Chapter 68 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Commission Executed.

While the Captain Lantejas stood in the midst of an atmosphere that nearly stifled his breathing, he saw one of these shadowy forms step out from among the rest and advance towards him. As the man came nearer, he recognised the ferocious captain of the bandits, who, licking his blood-stained lips like a jaguar after leaving its prey, cried out in a hoarse voice, “Bring me that spy! I can examine him while the coyote is coming to himself.”

“Here he is,” replied Bocardo, seizing Don Cornelio by the shoulder, and pushing him forward into the presence of his associate.

“My good friend,” muttered Bocardo, addressing himself to Don Cornelio, “it’s your turn now. Of course the lash will make you confess that you are a spy, and of course your head will be taken off immediately after. I would, therefore, advise you not to waste time about it but acknowledge your guilt at once.”

While Bocardo was giving this fearful counsel, his associate stood regarding Don Cornelio with eyes that expressed a villainous pleasure, at the idea of having another victim to satisfy his bloodthirsty instincts.

“Confess quickly!” he cried, “and let that end it. I am tired, and shan’t be kept waiting.”

“Señor Arroyo!” replied Lantejas, “I am a captain in the insurgent army, and am sent by General Morelos to tell you—”

Don Cornelio paused. He was hesitating as to whether he dare proclaim his real errand.

“Your proofs?” demanded Arroyo.

“My papers have been taken from me,” said Lantejas.

“A fig for your papers! Hola! wife!” continued Arroyo, turning to the hag who still stood by the fainting victim, “here’s a little work for you, as I am somewhat fatigued. I charge you with making this spy confess who sent him here, and what design he had in coming. Make him speak out whatever way you please.”

“By and by,” answered the virago, “but not yet. This coyote has come round again, and better still, has come to his right senses at last: he is about to confess.”

“Bring him here, then!” commanded Arroyo.

Several men hastened to execute the order, and, detaching the victim from the place where he had been bound, half dragged, half carried him across the floor. Don Cornelio saw that the unfortunate individual was a young man—of less than thirty, of noble aspect, though his features expressed at the moment the terrible agony he was enduring.

“Now, Gachupino!” exclaimed the woman, “where is your money hid?”

“Where is your wife?” cried Arroyo. On hearing this question so pointedly put, the hideous companion of Arroyo directed upon her husband a glance of concentrated rage and jealousy.

“I want the woman,” muttered Arroyo, “in order that I may draw a good ransom out of her father.”

The young Spaniard, his spirit tortured to a certain degree of feebleness, in a voice scarce audible, indicated to his persecutors where lay the secret chamber—the door of which, cunningly set in the wall, had escaped even the keen eyes of the robbers.

Both Bocardo and Arroyo immediately repaired to the spot. A keg of dollars, with a large quantity of plate, was found in the chamber, but the Señora Marianita had disappeared.

On hearing this news, a tremor of joy passed through the lacerated frame of the young Spaniard. Little cared he for his treasure, so long as his beloved wife had escaped from the outrages of the brigands. His emotion caused him to faint anew; and he lay once more senseless at the feet of his tormentors.

Don Cornelio now remembered the white phantom he had observed gliding among the trees, and he doubted not that what he had seen was she of whom they were in search.

Arroyo returned to examine his prisoner, but by this time the whole nature of Don Cornelio appeared to have become suddenly transformed. The perfumes of the alcohol, mixed with that of the resin torches, had mounted to his head; and as he had never in his life even tasted strong liquors, the effect was that of a partial but instant intoxication. He appeared to have become animated with a portion of that courage, with which in the field of battle the flaming eyes of Galeana had more than once inspired him—while combating under the aegis of the marshal’s death-dealing lance.

“Señor Arroyo!” cried he in a voice whose thundering tones astonished even himself, “and you who call yourself the Colonel of Colonels! I command you both to respect the envoy of his Excellency the General Morelos—myself—who am charged to tell you, that if you continue, by your sanguinary cruelties, to disgrace the holy cause for which we fight—not as brigands but as Christians—you will both be drawn and quartered!”

At this unexpected and insulting menace the eyes of Arroyo sparkled with fury. Upon Bocardo the effect was somewhat different. He trembled and turned pale at the name of Morelos.

Lantejas, though somewhat alarmed at his own boldness, nevertheless continued in the same strain.

“Bring here the negro and Indian!” demanded he, “prisoners like myself—and see if both do not know me as Captain Don Cornelio Lantejas. If they do not I consent—”

At this point Arroyo interrupted the speaker, springing forward and crying out in a husky voice—

“Woe be to you if you are lying! I will pluck the tongue out of your head, and scourge with it the cheeks of an impostor.”

Lantejas, now elevated in spite of himself to a point of haughty grandeur, replied to this menace only with a superb smile.

Clara being sent for, the moment after appeared within the room.

“Who is this man, dog of a negro?” interrogated the fierce brigand.

This time too punctual in executing the orders of his captain, the black displayed his ivory teeth in a smile of significant intelligence. “Don Lucas Alacuesta, of course!” he replied.

A cry of gratification issued from the lips of the bandit.

“But there is another name which I also bear, is there not?” inquired Don Cornelio, without losing countenance.

“Don Cornelio Lantejas,” added Clara.

“The proofs—the proofs!” cried the guerillero, pacing rapidly backward and forward, like a caged tiger who sees the spectators outside the bars of his prison without being able to devour them, “the proofs!—I must have them at once.”

At this moment confused and violent noises were heard outside the door, and rising above all the voice of Costal. The door was suddenly burst open, and the Indian rushed into the middle of the room, holding in one hand a bloody dagger, while the other was enveloped in a shapeless mass of what seemed to be cloth. The latter was serving him for a shield against the attack of several guerilleros, who were pressing him from behind.

Costal, on getting inside, turned abruptly and stood facing his adversaries.

These, finding themselves in the presence of their chief, desisted for a moment from the attack—one of them crying out to Arroyo, that the Indian had poniarded their comrade Gaspacho.

“I did it to get back my own property,” replied Costal, “or rather that of Captain Lantejas; and here it is.”

In saying these words, the Zapoteque unwound from his left arm what had served him as a buckler, and which was now seen to be the cloak so inopportunely missing.

Don Cornelio seized it from him with an exclamation of joy, and at once plunged his hands into the pockets.

“Here are my proofs!” cried he, drawing out a number of papers, so stained with blood, fresh from the veins of the slain robber, as to be scarce legible. Enough, however, could be read to establish the identity of Don Cornelio and the authority under which he was acting.

The names of Morelos and Galeana in the midst of this band of brigands were, for him, like the whisper of the Lord to Daniel in the den of lions. Even the two ferocious leaders lowered their tone at the mention of these names, so universally feared and respected.

“You may go, then!” cried Arroyo, yielding reluctantly to the authority that had awed him; “but if you ever boast of the arrogant language you have used to me, Carajo!” and the brigand hissed out the infamous oath. “As for General Morelos,” he added, “you may say to him, that each of us fights according to his own way; and, notwithstanding his threats, I shall follow mine.”

Saying this, an order was issued to let the three prisoners pass free, after delivering up to them their arms and horses.

“Let six horsemen get ready to pursue this runaway Señora!” cried the bandit chief, as Don Cornelio and his companions were leaving the room. “Some one bridle my horse, and quickly. I shall go along with them, and you too, Bocardo.”

Bocardo made no reply, but not equally silent was Arroyo’s female companion.

“What want you with the Señora?” she inquired, in a tone of angry jealousy. “Have you got the keg of dollars to satisfy you!”

“I have told you already,” rejoined Arroyo, with a demoniac glance at his wife, “that I want her for the purpose of enabling me to extract a ransom from her father. I want her, and will have her. You stay here, and guard the treasure; and by all the devils if you don’t behave yourself better—”

The bandit drew his dagger with such an air of resolution and menace, that the hag, cowed by the gesture, no longer offered opposition to his will. Shrinking to one side, she appeared to busy herself in looking after the keg of dollars.

Meanwhile Don Cornelio and his two acolytes, not caring to remain in such company longer than was absolutely necessary, hastened from the room; and, mounting their restored steeds, rode off into the darkness of the night.