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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Wolf Cub By Patrick Casey Characters: 13896

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The guide did not squirm. He could not squirm. He was stiff with terror of the misty abysmal depths below. Yet, somehow, he managed to stutter:

"Heart of God, senor, don't! You will lose yourselves-in these savage mountains-without me to guide you! You will all starve to death! Maestro, for the love of Mary the Pitiful, don't, don't!"

There was something of truth in what the guide said. Morales put him back upon the path. But he said with bitterness and brooding menace, "We will lose no more mules. You will see to that, eh, my trustworthy man?"

Aguilino worked more cleverly after that.

In the dusk of the following night, Turiddu, the mule led by Morales himself, went over a cliff, almost dragging the matador along. There was no use blaming the guide, Aguilino. He had not been near the doomed ass during the long morning and the longer afternoon.

Besides, twenty times that day the beast had come within an ace of its eventual finis. Since dawn, it had conducted itself in a contrary and restive manner; it had shied without seeming cause, reared and plunged forward in sudden frights, caracoled and beat the path with its hoofs, and whinnied, snorted, and shaken its head as though unaccountably irritated. It seemed a mule spirited and unrestrainably stimulated by an overfeeding of oats; a mule intoxicated, possessed of a demon!

What had befallen Turiddu in the shadowy darkness of the prior night, Dios sabe! Yet the Gypsies have a jockey trick which might explain the whole mystery. When selling or bartering mules and borricos, they drop a tiny nodule of quicksilver into the long ears of the beasts.

Have you ever suffered a drop of water in the ear and been unable to move a hand to flick it out? The nodule of quicksilver is as irritating as that. It is wet and never still. It frets the mules and causes them to liven up their paces and seem more mettlesome.

Morales and his cabalgadores watched the guide with deep but indefensible suspicion. Vexedly they wondered and worried. Finally, in the next few days, they were provoked into savage anger when three more mules took it upon themselves to act unconventionally, and then die in fits, one, two, three.

These mules were thoughtful and discreet to a degree. They did not leap, screaming, off the walls of the mountains. They expired in their tracks and therefore saved to the nine Quixotes the panniers strapped over their spines.

Morales and his men became, all at once, coldly furious. The third mule in dying, coughed up a round, compactly pressed ball of pointed black-green leaves. Some one in the company had forced handfuls of oleander leaves down the throats of the three mules!

Now, the leaves of the oleander are extremely poisonous to man and beast. Horses and kindred cattle have an instinct which warns them against eating the shrub. But man who has no strong instincts, often dies poisoned by the oleander's juices. It is related that several British soldiers during the Peninsular War cut and peeled some oleander branches to use as skewers for roasting meat over the campfires. Of the twelve men who ate that meat, seven died.

Even a creature as asinine as an ass knows enough to avoid the pointed black-green leaves. Most mules would rather starve than even smell of the plant. Yet, during the nights that preceded their untimely taking-off, some one in the company had forced handfuls of the poisonous leaves down the throats of the three mules.

For hours before the death, each mule had coughed. Also, each mule had simpered, simpered like a convent girl. Simpered is a strange word to use in such a case, but it describes exactly the way the mules had moved and worked their lips in a try to rid their stomachs of the deadly leaves.

Of the whole caravan of seven mules that had trotted so bravely out, there was left now but one sorely burdened ass. The nine cabalgadores weighted the surviving beast with some of the provisions from the backs of the three poisoned mules; they encumbered their own shoulders with the rest; then they continued doggedly on, thinking to kill the last mule for meat, once the provisions upon their backs and in the panniers were completely exhausted.

That night they bivouacked in a stony and savage ravine, and built two small fires, and hugged them close. It was very cold. An icy mountain fog or neblina had crept down like a clammy gray ghost from the windy passes and frozen snowfields far above. One could not see much farther before one through the thick mist than the nose upon one's face.

They wrapped their ponchos about them and shivered in the damp. A cavern of snarling wind-echoes and of eddying, dark shapes was the steep ravine. Down the length of it, the fog marched like an endless caravan of ghostly, silent, gray mules. The two fires, robust enough and certainly well attended, seemed as pale and an?mic and cold as two incandescents in the black heart of a mine.

Without the fling of the twin fires, a man in sheepskin zamarra, alpagartas and voluminous mountaineer's shawl sat cross-legged on a large boulder and watched the men bulk before the flames, and move back and forth, and lie down, keeping close together for warmth. He did not seem to feel the icy chill of the fog; he did not seem to fear discovery. And yet, should the fires leap up and burn voraciously because of some knot braided with pitch, he would be disclosed most surely to the men about the flames.

For days, however, he had been with them and never once had chance betrayed him to the men he watched. He had clung to a risco above them when they had climbed like slow obstinate flies out of the profundities of the Llanos de Jaen and plunged into the gargantas and barrancas of the desolate Sierra Nevada. He had hung upon their flank as a wolf hangs upon the flank of a gang of deer; as a podenco, or hunting dog, hangs upon the flank of a sounder of wild boar. While they ate, he had lingered near and, with a rare and pensive curiosity, had watched them slowly but surely exhaust the linings of their mules' panniers.

Suddenly, from the boulder on which he sat as quietly as another rock, he lifted up his voice in a long, thin, bestial ululation. Such a somber and unearthly sound is made only by the Spanish she-wolf when, standing above the den of its brood, it gives tongue to a thousand old memories and desires.

One of the recumbent figures about the fires lifted himself upon an elbow and, his face sharp, hearkened intently. Again, from the boulder, uprose the steely cry, mournful as a wail sent spearing aloft from Purgatory. From his elbow, Aguilino the guide lifted himself to his feet.

"When you hear the she-wolf give tongue," he answered to the inquiring looks of the others, "you may be sure that its den and runways are near. The young fat cubs make fairly good meat. I will go out into the darkness, hearkening to the cries of the bitch, and if

I am lucky, I may locate the brood for you. God willing, we will have an oteo, a wolf-drive, at dawn to-morrow!"

He walked out of the radius of the firelight and went stumbling through the shadowy gloom. As he brushed through the white buckthorn, arbutus, and holly which sprouted in the more generous soil between the boulders, those about the fires could hear a swishing and snapping, and a regular-spaced crackling from the rich mould under his walking feet. Then all crackling and rustling ceased, and the night was darkly still.

Aguilino halted at the foot of the boulder. The man in the mountaineer's shawl dropped down beside him.

"Rafael Perez," he said, "to-morrow you must murder the last mule!"

"But, Don Jacinto, I dare not! Three times already have they threatened my life, and they regard me forever with the most savage of looks. The others I do not fear so much, but that magnificent one-I tell you I fear Morales so that I shudder at each of his glances. The man looks murder. Believe me, Don Jacinto, he would shoot me like a dog should I make but one more move!"

"Then I must finish that last mule myself. To-morrow, above the Pass of the Blessed Trinity, where the three roads converge into one, I will send down a boulder to crush out its life."

"Ah, that is better, senor don! They cannot blame me if a little rock falls from the heights, while I walk with them through the gap. But how much longer must I endure their scowling looks, maestro? My life is not worth a peseta while I linger with that company."

"They continue to eat, do they not?" said Quesada significantly.

"Si, but it's no fault of mine. Don Jacinto, how could I dare send more than three mules toppling off the mountain walls? You yourself, maestro, told me to resort to the oleander leaves. Remember, it was in that little talk behind the granite crag? But the oleander leaves did not get rid of the panniers of the three poisoned beasts. These Quixotes fill themselves from those panniers without stint, especially the Frenchman. They will continue to eat for a few days-"

"Hola, the Frenchman has an appetite, eh?"

"Seguramente, si! But when shall I quit the distasteful presence of that terrible Morales?"

"To-morrow at dusk, if you will have it."

"A thousand thanks! But what excuses shall I give, Don Jacinto?"

"Say to them that it is not the will of God that you go farther!"

"Carajo, they will shoot me for it!"

"Que, que! What of that? They will only cheat the Guardia Civil of another black rogue!"

Little comforted by the words of consolation, grumbling and shaking his head morosely, Rafael Perez, alias Aguilino, returned to the bivouac of the nine fantastic ones. The other, who wore the garb of a serrano, hurried away through the foggy darkness, his head bent and brow thoughtful.

The following day, as slowly they climbed one of the three roads which led into the mournful Pass of the Blessed Trinity, a huge boulder came bounding down from the granite heights, viciously leaped by John Fremont Carson's head and, having been deflected by a rock above, missed the last mule by a good dozen yards. The guide Aguilino swore in his chest, and no one heard him.

As the sun rose to its meridian, the vertical rays, reflected from the stony bare-fanged walls, gave off an intense heat, and the party halted in a hollow that lay brown and lean between two mountains. The men squatted down to partake of a light noontide repast, and it was then that Rafael Perez approached Morales.

"Caballero of my soul," he said fearfully, "I can go no farther with you!"

"Disparate!" exclaimed Morales, jumping to his feet. "What nonsense is this! Hola, Ferou and you, Carson; the treacherous knave desires to abandon us!"

The Frenchman and American crowded up.

"But he cannot!" objected Ferou. "We will not let him!"

"What reason have you for refusing to go farther?" asked Carson, turning upon the guide.

"Senores," replied Aguilino with feigned humility, but no little trepidation; "it is not the will of God!"

"It is not the will of Jacinto Quesada, you mean!" bit out the American with quick penetration.

Aguilino shrugged his shoulders expressively.

"Senores," he whined, "there are no churches in these mountains, and men of the good Dios come but seldom here. In these mountains, the will of Jacinto Quesada moves stronger than does the will of God!"

"Ah!" exclaimed Morales, with sudden understanding. "So that's it, eh?" And his youthful face cold and grim, he lifted his automatic pistol and shoved it beneath the nose of the guide.

"Smell of its maw, my good hombre!" he commanded metallically. "Now tell me whose will you will obey!"

Aguilino grimaced like a frightened monkey.

"Heart of God, Senor Don Manuel, I will stay, I will stay!"

They went on through the hollow in the northern hills. And Aguilino shook his head.

"It is that terrible Morales," he mumbled to himself. "Don Jacinto does not know him. Twice has Don Jacinto failed me this day."

They went up a dark green corry that looked like the hiding place of savage wolves. It was a narrow bridle path, a mere tunnel hewn out of solid rock and overarching foliage. The afternoon drew into twilight; a dim fresco held beneath the plait-work of lentisk, oleanders, and clinging briar; and then, all at once, the corry topped its rise and began descending, plunging down abrupt rock faces and zigzagging about the mountainside like the spiral of a corkscrew. It made the spine tingle to think that one false step in the darkness might precipitate one into the unseen murmuring stream far below.

They camped, that night, in a dell at the foot of the corry, not far from the constantly crashing stream. When they sprawled out to sleep, Morales and John Fremont Carson drew close on either side of Aguilino and carelessly dropped a leg across his legs, one from the right, the other from the left.

But they slept too well, those self-appointed bodyguards. What with the fatigue poisons that had been gathering in their joints and muscles during the long toilsome day and the many days which had preceded it, they could not hope to bat one eye in sleep and keep the other warily winking at the mat between. Quickly they became like logs of wood, incapable of feeling and enterprise. And in some black cavernous hour of the night, Aguilino crawled out and away.

They awoke in the chill dawn, and looked about them with red-rimmed eyes, and spoke together in husky whispers. Without a guide, they were like the fabled babes in the wood. They were lost completely in those gray, echoing, savage mountains.

They breakfasted glumly and, with lightened packs upon their shoulders, went on. Now before them stalked no Gypsy guide; before them stalked an emaciated and bony specter that looked back to grimace every little while, and to beckon them on-the specter of Starvation!

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