Chapter 77 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Pursuit.

Only for a very short interval did the shores of the lake Ostuta preserve their tranquil silence. In a few moments after the white robe had disappeared from the eyes of Don Cornelio, he saw Costal and Clara rise to the surface of the water, and make their way rapidly through the reeds in the direction of the bank. Presently both appeared on dry land at less than a hundred yards distance from where he was perched.

The tragedy of real life which he was now witnessing, had so suddenly mingled its scenes with the fancies that had just passed through his mind, that for an instant his thoughts were thrown into confusion, and he could scarcely distinguish the true from the fantastic. Though he saw that his faithful followers were still alive and well, the words he had heard, and the shot that succeeded them, told him that they were in danger. That could be no fancy; and its reality was further confirmed on his perceiving two men, sabre in hand, rush forth out of the bushes and make after Costal and Clara, with threatening cries and gestures.

The latter ran towards their horses. The sight of his two followers in flight, completely restored Don Cornelio’s senses; and almost mechanically he caught hold of his carbine, which he had by his side.

Resting the barrel over a fork of the branches, he sighted one of the pursuers, and fired. At the report a bandit fell forward on his face, who, after sprawling a while upon the ground, lay motionless. The other halted and bent over his comrade to see if he was dead.

The delay caused by this unexpected interruption of the pursuit enabled the Indian and negro to reach their horses, and both, naked as they were, their skins glistening with the water of the lake, at once leaped into their saddles, wheeled their horses round, and galloped back towards the pursuers.

It was now Costal’s turn to pursue.

The bandit who still kept his feet had stopped only a moment over his fallen companion: but that moment proved fatal to him. Before he could reach his own horse—which, in order to effect his ambuscade, he had left behind him in the woods—the avenging Zapoteque was upon him, who, galloping over, trampled him under his horse’s hoofs, and then riding back, ran his long rapier through the prostrate body without dismounting from his saddle.

Meanwhile Don Cornelio had made all haste to descend from the tree; and hurrying forward called his followers by name.

“Ah! Señor Capitan,” cried Costal, seeing him advance, “I am glad you are still on your feet. Seeing your horse along with ours I had fears that some misfortune had happened to you. Quick!” continued he, addressing himself to Clara, and leaping out of the saddle, “we must back to the lake at once, else Matlacuezc—. Señor Don Cornelio, you will be good enough to wait for us here. We have important matters on hand, and need to be alone.”

At this moment, however, a new incident arose to interrupt the designs of Costal. Five horsemen, and a litera carried by mules, appeared suddenly in the open ground by the edge of the wood. It was Don Mariano with his domestics.

Having heard Don Cornelio pronounce the well-known names of two of his old servitors, the haciendado had advanced in the direction whence the voice proceeded, full of hope in this unexpected succour which heaven seemed to have sent to him. He had seen the party of brigands as they rode past with the torches; and his people had easily recognised their old fellow-servants, Arroyo and Bocardo. It was a relief to know that two more faithful than they—Costal and Clara—were in the same neighbourhood. He advanced, therefore, calling them by name, while he also pronounced the name of Lantejas—asking if it were the Don Cornelio Lantejas who had once been his guest at the hacienda of Las Palmas.

“Yes; certainly I am the same,” replied the Captain, agreeably surprised at thus finding himself among friends in a place which, up to that moment, had appeared to him so melancholy and desolate.

Before any conversation could take place between Don Cornelio and his former host, an incident of a still more thrilling character was to be enacted on the scene. From behind the belt of the cedrela forest—into which Arroyo and his followers had ridden but a few minutes before—six horsemen were seen debouching at full gallop, as if riding for their lives; while close upon their heels came six others, who appeared straining after them in eager pursuit!

For a moment the six in front seemed to waver in their course—as if undecided as to what direction they should take. Only for a moment, however, and then heading their horses along the shore of the lake, they pressed on in wildest flight. Galloping at such a rapid pace they appeared not to see either the party of Don Mariano or Don Cornelio and his two followers—who on their part had scarce time to draw back into the bushes, ere the horsemen went sweeping past the spot like a cloud of dust.

Despite the rapidity of their course, however, the keen eye of Costal enabled him to distinguish among the horsemen two of his old fellow-servants of Las Palmas—Arroyo and Bocardo.

“We are on dangerous ground here, comrade,” said he in a whisper to Clara. “It is Arroyo and Bocardo, pursued, no doubt, by the royalists. Whichever wins it is no good for us.”

He had scarce finished his speech, when the six horsemen in pursuit passed the group, going at a pace not less rapid and furious than the others. One of the pursuers, of commanding figure, was several lengths ahead of the other five. Bent down almost to the level of his horse’s neck, he appeared to be straining every muscle in the pursuit; and although his horse seemed rather to fly than gallop, the rider still kept urging him with the spur.

Clutching convulsively his broad-brimmed sombrero—which the rapid course had lifted from his head—he crushed it down over his brows in such a manner that his face was almost hidden by it. His horse at the same instant, whether frightened by the litera of Gertrudis, or by some other object, shied suddenly to one side—as he did so giving utterance to a strange snorting sound, which was responded to by a feeble cry from behind the curtains of the litera.

The cry was not heard by the horseman, who, absorbed with the pursuit of his enemy, passed on without turning his head.

Gertrudis was not the only one who trembled with emotion on recognising the snort of the steed. It brought vividly to the remembrance of Captain Lantejas the chase he had sustained on the plain of Huajapam—just before the powerful arm of Colonel Tres-Villas had lifted him out of his stirrups.

Neither could Don Mariano fail to recognise the peculiarity of a steed that he had so long kept in his stables; and as for the rider, the figure appeared to answer for that of Don Rafael. Could it indeed be he whom they believed to be at the siege of Huajapam? Don Mariano could scarce doubt that it was Colonel Tres-Villas who had ridden past.

“By all the devils in hell!” cried Costal, swearing like a pagan, as he was; “what has set the world mad on this particular night? What sends everybody this way, to interrupt the worshippers of the great Tlaloc?”

“True, it is damnably vexatious,” rejoined Clara, who was equally chagrined at this sudden and unexpected intrusion, upon what he regarded as the only chance they might ever have of an interview with the gold-finding goddess.

Putting off their invocations to a more favourable opportunity, both Indian and negro now hastened away to dress and arm themselves, in order that they might be in readiness for any untoward event; while Don Cornelio stayed beside the haciendado and his party.

As yet uncertain how to act, Don Mariano thought it better to remain where he was, and await the result of an action which he could not regard otherwise than with anxiety. It is needless to say that the occupant of the litera listened with still more vivid emotion, mingled with deep apprehension, to the sounds that rung back along the shores of the lake.

The chase was soon too distant to be witnessed by the eye, but upon the still night air could be heard confused cries of terror and vengeance—which indicated to all that the pursuers were closing rapidly upon the pursued.