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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Wolf Cub By Patrick Casey Characters: 13537

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


High on a shoulder of the Picacho de la Veleta, one late afternoon, stood Jacinto Quesada. It was very cold, and his mountaineer's shawl was drawn tightly around his throat and knotted about his middle. About and above him frowned the crags and snow spires and sinister precipices of the sierras; below, splitting the mountain like a great clean knife-cut, was a deep, winding pass.

Quesada was morosely engaged in watching the peculiar antics of a number of men in a cove or pocket to one side of that pass.

Inset in the pocket, under a thatched pointed roof, was a rudely carved figure of the Saviour hanging from a cross. The sacred effigy was fashioned of some white pine, with a crown of black horsehair and dabs of red paint, in hands and crossed feet and side, to depict bleeding wounds. It was a homely and stark symbol, a shrine famous in the mountains as the Christ of the Pass.

But the men, despite that poignant reminder before them, were not kneeling in prayer to Heaven. They were squatting among the huge boulders in the ragged prickly gorse, their heads lolling on their chests, and their words, when they talked, coming in disjointed, never-finished sentences as if they were wearied and needed sleep.

They were the nine fantastic cabalgadores. They were starving. For three days not a morsel of food had passed their lips. Theirs had been a complete fast from organic solids. That noon, at a mountain burnlet, for the last time they had drunk copiously of water. It had served to keep up their ebbing strength.

Now, however, they were suffering all the distress and tortures of hunger and thirst. Their stomachs yearned, but the gastric juices were dry; their heads ached and at times felt heavy as shot, and at other times, light and dizzy. They had been compelled to sit down. They were still too low in the sierras to come across the tracks of snow-capering wild ibex and thus appease their famished stomachs. They were suffering an agony, hopeless and cruel.

Starvation excites the imagination and causes giddying eyes to see illusions. It was thus with John Fremont Carson, the American. Come of light-headedness and fretted nerves, he had thought, all through that third day, that as they walked along they were companioned by a strange man who walked with them, now on one hand, now in the brush on the other.

Pausing for minutes to think, losing the line of thought, beginning and never finishing his statements, yet somehow he communicated his fancy to Morales. The matador nodded; he also had seen the shawl-wrapped gliding figure. But the Frenchman pleaded ignorance of any such illusion.

Of a sudden now, as they squatted about the shrine, aware only of the ceaseless gnawings of their stomachs, from up the road came the crash as of a falling bounding stone. It was as if some one, moving along the cliff above their heads, had dislodged the stone from underfoot.

"It is he," said Carson, and he thought he added: "The unknown man." But the words died unsaid on his parched lips.

Morales nodded and continued to nod, his head wagging loosely like that of a mechanical toy. After an appreciable interval, he said, "He is prowling about us like a hungry wolf."

The tall, blond, mustached Frenchman seemed the strongest of all those once-strong men. He pulled out his large-calibered revolver. With none of the hesitancy of feebleness, he said:

"I shall go forward. I am the only one that can walk and see straight. If this unknown man is truly skulking about, I shall find out what he is doing up there ahead."

He left the pitiful cluster of men. Without any signs of dizziness or staggering, he walked between the boulders which bestrew the path. Bent sharply forward, revolver in hand, he disappeared around a turn of the road.

Abruptly, from beside the road and very near at hand, came then, loud and distinct, the sharp snapping of shrub twigs. The men squatting before the shrine looked about dully. Out of the gorse and bramble beside the road stepped the man whom they had seen following them all that day. He wore heavy rope sandals, sheepskin zamarra, a long serape and pointed mountaineer's hat. He was Jacinto Quesada.

Weakly the famished men reached for their weapons; but he smiled with friendliness and commiseration, and sat down among them.

"There is no need of force, senores," he said. "I am here of my own free will."

The starving men looked at him as they would at a ghost, hardly able to credit their eyes. As he spoke, Morales reached over and touched him on the arm.

"My soul!" he exclaimed, the excitement of the discovery stimulating his undermined energies. "He is real-Jacinto Quesada himself!"

"You are starving, senores," said the bandolero, "or else you would never doubt that it is I. But I prolong your agony. Eat; I have brought you food!"

From beneath the voluminous folds of his shawl, he produced a bota or skin of wine and an osier basket containing cold sausages of meat, a chunk of goat's cheese, and some cornbread.

The famished men clawed the stuff from his hands. They were too hungry to pause for politeness or to think of thanks. They did not even stop to realize how incongruous it was that he whom they had been relentlessly pursuing should come to them now of his own accord and bring them that which they so direly needed. They thought only of appeasing the gnawings of their stomachs which had sharpened and become suddenly overpowering at the sight and smell of food.

They crammed fistfuls of food into their mouths and gulped the whole fistfuls almost without chewing. They ate without wait for words or breath, ravenously, like lean voracious wolves. But after a little, the American halted, a stout piece of bread to his lips. He looked at Morales with eyes that were livening with quickly returning energy.

"Jacques Ferou!" he breathed.

"Si," exclaimed Morales, also pausing between a mouthful. "The Frenchman!"

"The Frenchman?" repeated Quesada, and he laughed bitterly. "Ah, he is well able to take care of himself; he is a very lizard for living on! He has not been starving like you. From the back of that last mule, ere I shot it from across the canon and caused it to drop off the cliff, he filched a loaf of bread. His distress has been even more severe than yours because he tempted his stomach without wholly satisfying it; but by nibbling secretly for the last few days at this bread, he has been enabled to keep fairly strong."

The men, their tissues, muscles, and nerves, undergoing rapid repair because of the nutriment they had taken into their systems, looked astounded and a little incensed.

"But why did he not share with us?" asked one, Baptista Monterey, a short thick-set banderillero

in the ordinary tight-fitting black clothes of the profession.

"The man is a French crook, a member of the clever criminal society of White Wolves," explained Quesada with marked patience. "From what Felicidad has told me about him, I have come to understand the workings of his evil mind. I know what he is about. You appreciate, senores, that Don Manuel and this Americano, Senor Carson, both withdrew large sums from the Bank of Spain, and that the residue of these sums is still upon their persons. Jacques Ferou has made up his mind to get this money. The man is avid for money. He means that you all should die, and that he shall survive you!"

"But he must be starving now," objected Morales. "The bread could not last forever."

"It lasted until yesterday evening," rejoined Quesada. "And this morning he accidentally cut his hand on a projecting rock. I was watching from the brush to one side. He sucked the blood from the cut, and that further strengthened him. It is odd, mis caballeros, but a man can live for many days by taking his own blood into his system. It is better even than water."

"But now," persisted Morales.

"Would you care to see what Ferou is doing now?"

They nodded with an awakening show of eagerness.

"We will bring him food anyway," said Carson.

Packing the now flabby bota of wine and the few sausages and bits of bread and cheese which remained, they went on up the road between the boulders at the heels of the stalking bandolero. Twilight was thickening. They rounded the bend and there, where the road slanted down into a ferny depression, they made out before them, seated a-straddle a fallen tree, the Frenchman, Jacques Ferou.

They watched in a kind of bewilderment. The Frenchman's gray-coated back was toward them, and he was bending down over the trunk. He appeared to be working with his hands at the trunk and carrying those hands, every so often, to his mouth. But it was all very vague in the thick twilight.

"Chispas!" exclaimed Morales in perplexity. "What is he doing there?"

"Eating the wood-grubs in that rotten tree!"

The men ejaculated in wrathful resentment. Said Carson: "So that's why he left the camp alone!"

"Si; the French pig!" from Morales. "And he would not tell us of even this distasteful means of satisfying our hunger and preserving our lives!"

"Despacio!" warned Quesada in a low tone. "Softly, gently, senores. Let us not disturb him, but go back alone. I have a deal more to tell you about this man. I should prefer that he would not be near to hear."

They rounded the bend and made down the road toward the shrine. As they went, Morales and Carson looked at one another. Then, without haste and very grimly, each reached into the osier basket on the American's arm and passed out among the men the remainder of the food.

The moon rose over the hills as they approached the shrine, and a random shaft, plunging down the pass, lighted the white figure and bleeding wounds of the crucified Christ with stark and ghastly effect. The men squatted among the boulders in the ragged prickly gorse.

"Senores," began Jacinto Quesada, "ever since you entered these mountains, I have been close to you. Every move you have made, I have watched; every unfortunate circumstance which befell you, I have caused. I rolled the boulder down the cliff which was meant for your last mule. I shot that last mule, three days ago, from the other side of the box canon. The day before that, I commanded the guide to leave you. You did not recognize Aguilino; you thought him a Gypsy; but he is my dorado, Rafael Perez, who helped rob you on the Seville-to-Madrid!"

The men murmured their surprise at the revelation.

"But why," ejaculated Morales, "why, Senor Quesada, did you do all this?"

"In order that I might show you Jacques Ferou in his true light. Once you were starving, I knew the innate selfishness of the man would out. Then, if I could make you believe me in the matter of the Frenchman, I knew you must believe me in my whole story. Listen, senores, and I shall tell you the reason why I snatched and fled away with the girl."

Quickly then, Quesada sketched to them the story told him by Felicidad. He ended:

"You see, senores, I did not actually kidnap this old friend of my childhood. It was her wish. I merely took her away to save her from a worse evil, this filthy one, Ferou!"

Strong now with the meal he had eaten and strangely elated over the story he just had heard, the matador sprang enthusiastically to his feet.

"Senor Don Jacinto!" he exclaimed. "You are a bandolero of the splendid good old sort-the José Maria, the Visco el Borje sort! I knew it, caballero of my heart! You are a true Moor, chivalrous and brave!"

Carson, with the canniness so characteristic of the American, was not to be so easily convinced. True, for the salt that he had eaten, he was under obligation to Jacinto Quesada. He appreciated that obligation and was thankful to the bandolero for what he had done for him and the others. But what he appreciated, probably in fuller mete than did any of the others, was that Quesada was a man, clearheaded, far-sighted, judicious, and acutely adroit.

Quesada had convicted himself, by his own word, of robbing them of their mules and guide in order to bring them into a state of starvation. Once they were enfeebled by hunger and thirst, he had come to them with food. Naturally they were grateful. And it was while their hearts were warm with gratitude toward him that he had related the past incidents in a new phase, incriminating one of their number, the Frenchman, and very plausibly explaining his reasons for running off with the girl. He had sowed suspicion and dissension among them, what time he had placed himself, in the matter of Felicidad, in a good if not heroic light. It all seemed an ingenious, well-calculated, and bold plan.

"But," objected Carson, "but may we not see the girl? Not that I doubt you, Senor Quesada," he added with almost Spanish politeness; "but we have come all this way to help Senorita Torreblanca y Moncada and it would greatly please us, now, to see her and to know that she is safe."

"My native village of Minas de la Sierra," said Jacinto Quesada, "is only a night's journey farther up the Picacho de la Veleta. There Felicidad is staying in the cabana of my mother, and to there I shall be glad to guide you. Yet I warn you, senores!" He paused ominously.

"What is it?" asked Carson sharply.

"Something wrong with Felicidad?" from Morales.

"Yesterday," said Quesada, "my mother died. She had long grieved for my father, but we fear it was not grief alone which killed her. We fear, senores," and his voice lowered-"we fear cholera!"

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