Chapter 71 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Capture of San Carlos.

A few minutes sufficed for the performance of his sacred duty; and Don Rafael, returning to the courtyard, placed himself at the head of his troopers—already in their saddles. There were eighty in all ordered upon the expedition—only a small garrison of twenty men being left—just sufficient to defend the fortress. Two pack-mules accompanied the party—one carrying a small howitzer, while the other was laden with the necessary caisson of ammunition.

At a given signal the great gate of the hacienda was thrown open, and the troopers filing through, passed on down the avenue at a rapid trot, and in silence.

A dozen or so of light cavalry went in advance of the main body—for the purpose of reconnoitring the ground—and at the head of these was Don Rafael himself with the Lieutenant Veraegui.

On the way the Lieutenant, in brief language, rendered an account to his superior of the events that had happened since his last despatch to him—to all of which Don Rafael listened far from attentively. Absorbed in his thoughts, he sat abstractedly in his saddle until after they had forded the Ostuta.

On the other side of the river the advance guard halted to give the main body time to come up; and here Don Rafael ordered the domestic of Don Fernando to be brought into his presence.

“Do you know,” said he, addressing the man, “if there be any road by which we can get round the hacienda, and approach it from the opposite side?”

The domestic replied in the affirmative. He knew a path by which he could conduct the troopers to the rear of the building, and by which they might advance up to the very walls without their approach being discovered.

“Go ahead then along with the scouts!” directed Don Rafael. “It is necessary we take these robbers by surprise, else they may get off from us as they have done before.”

The guide obeyed the order, and placing himself at the head of the advance guard, the march was resumed.

The path by which the domestic conducted them made a détour round the foot of the hill, upon which the hacienda stood, and where, but a few hours earlier, Don Cornelio Lantejas had seen the flames shining so brightly through the windows. All was now silent as the tomb; and no sound of any kind announced that the approach of the assailing party was suspected.

A little further on the guide halted and pointed out to Don Rafael several paths that branched off from the one they were following, and by which the party, separating into several detachments, might completely encompass the hacienda. This was exactly what Don Rafael wanted.

Reserving to himself the command of the main body, he detached three smaller parties by these paths—one under the direction of Veraegui, the others each commanded by an alferez. These, at a given signal, were to attack on right, left, and in the rear; while Don Rafael himself with the howitzer would storm the building in front. Each party was provided with a supply of hand-grenades, to be thrown into the courtyard of the hacienda, or into such other places as the enemy might seek refuge in.

So long as the assailants were sheltered from view by the trees and shrubs that skirted the hill, they approached without being discovered: but the moment they became uncovered, on getting nearer to the walls, shouts of alarm and shots fired by the sentries summoned the garrison to the defence; and an irregular fusillade was commenced from the azotéa of the building.

The different parties of the attacking force, without heeding this, kept on throwing their grenades as they advanced; while the party of Don Rafael, on arriving in front of the building, at once mounted the howitzer upon its carriage, and opened fire upon the main gateway.

The first shot crushed through the heavy timbers, carrying away one of the posterns of the gate.

Meanwhile, the grenades, falling within the courtyard began to burst upon the pavement—frightening the horses of the guerilleros to such an extent, that the animals broke from their fastenings, and galloped about, causing the greatest confusion. The shouts of alarm, the groans of the wounded, and the furious imprecations of the bandits, was for a time the only answer made to the reports of the bursting grenades, which were making such havoc in their ranks.

The loud explosion of the howitzer proclaimed a second discharge; and this time the shot penetrated into the courtyard, and cut its way through a mass of insurgents crowded near the further end of it.

“Once more! once more!” cried Don Rafael. “Batter down the other wing of the gate, and then, sword in hand, let us enter!”

So quickly did the practised artillerists of Veraegui handle their piece, that almost on the instant it was loaded and discharged for the third time. The ball passed once more through the heavy door; the leaf gave way and fell back with a crash, leaving the entrance open.

Tres-Villas, sword in hand, rushed into the gateway, followed by his faithful adherents.

“Where is the dog Arroyo?” cried he, bounding forward among the thick of the brigands, and cutting down every one within reach of his sword before an answer could be given. “On, my men!” he continued, “neither prisoners nor quarter!”

“I shall hang by the feet all who surrender!” thundered the voice of the Catalan from behind.

But despite this moderate promise of mercy, not one of the bandits offered to deliver himself up; and very soon the courtyard contained only a pile of dead bodies of the insurgents—the few who still lived having betaken themselves to the upper rooms of the building, where they secured themselves from present death by barricading the doors.

“Where is the dog Arroyo? A thousand pesos to the man who can lead me to the presence of the monster!” cried Don Rafael, vainly searching for the guerilla leader.

But Arroyo and his associate Bocardo were sought for in vain: since it will be remembered that both had gone off from the hacienda in search of its fugitive mistress.

The dead bodies were examined one after the other, and with care, but no Arroyo—no Bocardo—could be found among them.

“Let us on, Veraegui!” said Don Rafael. “We must attack them in their stronghold. The chiefs must be hidden up yonder! There is no time to be lost.”

“Alas!” rejoined the Catalan, with a sigh, as he stood regarding the dead bodies with an air of regret, “I fear, Colonel, our ropes will be useless after all. These fellows are all dead; and, as for their comrades up there, we shall have to set fire to their retreat, and burn them alive in it. If we attempt to dislodge them otherwise, it will cost us a goodly number of our people.”

“Oh! do not set fire to the house, Señor Colonel!” interposed the faithful domestic, in an appealing tone; “my poor master is there, and would suffer with the rest. All his people, too, are with him, and in the power of the brigands.”

“It is true, what he says,” rejoined Don Rafael, moved by the appeal of the domestic; “and yet it will never do to let these fiends escape. If we attack them, entrenched as they are, and knowing that certain death await them, they may cost us, as you say, more men than they are worth. What is your advice, Lieutenant?”

“That we reduce them by a siege, and starve them into surrendering. For my part, I don’t wish to be baulked about the hanging of them—especially after the trouble we have taken in bringing these ropes along with us.”

“It will cost time; but I agree with you, it seems the best thing we can do. They must soon yield to hunger; and perhaps before that time we may find some opportunity of getting Don Fernando out of their power. At all events, let us wait for sunrise before renewing the attack. Meanwhile, I leave you to conduct the blockade. The poor lady, Marianita, is, no doubt, wandering about in the woods near at hand. I shall myself go in search of her.”

Saying this, and giving orders for half a dozen chosen men to follow him, Don Rafael leaped into his saddle, and rode off through the gateway of the hacienda.

He had scarcely passed out of sight, when the sentinels placed by Veraegui were signalled by two men who wished to enter the courtyard. Both were afoot, and appeared to have come in such haste that they could scarce get breath enough to proclaim their errand.

“What do you want?” asked the Catalan, before looking at the men. “Eh! my droll fellows!” he continued, recognising Gaspar and Zapote, “it is you, is it? How the devil did you get out of my guard-house?”

“The sentry allowed us to go, your honour,” answered Zapote. “He knew that you did not wish us to be detained, if the Colonel should be found alive; and as we have an important message to him—”

“The Colonel is gone away from here,” interrupted Veraegui.

“Gone!” exclaimed Zapote, with an air of extreme chagrin. “Where is he gone to, your honour?”

The Lieutenant, after pointing out the direction in which Don Rafael had ridden away, turned his back upon the two adventurers—who, instead of being offended at this rudeness, were only too glad to terminate their interview with the dreaded Catalan. They lost no time, therefore, in making their exit from the courtyard; and, as fast as their legs could carry them, they started off in the direction taken by him whom they had so long unsuccessfully followed.