. The bridles only were off, and hanging suspended over the saddle-bow—in order that the animals might consume their rations of maize, served to them in wooden troughs. Here and there, stacks of carbines, lances, and sabres, glanced under the light of the fires, and Don Cornelio could not help shivering with terror as he looked upon these fierce bandits, in the midst of their picturesque accoutrements.

Most of them remained as they were, without offering to stir. The sight of a fresh prisoner was nothing new to them. One only coming forward, asked Gaspacho, in a tone of indifference, what had taken him out at that hour of the night.

“Well!” exclaimed the cloak-robber in reply. “They say that the mistress of the hacienda has escaped by a window. Her husband says she is absent. I don’t care whether it’s true or not. All I know is, that we can see nothing of her without; and we should have returned empty-handed, if good fortune hadn’t thrown into our hands this gentleman here. I have no doubt he is a royalist spy, since he wanted to pass himself off for our old comrade—the Lieutenant Lantejas.”

“Ah!” rejoined the other, “he would ill like to be Lantejas just now.”

And as the man said this he returned to the fire, which he had for the moment forsaken.

The captors of Don Cornelio were soon lost amidst the groups of their associates—Gaspacho alone staying to guard him.

Only a few seconds did the cloak-robber remain in the courtyard; after which, making a sign to his prisoner to follow him, he commenced reascending the stone escalera that led to the second storey of the building.