Chapter 69 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Catalan Lieutenant.

It is already known how Don Rafael Tres-Villas had fortified his hacienda of Del Valle, and how, when called elsewhere by his military duties, he had left its garrison of nearly a hundred men, under the command of a Catalonian officer, Lieutenant Veraegui.

On the same day in which he had made a sortie from the hacienda, and succeeded in capturing ten of the besieging guerilleros, the Lieutenant received a despatch from the governor of the province, ordering him, without further delay, to attack the band of Arroyo, and annihilate it, if possible. Then, with his whole troop, to repair to Oajaca, which was now in danger of being besieged by Morelos. The despatch also conveyed to Veraegui the additional intelligence of the raising of the siege of Huajapam, and the total defeat of the besieging forces.

The news was anything but agreeable to the Catalonian Lieutenant. In the alcavala—which he had for the past two years been accustomed to levy on all the traffic between Puebla and Oajaca—he had found excellent pay for his soldiers; and being a man not over scrupulous, though brave as a lion, he felt greatly disinclined to change his comfortable quarters. A fierce royalist, moreover, the news from Huajapam excited his fury against the insurgents to the highest pitch; and he blamed himself for the clemency he had displayed that very morning in hanging four of the guerilleros he had taken, up by the neck, instead of by the heels—as he had done with three of their comrades.

About an hour after Don Cornelio Lantejas and his travelling companions had passed Del Valle—and only a few minutes from the time, when, thanks to the darkness of the night, two of Arroyo’s followers had found an opportunity to carry off the heads of their three comrades—two men presented themselves in front of the fortified hacienda.

They were Gaspar and Juan de Zapote, who had hidden themselves during the day, and awaited the friendly darkness, to enable them to make their way through the lines of the besieging force.

“I see no one,” muttered Zapote, as they glided into the avenue. “The place appears to be deserted! It’s likely enough that my ex-comrades have abandoned the siege.”

“So much the better—let us keep on then!” rejoined Gaspar.

“Gently, gently, compadre!” counselled Zapote. “You forget that my costume is of the military kind, and likely to make a sentinel suspicious of me. A carbine shot might be the only hail we should get from one of these Royalists.”

“Your physiognomy, amigo, is more likely than your costume to beget suspicions.”

“Ah! that comes of the bad company I have been keeping of late.”

“Never mind that. I shall go forward alone, and make myself known to the sentries. I can then introduce you as a comrade, devoted to the service of Don Rafael Tres-Villas, and who offers to assist in delivering the Colonel from danger.”

“Precisely so, that is, if the Colonel be still alive.”

“Quien viva!” came the sonorous hail of a sentinel from the crenelled parapet.

“Gente de paz!” replied Gaspar, advancing alone, while Zapote, notwithstanding the obscurity of the night, instinctively placed himself behind the trunk of a tree.

“What is your wish?” demanded the guard.

“I am the bearer of important news from the Colonel Tres-Villas,” answered Gaspar.

“And we wish to communicate them to Lieutenant Veraegui,” added Zapote, from behind, but without leaving the shelter of the tree.

“How many of you are there?” asked the sentinel.

“Two.”

“You may advance, then,” said the soldier, dropping his carbine to the “order arms.”

The gate was soon opened; and Gaspar and Zapote, entering within the fortress, were conducted by the corporal of the guard towards the quarters of his commander.

The Lieutenant Veraegui was, at the moment, within one of the chambers of the mansion, engaged over a game of cards with a young alferez. On the table before them stood a bottle of Catalan brandy—the product of his own native province—clear and strong as alcohol. A couple of glasses flanked the bottle, and beside them lay a pile of Havana cigars.

Zapote, on entering, could not help a slight tremor; which was increased as the Catalan Lieutenant bent upon him an inquisitorial look of his grey eyes, that glanced keenly under eyebrows long and grizzled like his moustaches.

Veraegui was a soldier of fortune, of rude unpolished speech, and with manners not very different from those which he had practised while wearing the chevrons of a Sergeant.

From the examination of Zapote, he passed unceremoniously to that of Gaspar, whose features he instantly recognised.

“Ah! it is you?” he said, addressing the messenger. “Well, you have seen the Colonel, and bring news from him? He has, I trust, escaped from the disaster of Huajapam.”

“Señor Lieutenant,” replied Gaspar, “I know not of what affair you are speaking. All I know is, that this morning the Colonel Tres-Villas was in the woods between here and the Ostuta—where the bandits of Arroyo were tracking him like a wild beast.”

“Ho!” cried the Lieutenant, angrily, as he started up from his chair; “and it is only now you tell me of this, when you might have brought the news in an hour?”

“Pardon, Lieutenant: both my companion and myself were also hunted by the same brigands; and we were not able to escape from the woods one minute sooner than we have done.”

“Ah! in that case, I ask your pardon, and that of your companion there,” continued the Lieutenant, turning to Zapote, “whom I should certainly have taken for a friend of Arroyo, rather than an enemy to that worthy individual. Where the devil have I seen you, my good fellow?” he added, fancying he recognised the features of the deserter.

“Oh! your honour, I have travelled a great deal,” replied Zapote, whose presence of mind did not forsake him. “It would not be strange if—”

“So the Colonel has sent you to apprise me of his situation?” said the Lieutenant, without waiting for Zapote’s explanation.

“We met the Colonel without knowing him,” blundered out Gaspar. “It was only afterwards we learnt it was he.”

“Ha! that is very strange!” remarked the Catalan, again turning his eye upon the men with a suspicious glance.

Gaspar now related how, as he and his companion were flying from the bandits of Arroyo, Don Rafael had leaped down between them from the branches of a tree; and how they had parted from him without recognising him.

So far the story was well enough; but the narrator was treading on ground that was dangerous for Juan el Zapote. It remained to be explained how they had been informed, by the ex-comrades of the deserter, that the fugitive they had encountered was the Colonel Tres-Villas.

At this point Gaspar hesitated, while the suspicion glances of the Lieutenant flitted alternately from one to the other. Zapote, however, came resolutely to the aid of his companion.

“My compadre,” said he, “does not wish to tell the whole truth, out of regard for me. I shall speak for him; and this it is. In going away from here on his message to the Colonel, my friend Gaspar was captured by the scouts of Arroyo, and taken to the camp of the guerilleros. There he stood a very fair chance of losing his life, when, out of regard for our compadrazgo, and old acquaintance’ sake, I consented to assist him at the risk of losing my head.”

“Oh! you are then from the camp of Arroyo?”

“Yes,” muttered Zapote, in a tone of compunction, “the lamb is sometimes found in the company of wolves.”

“Especially when the lamb so nearly resembles a wolf, that it is difficult to distinguish them,” rejoined the lieutenant with a smile.

“I have always been an honest man,” affirmed Zapote, with a demure look. “Virtue has been my motto through life; and I assure your honour, that I was forced to consort with these brigands very much against my will. I was only too glad, when, to save my old compadre here, I found an opportunity of making some amends for the wicked life I have been obliged to lead in their company.”

“Hum!” said the Lieutenant, with a dubious shrug of the shoulders, “I suppose you expect your virtue to be well rewarded. But how did you ascertain that the man you encountered so unexpectedly was the Colonel?”

Zapote now recounted their subsequent interview with the brigands; and how he had learnt from them the object of their pursuit—as well as the adroit ruse he had practised to secure the escape of himself and his “compadre.”

“It’s all true as gospel!” affirmed Gaspar, when his companion had finished the relation.

Zapote also made known the advice he had given to Don Rafael: to conceal himself among the bamboos.

“At what place?” demanded the Lieutenant.

“Just below the ford,” answered the deserter.

“But, Señor Lieutenant,” added he, “I shall be most happy to conduct you to the spot myself.”

“You shall do no such thing, my brave fellow. You and your worthy compadre, as you call him, shall remain here as hostages, till Don Rafael is found. I have no confidence in lambs that have been so long in the company of wolves. If the Colonel be living, so may you; but if I find it otherwise, then your prospects— Ho, there!” cried the Lieutenant, without finishing the threat, “take these two men to the guard-house, and keep them there, till I order them to be set free.”

So saying, the Catalan poured out a glass of his favourite liquor, and commenced drinking it.

“What, and me, too?” inquired Gaspar, in a tone not very complimentary to his companion in misfortune.

“A fig for you! my worthy fellow!” rejoined the Lieutenant. “You should have remembered the proverb, mas vale viajar in solo que mal acompanado.” (Better travel alone than in bad company.)

“By the cross of Christ!” continued he, after quaffing off his glass, “I shall make short work of it with this bandit, Arroyo. To-night I shall finish with him and his band; and if I don’t give the jackals and vultures a meal that will last them for a twelvemonth, my name’s not Veraegui!”

At an order from his superior, the alferez flung down the cards, and hurried off to prepare the garrison troops for sallying out of the fort to the rescue of their Colonel; while the corporal of the guards conducted Gaspar and Zapote to the prison—the latter no little disconcerted at finding his first act of virtue so indifferently rewarded!