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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Wolf Cub By Patrick Casey Characters: 10976

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Up from the misty profundities of the Llanos de Jaen climbed, like slow obstinate flies, the nine fantastic cabalgadores of Manuel Morales. Also, their guide, Aguilino. They were all afoot. With them, up the altitudes of the pass, yearned seven pack mules, heavy and swollen with great panniers of provisions.

The nine Quixotes and their scarred wolf of a guide had put two weeks of frugal living and heartbreaking toil between them and the barranca of Pepe Flammenca and his unwashed Gypsy clan. Right off, they had lost one horse and then another. The beasts had taken headers off mountainsides. They had consulted with their guide, the man Aguilino. He gave them to understand that horses were considered of very little worth in both the Sierra Morena and the Sierra Nevada. For a caravan of asses, they succeeded in bartering their horses with the arrieros, or muleteers, going down.

Now, after two weeks, they had at last won through the rolling torrent of mountains called the Sierra Morena. They were inching themselves up the long perpendicular miles of the windy gorge of the Llanos de Jaen.

The Llanos de Jaen is very narrow. One would think one could hurl a peseta across it, until one tried. Were it not for the chasmy gap of the Llanos de Jaen, the Sierra Morena and the Sierra Nevada would be one tremendous chain of mountains.

Half-way up, a mule stumbled in turning the flank of a precipice and took the leap, screaming like a soul thrown headlong to Hell. The nine Quixotes clung to the rock wall and felt sick to their stomachs. The mule seemed falling for a thousand years. They did not dare to look down and see it strike. The mule was the one the guide Aguilino had been leading. Perhaps a shove from him had sent it on its way to death. Again, perhaps not.

High above, upon the top of a glassy and steep risco or overhanging rock, a man had moored himself with a short rope of horsehide. He was Jacinto Quesada. But he did not look the bandolero of the plains. Garbed as he was in alpagartas or rope sandals, the better to grip the precipitous ascents, and in sheepskin zamarra and long shawl as protection against the cold, he looked the true mountaineer.

With the vigilant application of an eagle eying its meat circling all unaware beneath its lofty eyrie, Quesada had been watching the men climb laboriously up the sheer of the pass. Now, as the mule fell to its magnificent death, he nodded his head in approbation and remarked to himself:

"Rafael Perez has finally set to work, I see! That is the first poor mule. But the whole seven must be disposed of, before Morales and his men journey far through the Sierra Nevada."

The nine Quixotes did not know Quesada was perched there, far above them. Long ere they crawled up to the overhanging rock, he had disappeared completely. Yet they felt sure that somewhere beyond, among the snowy crags and moaning canyons of the Sierra Nevada, Quesada was pursuing his way with the girl Felicidad.

A day prior, just before leaping the Llanos de Jaen and coming out of the Sierra Morena, they had stumbled, in a hollow of the hills, upon a mud choza that had the gloomy aspects of a hiding place for bandoleros and moonshiners. The peasant and his wife who lived in the hut had said no to all their questions. No, they had not seen Jacinto Quesada. No, they never had heard of him, they lived so far away in the mountains, senores. Don Jesu, they would not know him from the great Morales himself!

But their half-witted son, a tall, shock-headed, ungainly lad, was struck by the appearance of the cavalcade and especially by the colorful, if oddly assorted trapping of Manuel Morales. Poor lad, he had never before seen such glorious caballeros.

As the disheartened men had made to lead on their mules, he had crept to the offside of Morales' beast and there, hidden from the view of his father, he had engaged in a quick, fearful pantomime.

"What is it?" queried Morales.

Vehemently the feeble-minded lad had pointed on ahead, on toward the Llanos de Jaen and the Sierra Nevada beyond.

"He has gone that way!" he whispered. "Si, Jacinto Quesada himself and a girl white as the snows that fall in these hills. He passed here two days since. Into the Nevadas, into the Nevadas, he has gone, senor don!"

Morales believed him, believed him even more implicitly than if his mind had been sound. Despite the dubious looks and shakes of the head upon the part of the guide Aguilino, all the cabalgadores agreed that the poor feeble-minded fellow would be incapable of perpetrating a deception. With energy and ardor they had pressed on.

Now, as they won to the bare-fanged wind-shrieking altitudes of the pass, Morales and his men felt dizzy; their stomachs churned, their heads were like gas-filled balloons. Sheerly below them dropped the narrow, profound gutter of the Llanos de Jaen. It seemed composed of three parts rock, standing on end, and seven parts air, giddying around in a stew. They drew their eyes away. They felt as if they would like to leave off clinging by their finger nails and slip down into the abysmal void.

They sank down upon the uneven spaces of a granite spire that was as a needle for slimness. Into the north rolled away, like a gray sea of mist, the massive ramifying Sierra Morena. To the south and ahead bulked up, even more imposing of port, the lofty altitudes of the Sierra Nevada. It was like some long and magnificent staircase, its lower

steps of mica schist overgrown with gum cistus, rhododendron, and broom, its top a dazzling flow of snow. Crags and peaks, jungled windy cuts, rock-bound alpine lakes, creamy knobs, and sharp obelisks saw-edged the sublime blue like the teeth of some titanic rake. The white melting heads of old Muley Hassan and the Picacho de la Veleta looked but a jump away, and yet with the mighty distance, the pink and purple of rhododendron, the white and pink of trailing arbutus and the green of gum cistus and broom seemed all of the same hazy blueness. It was a stupendous, overpowering jumble of cathedral mountains, colossal mountains, awful mountains.

"The Sierra Nevada has a scowling look," remarked Manuel Morales. "We may thank the good Dios humbly and gratefully, if we come triumphant through those solitudes and steeps."

"We must not lose another mule," said Jacques Ferou. "There are no red deer in the Sierra Nevada, nor wild boar, nor even mongoose. Is it not so? The panniers of provisions are our only salvation."

"And the mules may be eaten, too, when we're hungry enough," added Carson grimly. "I've eaten worse meat in my day in Death Valley, California."

Aguilino the guide heard the remarks without a quiver of his scarred eye.

Late that afternoon, John Fremont Carson halted his mule on the eyebrow of a cliff and the caravan crowded together at imminent risk of one or more going overside. His beast had gone suddenly lame, Carson said. It was standing on three legs, gray head drooping, and attempting every little while to put down its fourth leg.

"Carajo! The cattle must be shot!" said the guide Aguilino at first glance. "The contents of its panniers can be apportioned among the other mules."

"Nothing doing," said Carson shortly. "We can't afford to lose a single mule."

"You are right, monsenor," agreed Jacques Ferou. "In the Sierra Morena, the cabanas of the mountaineers were far between and few, and we succeeded in keeping our strength only by killing our meat as we went. Here, this Sierra Nevada seems as empty of men and wild meat as the deserts of French Algiers. We must save all our panniers, all our mules."

"Let me see the lame foot!" spoke up Manuel Morales suddenly. As are most bullfighters, Morales was wise in horseflesh and its kindred species. He crouched, took the hoof between his knees and examined it carefully. All at once his head snapped up.

"You lagarto, you lizard, you sly trick one!" he shouted at the guide. "What Gypsy trick is this?"

He showed the mule's hoof to the others. Slightly protruding from the inside of that hoof was the head of a nail. It had been driven straight into the quick.

"Come, you flea!" commanded Morales. "Get me a pair of pincers, a hammer with a claw-anything which will grip this nail and help to draw it out."

The guide, glad enough to hide his discomfiture, hurried away. But in a moment he returned with empty hands.

"Senor, we have no pincers, pliers, hammer-nothing of the kind!"

The American blurted out an oath.

"Think you can stump us, eh?" he said collectedly in English. And he borrowed the revolver of Jacques Ferou, broke it, and emptied its six chambers.

"My automatic hasn't the leverage of your gun," he remarked to the Frenchman in explanation.

With the steel finger guard of the revolver he sought, as he spoke, to get a grip on the head of the nail. But the nail had been driven in so far that its head just barely protruded from the surface of the hoof. There was no room beneath the nail-head for the slim steel of the finger guard.

Manuel Morales shouldered him away. Taking the hoof again between his knees, he dug at the head of the nail with his bare fingers. It seemed a preposterous thing to do, but he worked with a gnawing persistency. The mule shivered in every member, and made hoarse, almost human sounds of pain. Suddenly it screamed. Morales, his round face dark with blood and shiny with sweat, his body hunched all in a knot, slowly drew out the nail between the vise of two strong bullfighter's fingers!

"Now we will go on," said Carson.

"And no more of your Gypsy tricks, you lagarto!" Morales warned the guide.

Aguilino ignored the threat.

"The hole is spurting black blood," he said. "Let me make a poultice to stop the bleeding."

He gathered a handful of the stick leaves of a gum cistus which grew in the crevices of the cliff wall, chewed them in his mouth, then spit the cud into his palm and pressed it over the ragged hole left by the nail in the mule's hoof.

Yet, for all the appearance of doing good, he seemed to handle the painful leg with unwarranted brutality. The mule, snorting in agony and anger, recoiled sharply from him toward the brink of the path. Before the others could realize that anything untoward was in motion, before ever they could leap forward to save the beast, he pressed his head and shoulders against the burdened animal and it tottered on the crumbling edge of the cliff, then went over, turning round and round like an empty wine cask, banging its panniers against the rock faces, kicking the air with frail legs, and screaming all the while frightfully.

Manuel Morales caught the guide as he almost followed into the void. With his two strong arms, the matador lifted him bodily into the air and held him over the miles of emptiness.

"You snake in the grass!" he swore. "We will see now with how much grace you take the leap yourself!"

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