Chapter 79 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Brace of Crafty Couriers.

It is necessary to explain the cause of Don Mariano’s advance towards the spot.

From the place in which he and his party had taken their stand, they could witness most part of the pursuit, as well as the events that followed it; but so confusedly, that it was impossible to tell by the eye who were the victors, and who the vanquished. The ear gave them a better clue as to how the strife was turning; for the chase had not been carried on in silence.

So long as the shores of the lake at that especial point were cleared of people, it mattered little to Costal and Clara who should have the advantage. With Don Mariano the case was difficult.

Convinced by what he had seen, that the leader of the sanguinary pursuit could be no other than the Colonel Tres-Villas, whose life was now almost as precious to him as that of his own daughter—since hers depended upon it—he stood for a while absorbed in the most painful uncertainty. From the commencement of the drama he had, in fact, preserved a solemn silence—feeling that words could in no way relieve the anxiety of Gertrudis.

A vivid sentiment of curiosity had equally kept in silence Don Cornelio and his two followers, who at some paces from the litera stood listening.

Don Mariano was still ignorant of the fact that the hacienda of San Carlos had been captured and pillaged by the band of Arroyo. Had he known of this, and other events of a yet more horrid nature, his soul might have been harrowed by a far more agonising emotion than that of mere uncertainty; and perhaps he might have become an actor instead of spectator in the strife that was accruing.

As for Doña Gertrudis, she had easily distinguished that strange sound that issued from the nostrils of the well-known steed; and with her ear eagerly bent, she listened with mortal anguish to every breath that was borne back from the scene of the struggle.

Costal, who was impatient to return with Clara towards the spot where he had been so near capturing the white-robed Matlacuezc, was the first to break the prolonged silence.

“Whatever may be the result,” said he, in hopes of inducing Don Mariano and his party to move away from the place, “the path is now clear for you, Señor Don Mariano. If it is to the hacienda of Las Palmas you are going, you will find the road both open and safe.”

“We are not going to Las Palmas,” answered Don Mariano, with an air of abstraction, at the same time advancing a few paces in order to have a better view of what was passing.

“If I were in your place,” persisted Costal, in a significant tone, “I should go there. It is the safest route you can take, and let me assure you the moments are precious—Carrambo!” continued he, in an angry tone, and suddenly facing round, as the crackling of branches announced that some one was passing near through the thicket. “By all the serpents in the hair of Tlaloc, there are some more people in the woods. In the name of—”

The invoked deity was not mentioned, as just at that moment voices were heard where the bushes were in motion, and Costal interrupted his speech to listen. The words were—

“This way, compadre—this way! I hear over yonder the voice of the man we are in search of. Listen! that’s the Colonel’s voice to a certainty. Quick, by all the devils! Let us run at full speed, or we shall miss him, again.”

The voice of this speaker was not known to any of those who had heard it, and he who was addressed as “compadre” appeared not to have made any reply. But the sound of their footsteps, and the swish of the recoiling branches, each moment became more indistinct, till at length the noises were lost in the distance.

It is scarcely necessary to say that the two men, who had thus passed so near, were the messengers so often disappointed, Gaspar and Juan el Zapote. As already known, they had been to the hacienda San Carlos, where they had learnt the direction taken by Don Rafael on leaving it. They had followed his tracks, which to Juan el Zapote, a skilled rastreador, was easy enough—especially in such a moonlight. They had even recognised Don Mariano and his party, on coming near the spot where the haciendado had halted; and for a moment Gaspar hesitated about going up to the group and reporting himself to his master, as he ought to have done.

From the performance of his duty he was dissuaded by his astute associate, who represented to him, that, in case of his reporting himself, Don Mariano might countermand the message he had sent to the Colonel, now that the latter was known to be on the ground. He might prefer delivering the precious talisman in propria personâ, and then where would be the bounty they had long expected, and for which they had more than once risked their necks?

These arguments prevailed even with the honest Gaspar; and to such an extent, that from this very motive he had declined to answer the speeches of Zapote, lest his voice might be recognised by Don Mariano, or some of his fellow-servants! Cautiously did the two make a détour through the trees, and so rapidly, that no one was likely to be able to intercept them, before they could reach the place to which the voice of the Colonel was guiding them.

As soon as the men had passed out of hearing, Costal and Clara, who saw that Don Mariano showed no sign of following their advice, exchanged glances of vexatious disappointment. The haciendado still kept his ground; and with his ear catching every sound, was vainly endeavouring to obtain a solution to the painful uncertainty that surrounded him.

The moon, about to sink behind the summit of the enchanted hill, cast oblique rays along the level shore of the lake. There he could make out a confused group of men and horses, some of the former dismounted and flinging long shadows over the plain. What was passing in the middle of this group? Some terrible scene, no doubt, was there being enacted—to judge from the hurried movements of the men, and the angry intonation of their voices.

At that moment a frightful cry rose upon the air, and, borne upon the still breeze, was distinctly heard by Don Mariano and the people around him. It was the agonised cry of a wretch begging for mercy. The voice even could be distinguished by Don Mariano, by Costal, by Clara, and the domestics. All knew it was the voice of Arroyo.

The cry was significant. Beyond doubt Don Rafael was the victor, and was now executing upon the murderer of his father the act of merciless justice he had promised before the walls of Las Palmas.

Don Mariano hesitated no longer; but, giving the order to his attendants, advanced towards the scene of vengeance.