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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Wolf Cub By Patrick Casey Characters: 14383

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


On the great rock at the brink of the village of Minas de la Sierra where, years before when he was yet a very little Spaniard, Jacinto Quesada had stood with his weeping mother and watched his father hurry down the mountainside on an enterprise of forlorn and fatal desperation, a boy in cotton knee breeches and bare brown legs, despite the mountain cold, stood waiting like some statue carved in basalt.

Behind him, into the dull gray wash of sky, the Picacho de la Veleta lifted its craggy head; off to the northeast bulked snowy old Muley Hassan, Cerro de Mulhacen, the highest peak of the peninsula; and all about, just brightening with the chill light of dawn, were the bleak spires of lesser mountains, shadowy defiles, dark and moaning gorges. Nothing moved in the leaden, glacial, desolate reaches save an immense lammergeyer that hovered on slow wings over its high eyrie like some black dragon of morbid fancy.

Presently, out of the gloom of a lower gorge, the shapes of men emerged into view and began mounting the fiber-line of goat path which curved and twisted and wound up to the barrio like a convoluted snake. It was Jacinto Quesada, leading the nine cabalgadores, weary from the long climb through the night.

The boy began crying out at the sight. It is an odd fact that sounds high on mountains lose in volume, but gain in distinctness and carrying power. The cries of the boy that were more like the bleating of a helpless ewe beset by wild dogs, dropped down to the men in the gorge.

"Oh, Jacinto, caballero of my soul!" he shrilled. "The mother of me, who waited in her last illness upon your own good mother-God rest her soul!-my own pobre mamacita is sick! Last night, her stomach turned upside down on her, and to-day her skin is blue and cold! Save her, Don Jacinto of my heart; save her to me, and the Holy Mother of God will kiss your brow with fortune!"

"Hush, Gabriellito!" said Quesada tenderly, when he came up in the van. He gathered the boy to him, under one arm, and turned to the others. His young smooth brown face was priestly with pain and somberness and a great pity. In a grave voice, he said:

"There can be no mistake, senores; it is indeed the dread cholera! Like the great black wings of that lammergeyer of the air, it has closed down about my poor pueblo."

A little clatter of sound came from a yellow run of water as it trickled, after the old Moorish fashion, down the village street through an open stone gutter. In Minas de la Sierra, clinging like a cragmartin's nest to a ledge of the Picacho de la Veleta, there was naught else of sound or movement.

No old men mumbled endless talk in the cold sun beneath the cork-oak in the center; no shawled manzanilleros strode by with panniers of the white-flowered manzanilla upon their backs. From the scanty forests above came no sound of woodchoppers, no steely ring of axe on pine. Tightly closed were the wooden hatches which shuttered the windows of the mud-and-thatch cabanas. Within, no light from the great open fireplaces cleaved the darkness. There was no laugh or squeal of children.

Gabriel, the village lad, unable to restrain his nervousness and deep fear, hurriedly led them to the mud choza where his mother lay dying. It was very dark within. Strings of pimentos hung drying from the low rafters. There was a bed on either side of the cold fireplace. On one of the beds the woman was prostrated under a heap of rags.

All sap seemed to be drained from her body. She was withered and dark-hued as a burnt match. Carson stooped and felt her wrist. The pulse-beat was an almost imperceptible flutter. Quesada spoke gently to her and, with brave effort, she answered in a whisper that was as the gasping of a wind through one of the boulder-strewn passes above. That was the vox cholerica. She was in the second and usually fatal stage of malignant cholera.

They left the boy lamenting softly at the bedside of his mother.

"She is a widow," said Quesada, "and all he has left in the world."

Their fears a hideous certitude now, grimly they went through the dying village. In a nearby hut, they found an old white-haired man altogether dead. His muscles were oddly contracted; one arm was turned round, the palm of the hand out and hanging over the edge of the cornshuck tick. As very often happens after death through cholera, his body was not only still warm, but rising in temperature, burning up.

It seemed poignantly lonely in there with the solitary dead. They stumbled out of the sour darkness.

"That was Antonio Villarobledo," said Quesada; "a man who has long lived alone. He was almost a father to me when I was a boy."

Everywhere they went in the barrio, everywhere in the cold clay cabanas, Death had stalked before them on bony rickety legs, a chill damp on his forehead, his emaciated fingers picking at the coverlets of the sick, shutting their eyes to desire and despair. A great illness was on the serranos-a foul plague that caused them to double up with stomach cramps and vomit a gray pasty whey; that turned their skins to blue and purple and swatted them off, like flies, within twelve and twenty-four hours.

It was the scourge the nut-brown Gypsy Paquita had foreseen on the little white beach in the barranca. But surely she could have had no hand in bringing it about! Quesada had explained that the plague lifted its fanged and evil head wherever the water was impure, and there were errors in diet, and the atmosphere changed abruptly from damp to sudden heat and back again.

Yet the wonder remains how the Gitana even could have predicted it. To be sure, cholera was forever sweeping the high hills. Was her magic on the white beach, then, only a natural supposition, a bit of logical deduction and reasonable ratiocination? Or did it partake of something more, something uncanny, impious and pagan-some real and diabolical warlockry? Dios hombre only knows!

But John Fremont Carson, the American, thought that he understood the reasons for the plague.

"What these folk need is education," he remarked thoughtfully to Morales. "Education can do everything!"

It was identically what he had said amid the squalor and squall in the Gypsy camp.

"Education, si!" returned Morales, even as he had on that occasion. "But what they need more is some one with a lion heart, a great golden arrogant heart, to lead them in the fight, to lead them up!"

Jacques Ferou said nothing; but again, despite the pitiful agonies and shocking horrors about them, he had the flinty hardihood to smile his calculating and very superior smile.

They came at last, in the course of their rounds, to the cabana where Quesada's mother had died and where the girl, Felicidad, now was living. They discovered her sitting up on the straw-matted bed, looking more wan than ever, a hot sweat beading the roots of her golden hair, her white febrile fingers gripping the side of the tick, and her whole ivory and gold form shaking like a mountain aspen with retching seizures.

Quesada cried out hoarsely in shocked and fearful astonishment. He sprung toward her. But a cramp seemed to bind her right arm; she let go he

r clutching hold on the side of the tick, and fell back. Tenderly the bandolero tucked a pillow under her rich-crowned head and pulled over her a wolfskin from the nearby couch.

They came out into the brisk clean air of the morning. Like a blow, dismay had struck dull the light in each man's eyes. Said Quesada simply:

"This is the first stage of autumnal cholera. God grant that she may recover!"

"What measures do you take to relieve the sufferers, to counteract the disease, to wipe out the plague?" the American wanted to know.

"There is little that we can do, Senor Carson. Up here in these hills only the simplest remedies are available to our use. When a man is burning up inside and calls for water, we give him water-"

"From that cesspool there?" And Carson indicated the open yellow rivulet coursing down the center of the uneven street.

"It is all we have. Our fathers built that stone channel, ages ago, in the days of the Moor. What would you, Senor Americano? The nearest stream, other than this, is far down the goat path in the lower gorge."

"Go on," said Carson with unintentional brusqueness. "When a man disgorges-"

"We tell him to put his finger down his throat and to keep straining so long as a particle of undigested food shows. When his stomach is sick and worn from bowel evacuations, and wretched with intestinal pains, we put a plaster of hot mustard over his abdomen as a counter-irritant, or we rub his abdomen with penetrating turpentine. There is turpentine in the few pines that remain in the dank hollows of these hills."

Carson nodded rather abstractedly. It was as if his mind were divided between listening to Quesada and developing along a certain line of reasoning. The others stood close about and heeded in perplexed wonder.

"From the turpentine, also, we extract a form of aperient oil which, when taken in large doses, aids purging."

"And the ejecta?" suggested Carson.

"Oh, we cover that over with earth, or throw into a pit, or cast down the cliffs. When a man faints, we pour sour wine or raw mountain brandy down his throat. And if he would eat, we milk our goats and we brew up soups."

"But you do not use opiates to allay pain and halt the discharges?"

Quesada shook his head.

"Only Doctor Torreblanca y Moncada knows how to handle that. Ah, would to God that the haughty Don Jaime were here! He has a heart of blood for all the iron of his manner. And he has hands of gold for calling the dying back to life!"

"But why is he not here?"

"I have told you, senor. The bitter old man is away looking for Felicidad and for his stolen money. But Don Juan," he added eagerly, with sudden inspiration, "perhaps you are a senor doctor, too! You Americanos know so much!"

The American flushed with quick sharp modesty. For a breath, mentally but deeply, he accused himself of having talked too big. He felt almost as if he had been bluffing. Then the ardor and hunger of Quesada's hope struck him. He shook his head sadly.

"I wish I were," he said with regret and genuine longing. "But all I know about cholera and such plagues, Jacinto, is what I learned in hygiene at college. I know, for instance, that what you folk do is all right, but not enough. You do not go in for segregation of the sick, hot baths, or opiates. You do not positively destroy all soiled clothes and rags. You bury the noisome excreta in the same ground through which flows your water supply, or you cast it over a cliff as a spawning-ground for flies. I shouldn't wonder but you bury the infectious dead!"

"That is according to our religion," said the bandolero simply, as if mouthing an irrefutable answer. "The men of the good Dios have consecrated a certain space of earth and there our dead sleep in the bosom of the Church and the Espiritu Santo."

Carson shrugged his broad level shoulders in a sort of helplessness, then asked, "Where is this cemetery?"

"Above-"

"Where it may infect the water ere it reaches you! Oh, you have no sanitation here! This is as bad as India!" He looked up and down the uneven street, at the huddle of cabanas to either side, in incontainable disrelish and vast pity.

"Senor Carson," said Quesada impulsively, "you and Don Manuel and his cuadrilla have done a wrong in pursuing me. Down before the shrine of the Christ of the Pass, I showed you how sincere were my motives in carrying off Felicidad, how great a wrong you had done me in becoming sleuth-hounds of chase. But now that you are here, there is opportunity to right that wrong. We need your aid imperatively! Help me, Senor Americano!" he exhorted impassionately. "Help me and my poor serranos with what you know! Save Felicidad and the others! Down the pestilence!"

The American retreated a step before the fervor of his plea.

"But I don't know, I don't know enough!" he protested deprecatingly. "I'd understand how to clean up this barrio, of course; but in handling the disease, I'd have to work all from memory, vague memory! I'm not a doctor-"

"Don Juan," interposed Morales, valorously stepping into the breach, "Senor Quesada has well said that we did him a great wrong in thus hounding him; here is a pressing opportunity to right that wrong. It is an act of Christian charity to aid the poor serranos. They are dying off like flies in a frost. They need you. Help them, Senor Carson; help them, and my cuadrilla and I will be yours to command! Whatever measures you find necessary to rid this pueblo of its scourge, that will we undertake to carry out!"

"And I," exclaimed the bandolero, with an ardor deeper than any eagerness, "I will go down these mountains to the casa of Torreblanca y Moncada outside Granada. Don Jaime is almost my foster father; I lived in his house once, and I know every nook and cranny of it. From the remnants of the hidalgo doctor's library, I shall secure, to aid your memory, some medical book containing a full exposition of cholera. I shall read it and then bring you-"

"You can read?"

Said Quesada with a restrained but natural touch of pride, "My mother taught me letters when I was but five. My poor mother attended, when a child, the convent of Santa Ursola in Granada."

With no less zeal but more earnest calmness, he went on:

"What medicines the medical book tells me you shall need, I shall get for you from the chests and racks of the senor doctor. I shall leave word with old Pedro or the childish Teresa that, immediately Don Jaime returns, he is to come up here. All we ask, Senor Carson, all we expect, is that you do what good you can until the hidalgo doctor himself arrives. Mediante Dios, you can do much!"

Intense longing, a hungry expectancy trembled beseechingly in the eyes of each man. They felt suddenly inferior to Carson, dependent on his knowledge, in sore need of his aid. He could not kill that earnest hope and sincere, almost pitiful trust in him. With characteristic decision, he exclaimed.

"By gad, I'll do it!"

And in Spanish fashion, Morales added, "With the help of the Dios hombre!"

The Frenchman, listening avidly to all, only smiled once more his calculating and very superior smile.

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