Chapter 70 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

News Sweet and Sad.

From the middle of the cane-brake where Don Rafael had found shelter, he was able through the stems of the bamboos to see the camp of Arroyo and his bandits. He could note many of the movements passing within their lines; and at length perceived the guerilleros striking their tents, and riding off in a body from the banks of the river.

He still kept his place, however, until the night had fairly come on, and then wading back to the high bank where the bamboo thicket commenced, he looked out upon the open space between the river and the edge of the forest.

At first, all was silent along the bank of the stream; but shortly after three horsemen were seen riding past, and not far behind them two other men followed, also on horseback.

The first party were Don Cornelio and his companions, making for the ford of the river. The other horsemen were two of Arroyo’s guerilla—who, by his orders, had remained near the hacienda Del Valle, for the purpose of taking down the heads of his three followers nailed over the gate—should an opportunity offer for their so doing. They had found the opportunity—as already known—and it was they who had passed Don Cornelio at the ford, and whose ambiguous speech had caused a difference of opinion, as to its meaning, between the Captain and Clara.

The first care of Don Rafael, as soon as he believed the road to be clear, was to recover his horse—which he had left tied in a thicket in the woods.

Like his master, Roncador had escaped the researches of the bandits; but so weak was he with thirst and hunger, that Don Rafael had doubts whether the poor animal would be able to carry him. It was necessary that he should take the horse to the river, in order to water him. This required to be done by stealth; for, although Don Rafael had witnessed the departure of the guerilleros from the ford, he did not know whether those who blockaded the hacienda had also gone away.

After giving Roncador his drink, just as he was leading the horse up the bank again, he perceived a man coming from the direction of the ford. As this man was on foot and alone, Don Rafael resolved to stop and question him. Sabre in hand, therefore, he placed himself in front of the pedestrian.

The latter, thus assailed by a man with a naked sword—and who was covered from head to foot with a coating of mud—was almost frightened out of his senses.

“Oh, Lord!” he cried, “help a poor servant who is seeking assistance for his master!”

“Who is your master?” demanded Don Rafael.

“Don Fernando Lacarra,” answered the man.

“Of the hacienda San Carlos?”

“Si, Señor. You know him?”

“Yes: is he in any danger?”

“Alas!” replied this servant, “the hacienda is pillaged by guerilleros; and, just as I was leaving it, I heard the groans of my poor master under the lash of their Captain Arroyo—”

“Again this villain!” muttered Don Rafael, interrupting the narrator with his angry soliloquy.

“Ah! he is always committing some crime,” rejoined the servant.

“And your mistress—the Doña Marianita—what of her?”

“It was to make him tell where she was concealed that Arroyo was flogging my master,” replied the man. “Fortunately I was able to get her out of the way, by assisting her to descend from the window of the chamber where they had hidden her. Afterwards I got off myself, and am now on my way to the hacienda Del Valle, in hopes of getting assistance from its brave defenders, who themselves never violate the laws of war.”

“But how will you get in there? Are not some of Arroyo’s guerilleros still besieging the place?”

“No, Señor. The whole band is now at San Carlos.”

“Good!” exclaimed the Colonel. “Come along with me, and I promise you a prompt and bloody vengeance.”

Without further explaining himself, Don Rafael leaped upon his horse, directing the domestic to mount behind him, and then started off at a rapid trot in the direction of Del Valle.

“Where did you leave your mistress?” inquired Don Rafael, as they rode on.

“In truth, sir,” replied the domestic, “I was so confused when she left me, that I did not think of reminding her to fly to Del Valle. I only told her to make into the woods near San Carlos. But the most important matter was for her to get out of the reach of Arroyo; and I hope she will be safe in the chapparal. Poor young creature! She was so happy this morning. She was expecting on this very night the arrival of her father and sister—neither of whom she has seen for a long time.”

The Colonel could not hinder himself from shuddering.

“Are you sure that it is to-night that Don Mariano and Doña Gertrudis are expected at San Carlos?” he inquired, with a tone of anxiety in his voice.

“Yes; a letter had reached my master to say so. God forbid that they, too, should fall into the hands of these merciless men! They say, too, that Arroyo is an old servant of Don Mariano.”

“Let us hope they may not come!” said the Colonel, with a choking effort.

“It may be,” continued the domestic, “that the illness of Doña Gertrudis may detain them a day or two on the journey. That would be the luckiest thing that could happen.”

“What say you? is Doña Gertrudis ill!”

“Señor!” exclaimed the domestic, “you, who appear to know the family, are you ignorant that Doña Gertrudis is only the shadow of her former self, and that some secret grief is wasting her away? But, Señor, why do you tremble?” inquired the man, who, with his arm round his waist, felt the nervous agitation of Don Rafael’s body.

“Oh, nothing,” replied the latter; “but tell me—does any one know the cause of her grief?”

“Rather say, who is there who don’t know it, Señor? Doña Gertrudis was in love with a young officer; and so fondly, that it is said she cut off the whole of her beautiful hair, as a sacrifice to the Holy Virgin, for saving his life on an occasion when he was in danger! And yet for all this, he who was thus loved proved faithless, and deserted her!”

“Well?” mechanically interposed Don Rafael.

“Well,” continued the servant, “the poor young lady is dying on account of being so deserted—dying by inches; but surely—why, Señor, you are certainly ill? I feel your heart beating against my hand as if it would leap out of your bosom!”

“It is true,” answered Don Rafael, in a husky voice. “I am subject to severe palpitations; but presently—” The Colonel, for support, fell back against the domestic, his herculean strength having yielded to the powerful emotions which were passing within him. “Presently,” he continued, “I shall get over it. I feel better already. Go on with your history. This man—this officer—did he ever tell Doña Gertrudis that he no longer loved her? Does he love any other?”

“I do not know,” was the response of the domestic.

“Could she not have sent him word—say by some means agreed upon—which should bring him back to her from the farthest corner of the earth? Perhaps then—”

Don Rafael could not finish what he intended to have said. A bright hope, long time suppressed, began to spring up within his heart, and with such force, that he feared to know the truth—lest it should be crushed on the instant.

“Señor, you ask me more than I am able to answer,” rejoined the domestic. “I have told you all I know of this sad story!”

Heaving a deep sigh, the Colonel remained for some moments silent. After a while, he resumed the conversation, by putting a question, the answer to which might terminate his doubts.

“Have you ever heard the name of this young officer?”

“No,” replied the domestic; “but were I in his place, I should not leave this young lady to die, for one lovelier I never beheld in all my life.”

These were the last words spoken on either side: for at that moment the voices of the sentinels, challenging from the walls of the hacienda, put an end to the conversation.

“Say to Lieutenant Veraegui,” commanded Don Rafael, in reply to the challenge, “that it is Colonel Tres-Villas.”

The sound of the trumpets inside soon after signalised the joy felt by the garrison at the return of their old commandant, while the domestic of Don Fernando flung himself promptly to the ground, asking a thousand pardons for not recognising the quality of his compagnon de cheval.

“It is I who have most reason to feel obliged,” said Don Rafael. “Remain here till I see you again. I may, perhaps, need you for an important message.”

The domestic bowed respectfully, taking hold of the bridle of Don Rafael’s horse, while the Lieutenant Veraegui, the alferez, with several soldiers of the garrison, came forth with torches to congratulate their superior officer on his escape from the dangers that had so lately surrounded him.

As soon as their first greetings had been exchanged, Veraegui informed the Colonel that they were just about preparing to start upon an expedition against the banditti of Arroyo.

“You know where they are, then?” said Don Rafael.

“Not the precise spot. But it is not difficult to find the traces of these gentry,” replied Catalan.

“True,” rejoined the Colonel. “But I chance to know their whereabouts. They are just now at the hacienda of San Carlos. This faithful servant, who is holding my horse, has lately escaped from them, and come to beg your assistance to rescue his master from the brutal outrages they are at this moment inflicting upon him. Lieutenant Veraegui! see that your men are provided with a sufficient quantity of ropes. Let a piece of ordnance be mounted upon the back of a mule: we shall, no doubt, require it to force open the gate.”

“But, Señor Colonel, what do you want with the ropes?” inquired the Lieutenant, with a significant smile.

“For the execution of these brigands. We shall hang them to the last man, my dear Veraegui.”

“Good!” assented the Catalan, in a joyous accent, “and this time by the heels, I hope. I shall never forgive myself for my foolish indulgence—”

“What! you have spared some of them?” interrupted Don Rafael.

“I have been too merciful to four whom I captured yesterday—in hanging them by the necks. But, by the way, Colonel, now I think of it, two odd fellows came in a while ago, who say that they wish to speak with you.”

“I cannot receive them now,” answered Don Rafael, little suspecting the supreme happiness their message would have given him. “I shall see them on my return. We have already wasted too much time, while the worthy proprietor of San Carlos is no doubt counting the minutes in anguish. I shall not even stay to change my dress; so haste, and get your men upon horseback.”

“Sound ‘Boots and saddles!’” cried the Lieutenant, hurrying into the courtyard to give further orders; while Don Rafael, under the pretext of being alone for a few minutes, walked out into the garden, and directed his steps towards the spot where, two years before, he had deposited the remains of his father in the tomb.

His spirit once more excited by the revelations made by the domestic of Don Fernando, he felt he needed a moment of prayer to strengthen him for this final effort for the punishment of his father’s assassins. The murder of his father had been for him a terrible blow, but, as time passed, even this grief, by little and little, had become appeased.

Far different was it with that other passion—which neither time, nor absence, nor the constant changing of scene, nor the duties of an active campaign, had been able to eradicate from his bosom.

He now knew that Gertrudis reciprocated his ardent love—that she was dying of it; and, in the midst of the mournful joy which this news had produced, he could have forgotten that his father’s death was not yet avenged, as he had sworn it should be. One of the assassins was at no great distance from him, and yet he could scarcely restrain himself from yielding to the almost irresistible desire of galloping direct to Oajaca, where he supposed Gertrudis to be, and then, flinging himself at her feet, confessing that, without her, he could no longer live.

It was to steel his soul against this temptation, and enable him to keep the oath he had sworn, that Don Rafael now repaired to his father’s grave.