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   Chapter 25 No.25

The Wolf Cub By Patrick Casey Characters: 15300

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

To Jacinto Quesada, returned after an absence of over a week, the village of Minas de la Sierra wore an inexplicably strange appearance. Gone utterly-mud and thatch and wooden shutters-were the chozas in which the widowed mother of the mountain boy, Gabriel, had lain sick and the white-haired Villarobledo had died. Where the huts had stood were now only empty spans.

Before the other huts had been built a covered wooden flume, as for the carrying off of sewage. Down the old Moorish gutter in the center of the uneven street coursed a clear quick stream with cold reflections and tiny gurgling noises that seemed to tempt one to drink.

Otherwise, nothing stirred in the chill morning sunlight. No serranos stood in the low doorways of the cabanas or hovered about the cork-oak tree in the center of the barrio. The village seemed a village of the dead.

Quesada hastened across the street, muddy and slippery from the heavy fog of the night prior. As he did, of a sudden from the direction of the little whitewashed chapel, there drifted down to his ears a continuous moaning and groaning. It sounded bodiless and unearthly in the thin air of that high altitude.

He knew thereat. Carson, the American, following out his scheme of sanitation, had segregated the sick. The tiny village chapel had been converted into a hospital. Within in the painful obscurity, behind those apertures that were now screened against flies with flimsy calico, men were moving back and forth on solemn and fearful tasks.

Quesada made his way into the cabana where he had left Felicidad. Inside, in the gloom, he found John Fremont Carson visiting the girl in the course of his rounds.

Propped by a pillow, the golden-haired girl was sitting up in the bed. Her cheeks were still white as ivory; but there was a brave new light in her blue eyes. She was convalescing. Carson was holding for her, with kind concern, a bowl of vegetable soup, thin and easily digestible.

Looking over the American's shoulder, she was the first to discover the bandolero. With glad and genuine effusiveness, in a voice that yet showed husky traces of the vox cholerica, she cried:

"My soul! It is Jacintito come back to us!"

The American got quickly afoot and shook hands warmly.

"Have you brought the stuff?" he greeted solicitously.

"Seguramente, si!" smiled Quesada. "And we may thank the bueno Dios that the senor doctor, from long tending to cholera cases, had every little thing we needed!"

He unslung, with the words, the swollen canvas bags from his shoulders and placed them upon the leaf-stuffed couch to one side.

With care and deep concern, Carson fingered and opened the many boxes, bottles, and preparations. It was as if each were some priceless jewel. He made odd little sounds in his throat, expressive of discovery and relief and infinite joy.

"Here are the pages, Senor Carson, which will tell you all about the cholera. The book was too heavy for me to carry; I had so many other things; and therefore I tore these pages out bodily."

The American nodded and shoved the torn pages into a pocket of his coat.

"And my father?" exclaimed Felicidad. Perhaps to her, as had happened to Quesada himself, there was something poignantly reminiscent in this talk of tearing pages from one of the rare old books of the hidalgo doctor.

"He is still away," answered Quesada vaguely.

The American looked up sharply from uncorking one of the cobwebbed bottles of wine.

"You left word?"

Quesada nodded constrainedly, as if against his will. He could not say Don Jaime must soon follow him up the mountains. He could not look at the girl. He feared overwhelmingly for Felicidad, once her father should arrive. He was afraid lest his Moorish eyes might betray him.

Carson mixed a narcotic of the wine and a pinch of opium, and proffered it to the girl.

"It will relieve internal distress," he explained, "and induce strength-building sleep."

They came out into the open-the bandolero and the American.

"How many dead?" queried the former.

"Only three. Villarobledo, of course; a seven-month-old baby; and the widowed mother of the lad, Gabriel. She died two nights ago."

"Not so bad," commented Quesada hopefully.

"No; but we got fully twenty sick, all stages. I must get these drugs up to them. They're suffering pitifully. On the way I can show you a bit of what we have done, and tell you the rest."

He indicated the open stone bed of the old Moorish flume, as they followed it up the uneven street.

"Notice how clear the water is? That comes from our nitration system. Up above, at the top of the village, we deepened the channel in one spot. We put a layer of large stones on the bottom of the pit, above that a stratum of pebbles, and on top of all, a coating of fine sand. The water, seeping through those straining layers, is purged of all foreign substances, thoroughly purified."

The bandolero nodded his comprehension. They made on.

"Morales and his men have proved as good as their word. With their hands, they cleaned the scum from every inch of that stone flume. Manuel himself is simply fine, a prince!" Carson added with that touch of familiarity which denotes the warmest appreciation.

"Then we made two cut-offs from the flume," he continued. "One supplies that box-channel near the houses to expedite the carrying-off of sewage. The other is in the nature of a floodgate leading into a hole, deep as your neck." He smiled faintly. "Many's the time I've made a sluice of this order, when I was mining for gold out in California, but never before for this particular purpose."

"And what purpose is that?"

"Well, when somebody goes cold and collapsed from the cholera, we lift the floodgate and let the water flow into the hole. Meanwhile, we heat a bunch of stones in the coals of a fire. We throw the stones into the water and then, when the bath is at the proper temperature, we lower the patient gently into it. Hot baths usually give relief. In the case of Gabriel's mother, they helped to prolong her life. After the bath, we massage the limbs thoroughly to circulate the blood and take out the kinks of the cramps."

"You have been working most arduously, Senor Carson," said Quesada.

He was looking keenly at the American. Traces of fearful toil and many sleepless nights showed in Carson's face. His once square countenance was thinned into bony angles; there were heavy pouches under the eyes; and the eyes themselves were no longer merry, but severely, crisply blue.

With uneasy characteristic modesty, the American fidgeted at the canvas packs in his hands.

"Oh, yes; a trifle," he admitted reluctantly. "We've all been pretty busy. We had to shovel two infected cabanas over the cliff. The stream through the gorge carried the debris away. We've burned every rag and soiled bit of clothes and bedding in the pueblo. I tell you, I was mighty glad to help out in that task!"

He took the canvas packs in one hand and felt in his pocket, with the other, for the torn pages Quesada had given him. He ran his eyes quickly over the printed words. Presently he looked up. Quesada had not spoken in that spell of time. He noted now a little frowning knuckle on the young bandolero's forehead.

"You are worrying, Jacinto!" he said, sharp as an accusation.

Quesada was startled.

"Dios hombre!" he exclaimed. "It is but the truth."

"But why? The plague? Felicidad or her father?"

Quesada shook his head morosely.

"It is none of these things, God forgive me, Don Juan. It is that I am worrying selfishly about Jacinto Quesada alone. When y

ou mentioned the stream through the gorge carrying away the debris of the two infected cabanas, it set my mind back. I thought of the two policemen down in that gorge. Don Juan, they are waiting for me!"

"It is not that Jacinto Quesada is afraid, surely!"

"Carajo, no! I fear these Guardias Civiles no more than I fear the plague, and you know, senor, I do not fear the plague. The Wolf of the Sierras has become too long used to death to be afraid to die. But, Don Juan, I fear what these men say. They would kill me for crimes I have never done. It is not just, my friend, to be hounded for acts you never perpetrated. They would kill me for the crimes of some other man, a sneaking masquerader, a loathsome, brutal, sacrilegious creature! Mother of God, I worry because I do not understand!"

"Worry is poison," said the American dogmatically. "Every moment you worry is as if you poured a glass of poison into your system. Jacinto, do you want to make yourself liable to the scourge?"

It was a grim warning. Quesada shook his head vehemently. He could not answer. A scream as of intolerable agony precluded, for the moment, further speech. They were nearing the dingy, whitewashed, thatch-and-mud chapel of the village. On the heels of the awful scream, saddening their ears continuously, now breathed a dull low monotone of pain.

They entered the sick bay. On either side, down the whole length of the chapel from doorway to wooden white-painted altar, was a raised platform of pine slabs with a slight pitch toward the central passageway between. Swathed in blankets side by side on the platforms, doubling up with cramps in arms and legs and abdomen, groaning in acute anguish, or lying fearfully still in stages of collapse, were fully a score of sick and dying-men, young and old; girls in their teens and mothers of families; and one little tad of a boy. He was the lad, Gabriel, who had announced the plague when first the party of cabalgadores had gained the village.

Quesada discovered a difficulty in breathing; he felt his head reel. The air was close and offensive with sweaty bilious odors and the sharp pungent smell of turpentine. He noted two candles burning wanly upon the dingy altar.

Carson had left him to go from sufferer to dying with the balm of his new-found drugs. When Morales came forward to greet him, the bandolero remarked:

"Those candles there, friend Manuel! They add to the stifling closeness of the place."

"They are a symbol of our religion."

"I know; but there is no real need of them here. They waste the precious air."

Morales smiled slowly.

"You and I would not need the reminder of the orthodox wax candles, Jacinto; but these serranos lack spunk. They believe they are doomed to die, and die just to prove it. The burning candles typify the living presence of the Lord. Their yellow flames hearten some to fight to live; others suffer and die more patiently in their wan presence-"

A hoarse exclamation upon the part of Quesada interrupted the matador. Quesada had noted, among the blanketed patients, one of Morales' own cuadrilla, the banderillero, Alfonso Robledo. Shocked and violently agitated, Quesada gripped the matador's arm.

"But this man! How comes he sick? He is a bullfighter, a banderillo, a strong man, muscled like a leopard, stout of heart!"

Said Morales grimly, "The pestilence respects neither strength nor weakness, race, profession, nor creed."

One of the cuadrilla attending the sick, the picador called Coruncho Lopez, paused in his labors to remark:

"Robledo is ill through contagion. Two nights ago, the mother of the boy Gabriel died. Alfonso and I carried the body down through the village to the lip of the gorge. Her clothes were infected."

"Oh, mia mamacita!" wailed the lad, Gabriel, from his corner of the sick bay. "Now I am all alone in the world and sick to die!"

The bandolero turned to him.

"Hush, nino!" he said tenderly. "You have still Jacinto Quesada to look after you!"

The boy quieted. Gratefully he looked up at the salteador with black eyes that smoldered in deep-sunken pits. When Carson, in the course of his rounds, offered him a preparation of cornstarch and milk to alleviate the pangs of his stomach, he swallowed it readily.

"It is not safe to use opium in any form in the cases of children," explained the American to Quesada.

There was a sudden stir behind them. Coruncho Lopez, the picador, who had been nursing the sick, was taken with an unexpected and brutal seizure. He held his stomach and doubled up. In intense agony, he moaned, "Water, water!"

Carson hurried out to draw fresh water. In the short wait the disease made astonishing progress on the man. His muscled frame jackknifed with acute cramps. By the time Carson returned with the water, his face had darkened to a purple hue, and the skin wrinkled up as if it would crack.

They sat him upon the edge of one of the platforms, but he fell back. His body was all at once cold. He was in the asphyxial stage, all animation suspended, no beat of pulse, apparently dead.

Carson held an open bottle of ammonia beneath his nose. It had no effect; the man was not breathing. He forced brandy down his throat, but the picador lay still and chilly cold. He was dead.

Thus, swift and silent as the pounce of a condor, strikes the terrible cholera!

It was almost impossible to believe that the man was dead. Only an ace of time before, he had moved about, so valiant to aid, so tender to nurse. Death had come too cruelly abrupt. It was appalling.

Carson looked about in the sudden and apprehensive silence. He did not note the tall athletic form of the Frenchman darkening on the moment the doorway. His blue eyes were blunted, somber with gloom; his rugged face was very gray.

"That proves it," Carson said. "This man got the plague from carrying out the contagious body of that boy's mother. There'll be no more carrying of dead bodies down the cliffside to cast into the stream. It isn't right to us to have to bear the infected dead so far; it isn't right to the serranos in the hills below that their stream should float diseased bodies and make them liable to the epidemic. With this death, we'll change our methods. We'll cremate the bodies, immediately below here, on the great rock of the village!"

Mutterings of dissent, abhorrence, and strong condemnation went up from the men of the cuadrilla who were assisting in the hospital. Even some of the convalescing and slightly sick rose up in their blankets to express disapproval and fearful apprehension. Their religious scruples were shocked, outraged. Cremation was to them contrary to the practices of their religion.

They did not know that the tenets of their religion-like the tenets of any professedly divine religion, or the statutes of any confessedly human law-were capable of drastic and remarkable innovations under the stress of necessity. They believed that their system of sacred services was without elasticity, firm and inexorable.

They were only ignorant. Never had most of them heard of pronunciamientos, papal bulls, nuncio rescripta which, when it was not only fit, but expedient and profitable so to do, had changed, remolded, or altogether cast out certain rites and dogmas. They were not so much devotedly pious. They were hidebound, superstitiously fearful.

Jacques Ferou, halted in the doorway, observed all with his slate-colored, calculating eyes. Slowly he smiled his superior and peculiar smile; then turned away and made for the cabanas which still sheltered well men. An insidious drama was afoot.

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