Chapter 67 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Colonel of Colonels.

The day upon which these various events took place was anything but a happy one for Arroyo. It appeared to him as if the re-appearance in the neighbourhood of his deadliest foe—Don Rafael Tres-Villas—had been the signal for the series of disappointments which had occurred to him. Ten of his followers had fallen in a sortie of the besieged, besides two more killed by the hand of Don Rafael—who had himself escaped, as well as the prisoner Gaspar and the deserter Juan el Zapote.

The bloodthirsty disposition of the guerilla chief had been strengthened by these disappointments, and in order to give solace to his vexed spirit, he resolved to possess himself of the hacienda of San Carlos without further delay.

In addition to the wicked desires—which the promptings of Bocardo had excited within him—there was another reason urging him to carry out this design. The hacienda of San Carlos, with a little labour, could be converted into a fortress of considerable strength, and such as he might yet stand in need of.

He saw that he had miscalculated the power of resistance of the royalist garrison of Del Valle; and, still ignorant of its real strength, he deemed it better to call off the besieging force until after the taking of San Carlos. Then he could go back with his whole band, and make a determined assault against the place.

He had, for these reasons, ordered the besiegers to return to camp; and, striking his tent, had marched with all his followers to the capture of San Carlos. This will explain why Don Cornelio and his companions had been able to pass the hacienda Del Valle—and afterwards the ford of the Ostuta—without seeing anything of Arroyo or his band—Gaspacho alone excepted.

Numerous as were the servants of Don Fernando Lacarra—the proprietor of San Carlos—their master did not for a moment dream of making resistance. It would have been worse than useless against an experienced guerilla numbering in all above a hundred men. At the first summons, therefore, the gates of the hacienda were opened to Arroyo and his followers.

Having hitherto practised a strict neutrality, and being known to have a strong sympathy with the cause of the Independence, the young Spaniard believed that Arroyo only intended demanding from him a contribution in provisions—and perhaps money—for the support of his troops; and that with this he would be contented.

Although not suspecting the designs of the brigand in regard to his wife, he had deemed it prudent, before opening the gates, that she should conceal herself in one of the secret chambers of the mansion—where he was also in the habit of keeping his money and plate. There he fancied she would be safe enough—unless, indeed, the whole building should be ransacked and pillaged.

To strengthen this precaution, Don Fernando had informed the brigands on their entering the house, that his wife, Marianita, was not at home.

Unfortunately for him, it was not a mere levy of blackmail that was now to satisfy the partisan chieftains. One was determined upon robbing him of his wife—while the other coveted his money—and therefore the subterfuges of Don Fernando were not likely to avail him.

It was just at the time that the wretched husband was endeavouring to mislead his visitors as to the hiding-place of his wife and his treasure, that Don Cornelio Lantejas had come within view of the building, the lights of whose windows had so mystified him. That mystery was now to be cleared up, and the ex-student was to find the explanation of those bright coloured flames with their changing hues.

Following Gaspacho up the stone stairway, Don Cornelio reached a door upon the landing. It was closed; but inside, a tumult of voices could be heard, accompanied by cries as of some one in pain.

His conductor unceremoniously opened the door, and pushed Don Cornelio into a large room, the atmosphere of which almost suffocated him.

Several torches of resin, set in candelabras, were burning round the walls, but the reddish light which these produced was almost eclipsed under the glare that proceeded from a keg of brandy that stood near the middle of the floor, and which, having been set on fire, was completely enveloped in violet-coloured flames.

The heat, the smell of blood, and the effluvia of the burning alcohol, constituted an atmosphere horrid to endure; but even this was less painful to Don Cornelio than the sight which met his eyes as he entered the room. On one side was a group of guerilleros—clustered around some object which they were regarding with the most vivid interest—all seemingly pleased with the spectacle.

It was that of an unfortunate man, stripped almost naked, and tied with his face to the wall, while another man stood over him, grasping a strong cow-hide whip, with which, at intervals, he struck the wretched victim, apparently with all the strength that lay in his arms.

He who handled the whip was a man of the most sinister aspect; and the blue flames of the alcohol flashing over his countenance added to its demoniac expression. Gouts of blood, that had spurted from the back of the sufferer, spotted the wall on both sides of him; and the number of those spots showed that the punishment had been continued for some length of time.

By the side of the man who was inflicting the stripes—and whom Lantejas supposed to be some common executioner—stood a woman of a still more hideous aspect; who, by her gestures and words, kept exciting the wretch to still greater cruelty—as though he stood in need of such encouragement.

Gaspacho, perceiving that no one heeded his entrance, cried out, so as to be heard above the tumult—

“Señor Captain! we have captured the comrade of the negro and the Indian. Here he is.”

To the astonishment of Don Cornelio, the person thus addressed as the captain was no other than the hideous individual who was handling the whip.

“Very well,” responded the latter, without turning round. “I shall attend to him presently, as soon as I have made this coyote confess where he has hidden his wife and his money.”

The whip again whistled through the air, and came down upon the back of the wretched sufferer, without producing any other manifestation than a deep groan.

It is scarcely necessary to say that the victim of this barbarous treatment was Don Fernando Lacarra. The words of Arroyo have already made this known to the reader.

Perfectly indifferent to the spectacle, Gaspacho, having introduced his prisoner to the presence of Arroyo, walked out of the room.

As regards Don Cornelio, he stood where the robber had left him, paralysed with horror. Independently of the compassion he felt for the sufferer, he was under the suspicion that both Costal and Clara had already perished, and that his own turn might come next.

While these fearful reflections were passing through his mind, a man whom he had not before noticed now came up to him. This was an individual with a jackal-like face, and the skulking mien of that animal, with all its ferocious aspect.

“My good friend,” said this man, addressing himself to Don Cornelio, “you appear somewhat lightly clad for one who is about to present himself before people of distinction.”

Lantejas, in reality—thanks to the bandits who had captured him—was almost naked: a torn shirt and drawers being all the clothing they had left him.

“Señor Captain,”—said he, addressing the jackal-like individual, and intending to account for the scantiness of his costume.

“Stop,” interrupted the other, “not captain. Call me Colonel of Colonels, if you please. It is a title which I have adopted, and no one shall deprive me of it.”

“Well then, Colonel of Colonels! if your people had not robbed me of my broad cloth cloak, my hat of Vicuña wool, and various other articles of clothing, you would not have seen me so lightly dressed. But it is not only that which grieves me. I have other serious complaints to make—”

“The devil!” exclaimed the Colonel of Colonels, without heeding the last remarks. “A broad cloth cloak and Vicuña hat, did you say? Two things of which I stand particularly in need. They must be recovered.”

“I have to complain of violence offered to my person,” continued Don Cornelio. “I am called Lantejas—Captain Lantejas. I serve the junta of Zitacuaro, under the orders of General Morelos; and I bear from him a commission, of which the proofs—”

A sudden thought interrupted the speech of Don Cornelio—a terrible thought, for it just now occurred to him that his despatches, his commission as captain, his letters of credence—in short, all the papers by which he could prove his identity—were in the pockets of the stolen cloak!

“Ho!” exclaimed the Colonel of Colonels, in a joyful tone, “you call yourself Lantejas, do you? I am delighted to hear it, and so will our captain be. It is the luckiest circumstance in the world for us, and for you, too, as you shall presently be convinced. Look here!”

The speaker raised the corner of a serape that was spread upon one of the tables standing near, and pointed to some objects lying underneath. Don Cornelio saw they were human heads.

There were three of them.

“Now, my good friend,” continued the Colonel of Colonels, “there you see the head of our old comrade, Lieutenant Lantejas, which we have brought away from where it was nailed over the gate of the hacienda Del Valle. Conceive, then, what a lucky thing for us! What a splendid revanche we shall have when, in place of the head of the insurgent Lantejas, we shall nail up that of Lantejas the royalist spy!”

“But it is a mistake,” cried Don Cornelio, rubbing the cold sweat from his forehead. “I am not a royalist nor a spy neither. I have the honour to serve the cause of the Independence—”

“Bah! everybody says the same. Besides, without any proofs—”

“But I have proofs. They are in the pocket of my cloak, of which I have been robbed.”

“Who took your cloak?” inquired the Colonel of Colonels.

“Gaspacho,” replied Don Cornelio, who had incidentally learnt the name of the brigand who had despoiled him.

“Ah! that is a terrible misfortune. Gaspacho has just received orders to go in all haste to Las Cruces. He is off by this time, and will not likely be back in less than ten days. You, by that time will have lost your head, and I my cloak and Vicuña hat. Both of them, I know, would have fitted me, since you and I are both of a size. What a damnable misfortune for both of us!”

A fearful cry interrupted the dialogue between Don Cornelio and the Colonel of Colonels. The cry came from the wretched sufferer, who fainted as soon as uttering it.

Almost at the same instant the alcohol shot up its last flickering flame—as the spirit itself was consumed; and in the reddish light of the torches Don Cornelio could perceive the men flitting about like shadows, or rather like demons assisting in the horrible drama that was being enacted.