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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Wolf Cub By Patrick Casey Characters: 15545

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Even as his father had hurried down the mountainside many years before, even so Jacinto Quesada wended his descending way, that morning, on an enterprise of forlorn desperation. He was bound for the casa of Torreblanca y Moncada outside Granada. He did not wait to borrow one of the village mules which the serranos used to sleigh their cords of pine down to the lower torrents and to carry their panniers of white-flowered manzanilla into the towns of the plains. His long mountaineer's legs were swifter to move and even more tireless than the slow hoofs of any stupid borrico. His descent proved far more rapid than had been the arduous climb of the nine cabalgadores.

He came, in the noontide, to the boulder-strewn, gorse-whelmed pocket of the Christ of the Pass. He paused neither to rest nor to eat. In the moon of that evening, he found himself in the forested dell at the foot of that dark green corry which snaked over a shoulder of the sierras. Here in the night, almost a week before, Aguilino the guide had deserted Morales and his men.

Quesada turned aside from his decurrent course. He broke through the moon-filtering brush of the dell. He waded the nearby frothing and echoing mountain stream. All the while, louder than the splash and chop of the boisterous rivulet, he ululated shrilly in the mournful manner of the Spanish she-wolf.

Presently, from the underwood beyond, came an answering call. It was a singular bird note, not much the ordinary hoot of an owl, but more a growl and something of a gruff scream. It was the hoot of the eagle owl.

Quesada pressed forward. He came out, a moment later, upon a tiny clearing, saffron in the moonlight. To one side stood a log hut, its chinks plastered with adobe. Crowded in the open doorway were three men. They were his dorados, Ignacio Garcia, Pio Estrada, and Rafael Perez.

To judge from this, Perez had not fled so far, after all. The other two must have recently come up. Perez lacked altogether now the yellow scar that had so hideously distinguished Aguilino the guide.

Quesada showed no surprise. It was as if he had thoroughly expected to find them there.

"Hola, mis dorados!" he called, as he stepped into the clearing. "Bring forward one of your nags."

"But the booty!" objected Rafael Perez, whilom Aguilino.

"Si; the sacks of mail and jewels and money!"

"Do we not go forward to the cache now," asked Garcia, "and split the loot between us?"

"Disparate! I have no time. The plunder is cached with our cacique, Dionisio Almazarron, in the foothills of the Sierra Morena. Go you there, you three, and take it all. But alto! first get me one of your cobs to ride down into Granada."

No one of the three men moved. Said Pio Estrada in an odd voice:

"Ah, you do not care for this little treasure, eh, maestro? Times have been good to you in Spain. Don Jacinto has taken to enterprising abroad, single-handed, and accomplishing marvelous and audacious feats. It is true indeed that Don Jacinto is brave, brave as the very God himself!"

Quesada did not understand the significance of the words, but there was no mistaking their intent. There was that in the tone of Estrada's voice and in the fact that the men still stood unmoving in the doorway, in sullen disobedience to his command, which spelled sedition and revolt. Slowly from his holster, Quesada lifted his huge long-barreled revolver.

"My golden ones," he said quietly, "you do not hear well in the moonlight. Would you understand better the detonation of a pistol?" He smiled, showing his clean white teeth.

The grim jest of his words, the set of his long jaw, the gleam of eyes and teeth and steely revolver, had a decided effect upon the men. Like cats frightened away by the Spanish scat, zape! they stretched their legs around the cabin and out of sight.

Within a trice, they were back, each leading a wiry rough-coated pony. Quesada selected the most mettlesome and leaped into the deep saddle.

"Rafael Perez," he instructed, turning partly round, "you shall remain here. Let the others go for the loot. You watch the road. Men of the Guardia Civil will be riding the hills. When I pass here again, in returning from Granada, I shall hoot like the eagle owl and you will answer in the manner of the wolf bitch. Let me know, then, if any policemen come this way. By this time, the affair of the Seville-to-Madrid must be loudly bruited abroad in Spain. I should not wonder if some two Guardias Civiles will ride over this corry in an attempt to capture me in my own village."

Perez grunted in ill-concealed distaste of the task. Ignacio Garcia spoke out.

"There are many other things loudly bruited abroad in Spain, these days, maestro mio!"

Quesada swung completely around in the saddle to face the sullen trio.

"Carajo! Do you think to trifle with Jacinto Quesada! What is all this muttering going on here?"

Garcia shrugged his shoulders noncommittally and a bit fearfully; the erstwhile Aguilino remained taciturn and lowering of dark brow; but with a strange audacity that was almost insolence, Estrada ventured:

"Oh, you will soon learn, Don Jacinto of the high hand!"

Quesada cursed them angrily for the whelps of dogs; then swung round in the saddle, dug his heels into the horse's flanks, and headed full-tilt through the brush. Once back in the trampled band of heath and brambles, which was the road through the dell, he sped the nag at a gallop up the dark green corry.

But topping the rise and dropping down on the other side, he reined in the cob the better to reconsider the sullen manner and incomprehensible words of his trio of dorados.

"The knaves have been bitten by some foul plan," he surmised. "It is not that they intend to rob me of all share in the booty. Seguramente, no! I told them they were welcome to the entire lot. Something else is afoot, God knows what!"

Coming out of the mournful Pass of the Blessed Trinity, some time later, he took that one of the three roads which diverged most sharply from the course pursued by the cabalgadores in climbing up. After a good time more, he rode through the myrtle and orange trees of the Alpujarras and, following the Darro, slanted down toward the Moorish city of Granada, gleaming white on the sides of the hills.

A few miles outside the city, upon the great hasped door of the crumbling adobe casa of Torreblanca y Moncada, Quesada knocked echoingly. After an appreciable space, the little mullion window in the door was opened, and an old white-haired man peered out with bright eyes. He was Pedro, the butler.

"Ah, Mother of God!" he exclaimed, a strange quavering note in his voice. "It is Jacinto Quesada about whom all Spain talks!"

"I bring news of the little Felicidad."

"God grant it is good news!"

"Good and bad. She is safe in my native pueblo, but she is sick. She is sick of the same disease that killed off my own poor mother only a few days ago. It is a plague, Tio Pedro. The whole village is sick with the dread cholera."

The old servant ejaculated in horror.

"It is the hand of God, Jacintito!" he went on with warning sententiousness. "It is a scourge of God striking down those about you because of the terrible vile things you have been doing, these last nights, throughout the peninsula. Take heed, Jacintito mio; take heed ere it is too late, and all you love are dead!"

There was something in the old man's words which sounded startlingly and disagreeably reminiscent of the three dorados, their sullenness, their mutterings.

"Disparate!" exclaimed Quesada. "What nonsense is this? Just tell me, tio; is Don Jaime still away?"

The white head nodded energetically behind the mullion window.

"Si; seguramente, si! Ever s

ince that affair of the Seville-to-Madrid, the senor doctor has been scouring the plains and hills of La Mancha for his stolen daughter and all his money. Ah, Don Jaime is indeed a hard man. God pity Felicidad when he finds her!"

"I come," said Quesada brusquely, tiring of the old man's continual whine-"I come to get medicines from the hidalgo doctor's chest in order to combat the pestilence. Once Don Jaime returns, you will tell him of our plight."

Came abruptly the grating of hastily drawn bolts; the heavy door swung in.

"You know the house; it is yours," said old Pedro with true Spanish hospitality.

The bandolero entered the gloom of the corridor.

"I shall go to find Teresa," added Pedro, as he re-bolted the door. "We shall kneel, and say prayers for the repose of your mama's soul, and for the quick recovery of the little nina, Felicidad, and the other sick ones. When the senor doctor returns, I shall tell him all that you said. And when he rides away up the steep goat paths to your barrio, we shall plead with Mary, the Compassionate and the Compassionating, that his granite heart may soften with pity for his little daughter...."

As he left the whining voice of the old butler behind him and went through the long echoing dusky corridors, an orientation took place within Jacinto Quesada. Back through the years he went; back to the day when, a scrawny little mountaineer's bantling, he had put his puny hand into the great harsh fist of the hidalgo doctor and come down the mountains to the decayed, lizard-haunted, and dingy casa.

No longer was the muggy mansion the sumptuous palace it had seemed to his ten-year-old eyes. And yet every spacious poverty-bare room that he passed and glimpsed was quick and instant to him with memories. They were memories all of one sort. Memories of a pretty little girl with golden hair and legs round and pudgy as his own would have been, on that time, had his father lived and prospered. Unconsciously he found himself pausing in the gloom as if to catch a note of her rippling and infrequent laughter.

The shadowy library seemed never so vast nor so gloomy as now. Most of the huge old sheepskin-bound books were gone. The voids in the tall cases, rapidly gathering dust, were as poignantly reminiscent as the empty chair of one that has died.

The bandolero went round the walls until he came upon that which he sought. It was a yellow-leaved volume, lettered in Gothic type, that was yet not so old. It contained much data on the various forms of cholera, its causes, symptoms, stages, treatment, dissemination and prevention.

Running his eye down the columns of print, Quesada discovered that he would need to carry many drugs, preparations, and aperient and astringent medicines. At that rate, the ancient volume would prove an added burden. Quickly he decided to tear the descriptive pages from the volume. They were all that was desired.

But of a sudden, he was arrested in his vandal task. Nothing real and tangible halted him; only it seemed to him that the screams of a child were driving like knives into his heart. He remembered, then and all at once, that long-forgotten day when Felicidad, innocently naughty, had torn some of the richly illumined pages from the rare old books, and cut them into paper dolls, and been lashed unmercifully with a short whip of horsehide by her father.

He saw himself, a lad of ten years, rendered desperate by her screams as only a child becomes desperate. He saw himself charging at the terrible hidalgo, screaming like a little animal, tearing at the doctor's trousers with his finger nails, trying to leap up and upon him. He felt the fall of the quirta upon his head. It was acutely stinging as in reality. His jaws snapped together; they snapped together just as they had snapped, in that dim past day, upon the doctor's wrist. And a grim satisfaction tingled the edges of his locked teeth. It was for all the world as if, again, his teeth had sunk into flesh!

"Ah, you son of a mangy she-wolf!" sounded in his brain. "How's the wolf-cub to-day?"

He looked quickly about him. There on the wall he saw that which he had not noticed before. A painting of the doctor-Don Jaime himself, his hair whitened by years and by sorrow, and his gray eyes glinting out from his deep swarth face like remote stars in an intolerant heaven.

"Todopoderoso Dio'!" groaned Quesada, shuddering. "Pity Felicidad indeed when he finds her!"

With a kind of desperation, in one jerk he tore the desired pages from the book, then hied himself quickly out of the room.

"It is a haunt of ghosts!" he said almost superstitiously.

He entered the doctor's laboratory. Here, from chests and racks and trays, he collected the relieving and remedial agents praised in the torn pages-opium pills, preparations of starch and laudanum, ammonia, salt, powdered aromatic chalk, astringents and laxatives. Down in the cellar, he secured some cobwebbed bottles of old brandy and clear wine.

He made several trips to his shaggy pony, picketed outside in the road. He secured what he had gathered in the canvas packs slung from the saddle. He left without once meeting the aged Teresa or again bothering the butler, Uncle Pedro.

He returned up the hills through the passes and green corries. He shoved the horse ahead at a persistent canter, yet such was the grade and such the growing leg-weariness of the cob that slow days were consumed in the journeying. At last, in the dim fresco of a certain nightfall, he found himself back in that forested dell where he had commanded Rafael Perez to remain on guard.

But no chill ululations answered his imitations of the hoot of the eagle owl. He rode through the brush and across the stream. Back in the clearing, the door of the log cabin was swinging forlornly in the rising wind; within, was only dark obscurity and emptiness. Rafael Perez had fled with the other two!

Once again Quesada recalled the sullen manner and incomprehensible words of the trio when he last had met them. He shook his head gloomily.

"Something surely is afoot!" he murmured. "They mutter against me, they disobey me with impunity. The dogs of ladrones, they may have turned traitor! Instead of keeping an eye on the road, Perez may have put the Guardia Civil on my track. Porvida, it will go hard with them if such proves true! They'll never live to get the reward. Dios hombre, I swear it!"

His temper sharpened and embittered by the discovery, he vented it in harsh kicks against his pony's flanks. The wearied nag extended itself. By late dawn, Quesada rode into the gorge from which the goat-path looped up to the empested village.

Presently, as they wound through the gorge, unusual signs of alertness began to show in the tired cob. He lifted his head, pricked up his ears. He was just about to neigh when the bandolero, on the watch, leaned over and clamped his hand tightly upon his nostrils. From ahead, on the instant, breathed into Quesada's ears the neigh of recognition of another horse.

The bandolero leaped from the saddle. With one hand firm on the muzzle of the pony, the other on the butt of the long-barreled revolver protruding from his holster, tensely he stood waiting and hearkening.

Into his nostrils drifted the acrid smell of a wood fire. He heard a clipping staccato sound as of some one chopping faggots. He saw, some hundred feet ahead, a thin whitish smoke voluting up from the green tops of the pines and alders, and merging into the fog cloak above. There was a camp of men in the gorge.

His vague suspicions of the three dorados congealed into quick and firm convictions.

"It is the Guardia Civil," he surmised. And he swore; "By the Nails of Christ!"

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