Chapter 78 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Vengeance Forborne.

By a lucky accident Don Rafael, after leaving the hacienda of San Carlos, had ascertained that the bandit chieftains were no longer within its walls. He had also learnt the object that had carried them out—the same which was influencing himself, only from a far different motive. A renegade guerillero had made known to him the intentions of Arroyo in regard to Doña Marianita; and it is needless to say that the noble spirit of Don Rafael was, on hearing this report, only the more stimulated to overtake and destroy the bandit chieftain.

Guided by numerous signs—which the bandits, unsuspicious of being pursued, had left along their track—Don Rafael and his party found no difficulty in following them, almost at full speed. In less than an hour after leaving the hacienda, they had arrived within sight of Arroyo and his followers—still continuing the search for Doña Marianita, along the borders of the lake. The impetuosity of Don Rafael’s vengeance had hindered him from using caution in his approach—else he might at once have come hand to hand with the detested enemy. As it was, he had advanced towards them into the open ground; and going at full gallop, under the clear moonlight, his party had been discovered by the bandits long before they could get within shot range. Arroyo, from whose thoughts the terrible Colonel was never for a moment absent, at once recognised him at the head of the approaching troop, and, giving the alarm to Bocardo—who equally dreaded an encounter with Don Rafael—the two brigands put spurs to their horses and rode off in dastardly flight. Of course they were followed by their four comrades, who, recalling the fate of Panchita Jolas, had no desire to risk the reception of a similar treatment.

The sight of that hated enemy—for whom Don Rafael had so long fruitlessly searched—stirred within him all the angry energies of his nature, and, involuntarily uttering a wild cry, he charged forward in pursuit.

At each moment the space between pursuers and pursued appeared to be diminishing, and Arroyo—notwithstanding a certain brute courage which he possessed while combating with other enemies—now felt his heart beating convulsively against his ribs as he perceived the probability of being overtaken by his dreaded pursuer.

For a moment there appeared a chance of his being able to save himself. The troopers of Don Rafael, not so well mounted as their chief, had fallen behind him several lengths of his horse; and had Arroyo at this moment faced about with his followers, they might have surrounded the Colonel, and attacked him all at once.

Arroyo even saw the opportunity; but terror had chased away his habitual presence of mind; and he permitted this last chance to escape him. He was influenced, perhaps, by his knowledge of the terrible prowess of his enemy; and despaired of being able to crush him in so short a time as would pass before his troopers could come up to his assistance.

The pursued party had now reached the eastern extremity of the lake. Before them stretched a vast plain, entirely destitute of timber or other covering. Only to the left appeared the outlines of a tract of chapparal, or low forest.

The bandits, on looking forward, saw at a glance that the open ground would give them no advantage. Their horses might be swifter than those of their pursuers, but this was doubtful; and from the snorting heard at intervals behind them, they knew that one at least was capable of overtaking them. The bright moonlight enabled the pursuers to keep them in view—almost as if it had been noonday; and on the broad, treeless savanna, no hiding-place could be found. Their only hope then lay in being able to reach the timber, and finding concealment within the depths of the forest jungle.

To accomplish this, however, it would be necessary for them to swerve to the left, which would give the pursuers an advantage; but there was no help for it, and Arroyo—whom fear had now rendered irresolute—rather mechanically than otherwise, turned towards the left, and headed for the chapparal.

Despite the fiery passions that agitated him, Don Rafael still preserved his presence of mind. Watching with keen glance every gesture of the bandits, he had anticipated this movement on their parts; and, even before they had obliqued to the left, he had himself forged farther out into the plain, with a view of cutting them off from the woods. On perceiving them change the direction of their flight, he had also swerved to the left; and was now riding in a parallel line, almost head for head with Arroyo and Bocardo; while the shadow of himself and his horse, far projected by the declining moon, fell ominously across their track.

In a few seconds more the snorting steed was in the advance, and his shadow fell in front of Arroyo. A sudden turn to the right brought Roncador within a spear’s length of the bandit’s horse, and the pursuit was at an end.

“Carajo!” cried Arroyo, with a fierce emphasis, at the same time discharging his pistol at the approaching pursuer.

But the bullet, ill-aimed, passed the head of Don Rafael without hitting; and the instant after, his horse, going at full speed, was projected impetuously against the flanks of that of the bandit, bringing both horse and rider to the ground.

Bocardo, unable to restrain his animal, was carried forward against his will; and now became between Don Rafael and his prostrate foe.

“Out of the way, vile wretch!” exclaimed Don Rafael, while with one blow of his sabre hilt, he knocked Bocardo from his saddle.

Arroyo, chilled with terror, and rendered almost senseless by the fall, his spurs holding him fast to the saddle, vainly struggled to regain his feet. Before he could free himself from his struggling horse, the troopers of Don Rafael had ridden up, and with drawn sabres halted over him; while his four followers, no longer regarded, continued their wild flight towards the chapparal.

Don Rafael now dismounted, and with his dagger held between his teeth, seized in both his hands the wrists of the bandit. In vain Arroyo struggled to free himself from that iron grasp; and in another moment he lay upon his back, the knee of Don Rafael pressing upon his breast—heavy as a rock that might have fallen from Monopostiac. The bandit, with his arms drawn crosswise, saw that resistance was vain; and yielding himself to despair he lay motionless—rage and fear strangely mingling in the expression of his features.

“Here!” cried Don Rafael, “some one tie this wretch!”

In the twinkling of an eye, one of the troopers wound his lazo eight or ten times around the arms and legs of the prostrate guerillero, and firmly bound them together.

“Now, then!” continued Don Rafael, “let him be attached to the tail of my horse!”

Notwithstanding the terrible acts of retaliation, which the royalist soldiers were accustomed to witness, after each victory on one side or the other, this order was executed in the midst of the most profound silence. They knew the fearful nature of the punishment about to be inflicted.

In a few seconds’ time the end of the lazo, which bound the limbs of the brigand, was tightly looped around the tail of the horse; and Don Rafael had leaped back into his saddle.

Before using the spur, he cast behind him one last look of hatred upon the murderer of his father; while a smile of contempt upon his lips was the only reply which he vouchsafed to the assassin’s appeal for mercy.

“Craven! you need not ask for life!” he said, after a time. “Antonio Valdez met his death in the same fashion, like yourself meanly begging for mercy. You shall do as he did. I promised it when I met you at the hacienda Las Palmas, and I shall now keep my word.”

As Don Rafael finished speaking, his spurs were heard striking against the flanks of his horse, that, apparently dismayed at the awful purpose for which he was to be used, reared violently upon his hind legs, and refused to advance! At the same instant the bandit uttered a wild cry of agony, which resounded far over the lake, till it rang in echoes from the sides of the enchanted mountain. Like an echo, too, came the strange snorting from the nostrils of Roncador, who, at a second pricking of the spur, made one vast bound forward, and then suddenly stopped trembling and affrighted. The body of the bandit, suddenly jerked forward, had fallen back heavily to the earth, while groans of agony escaped from his quivering lips.

Just at this moment—this fearful crisis for the guerilla leader—two men were seen running towards the spot, and with all the speed that their legs were capable of making. It was evident that they were in search of Don Rafael with some message of great importance.

“A word with you, Colonel, in the name of God!” cried one of them, as soon as they were near enough to be heard. “For Heaven’s sake do not ride off till we have spoken to you. My companion and I have had the worst of luck in trying to find you.”

The man who spoke, and who had exhausted his last breath in the words, was no other than the veritable Juan el Zapote, while his companion was the honest Gaspar.

“Who are these men?” indignantly inquired Don Rafael. “Ah! it is you, my brave fellows?” continued he, softening down, as he recognised the two adventurers whom he had met in the forest, and whose advice had proved so advantageous to him. “What do you want with me? You see I am engaged at present, and have no time to attend to you?”

“True!” replied Juan el Zapote. “We see your honour is occupied; and that we have arrived at an inconvenient time! Ah! it is the Señor Arroyo with whom you are engaged! But your honour must know that we have a message for you, and have been running after you for twenty-four hours, without being able to deliver it. It is one of life and death.”

“Mercy! mercy!” shrieked Arroyo, in a tone of piteous appeal.

“Hold your tongue, you stupid!” cried Juan el Zapote, reproachfully addressing his former chief. “Don’t you see that the Colonel has business with us? You are hindering him from attending to it.”

“A message of life and death!” repeated Don Rafael, his heart suddenly bounding with a triumphant hope. “From whom do you come?”

“Will your honour direct your people to step aside?” whispered Zapote. “It is a confidential mission with which we are charged—a love message,” added he, in a still lower tone.

By a commanding gesture of the Colonel—for the communications of Zapote had deprived him of the power of speech—the troopers moved off to one side, and he was left alone with the messengers—to whom he now bent downwards from his saddle, in order that their words might not be heard.

What they said to him need not be repeated: enough to know that when their message was finally delivered it appeared to produce a magical effect upon the Colonel, who was heard to give utterance to a stifled cry of joy.

Holding by one hand the withers of his horse—which he appeared to need as a support to hinder him from falling out of his saddle—with the other he was observed to conceal something in the breast of his coat, apparently a packet which the messengers had handed to him. They, in their turn, were seen to bound joyfully over the ground at some word which Don Rafael had spoken to them, and which seemed to have produced on Zapote an effect resembling the dance of Saint Vitus.

In another moment the Colonel drew his dagger from its sheath, and called out in a voice loud enough to be heard by all:—“God does not will that this man should die. He has sent these men as the saviours of his life. I acknowledge the hand of God!”

And forgetting that he held in his power his most mortal foe, the murderer of his father—forgetting his oath, no more to be remembered amidst the delicious emotions that filled his heart—remembering only the promise of mercy he had made to Gertrudis, herself—he leant back over the croup of his saddle, and cut the lazo by which the brigand was attached to the tail of his horse.

Disdaining to listen to the outpouring of thanks which the craven wretch now lavished upon him, he turned once more towards the messengers.

“Where is she who sent you?” inquired he in a low voice.

“There!” answered Zapote, pointing to a group of horsemen who at that moment were seen advancing along the shore as the escort to a litera which appeared in their midst.

Roncador, freed from the human body, which attached to his tail had so frightened him, no longer refused to obey the spur; and in another moment he was bounding in the direction where the curtains of the litera of Gertrudis were seen undulating under the last rays of the waning moon.