Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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CHAPTER I
THE MAKING OF AN OUTLAW

Ramon Garcia, called El Sarria, lay crouched like a wild beast. And he was a wild beast. Yet he smiled as he blinked into the midnoon heat, under his shaggy brows, from his den beneath the great rock of limestone that shadowed him.

El Sarria was hunted, and there was on his hands the blood of a man – to be more particular, on his left hand. For El Sarria had smitten hard and eager, so soon as he had seen Rafael de Flores – Rafael, the pretty boy, the cousin of his young wife, between whom and her relative there was at least cousinly affection. So the neighbours said, all but Manuela, the priest's housekeeper.

So Ramon smote and wiped his Manchegan knife on his vest, in the place under the flap at the left side where he had often wiped it before. He used the same gesture as when he killed a sheep.

In his cave of limestone Ramon was going over the scene in his own mind. That is why he licked his lips slowly and smiled. A tiger does that when after a full meal he moves the loose skin over his neck twitchy-ways and yawns with over-fed content. And Ramon, even though hunted, did the same.

When he married little Dol?res, Ramon Garcia had not dreamed that so many things would happen. He was a rich man as men go; had his house, his garden, his vines, a quintaine of olive-trees, was accounted quite a match by old Manuela, the village go-between, the priest's housekeeper, in whose hands were the hearts of many maids.

These things he, Don Ramon Garcia, had possessed (he was called Don then) and now – he had his knife and the long, well-balanced gun which was placed across the rests in the dryest part of the cavern.

He remembered the day well. He had been from home, down by Porta in the Cerdagne, to buy cattle, and returning home more swiftly than he had expected, his cattle following after in the herdsman's care, the thought of pretty Dol?res making his horse's feet go quicker, a song upon his lips, he had approached the village of Sarria de la Plana, and the home that was his own – and hers.

A swift-falling Spanish twilight it was, he remembered, the sky, broadly banded of orange and rose, was seen behind the highly piled houses. From the whiteness of the long frontage, dots and flecks flashed out. Black oblongs of glassless window-space splashed the white. Here and there a hint of vivid colour flung itself out almost defiantly – a woman's red petticoat drying on a cord, the green slats of a well-to-do window-blind. There came to the ears of Ramon Garcia the click of castanets from the semi-dark of wide-arched doors, and the soft tink-a-tank of lightly thrummed guitars. He saw a lover or two "eating iron," his hands clasping the bars behind which was the listening ear of his mistress.

And throughout this village were peace and well-accustomed pleasance. Ramon smiled. It was his home.

But not as he smiled up among the rocks of the Montblanch on the borderlands betwixt Aragon and Catalunia.

He smiled well-pleased and minded him upon the nights not so long gone by, when he too had "eaten iron," and clung a-tip-toe to the window-bars of little Dol?res, who lent him such a shy attention, scuttling off like a mouse at the least stirring within the house where all her kinsfolk slept.

There was none like her, his little Dol?res! God had given her to a rough old fellow like him, one who had endured the trampling of the threshing floor as the car oxen drave round.

Little Dol?res, how all the men had been wild to have her, but she had loved none but Ramon Garcia alone! So said Manuela Durio, the go-between, the priest's housekeeper, and if any did, she knew.

Indeed, there was little told at confession that she did not know. Ramon smiled again, a wicked, knowing smile. For if Manuela owned the legitimate fifty years which qualified her for a place in the Presbytery of Sarria de la Plana, eyes and lips belied her official age. Anyway, she kept the priest's conscience – and – what was more important, she swore that little Dol?res loved Ramon Garcia and Ramon Garcia alone.

"Caballero! Don Ramon!"

He started. He had been thinking of the woman at that very moment, and there was her voice calling him. He turned about. The broad rose-glow had deepened to the smoky ruby of a Spanish gloaming, as it lingered along the western hill-tops. These last shone, in spite of the glowing darkness, with a limpid and translucent turquoise like that of the distant landscape in a Siennese picture.

"Don Ramon! wait – I would speak with you!"

It was indeed the priest's Manuela who called him, and though his heart hasted forward to Dol?res, and overleaped boundaries as a dog leaps a wall, still he could not refuse Manuela. Had she not brought them together at the first?

"Ah, Manuela, you are kind – there is good news up at the house, is there not? No ill has befallen the little one?"

"What has brought you home so soon?" cried the woman, a touch of impatient eagerness in her tones. "You will frighten Dol?res if you blunder it upon her all unshaven and travel-stained like that. Have you no more sense, when you know – ?"

"Know what? I know nothing!" Ramon slurred his speech in his eagerness. "What is there to know?"

Manuela laughed – a little strained sound, as if she had been recovering a shaken equanimity, and was not yet sure of her ground.

"You, so long married – five, six months, is it not so – and yet not to know! But a fool is always a fool, Don Ramon, even if he owns a vineyard and a charming young wife ten times too good for him!"

"Truth of God!" gasped Ramon, with his favourite oath, "but I did not know. I am the father of all donkeys. But what am I to do, tell me, Manuela? I will obey you!"

The woman's countenance suddenly cleared.

"No, Don Ramon, we will not call the promised one – the blessed one, a donkey. A father! Yes, Don Ramon, but no father of borricos. No, no! There will not be so brave a babe from Navarra to Catalunia as yours and Lola's. But we must go quietly, very quietly. He walks far who begins slowly. He who treads upon eggs does not dance the bolero. You will bide here and talk to the holy Father, and I myself will go to the house of Ramon of the Soft Heart and the Lumbering Hoofs, and warn the little one warily. For I know her – yes, Manuela knows her. I am a widow and have borne children – ay, borne them also to the grave, and who, if not I, should know the hearts of young wives that are not yet mothers!"

She patted his arm softly as she spoke, and the great rough-husked heart of Ramon of Sarria, the Aragonese peasant, glowed softly within him. He looked down into Manuela's black eyes that hid emotion as a stone is hidden at the bottom of a mountain tarn. Manuela smiled with thin flexible lips, her easy subtle smile. She saw her way now, and to do her justice she always did her best to earn her wages.

Lovers would be lovers, so she argued, God had made it so. Who was she, Manuela, the housekeeper of Padre Mateo of Sarria, to interfere for the prevention of the designs of Providence? And cousins too – the young cavalier so gallant, so handsome – and – so generous with his money. Had he not even kissed Manuela herself one night when he came coaxing her to contrive something? Who could resist him after that? And what was a hand thrust through the rejas? What a kiss if the bars of the grille happened to be broken. A glass that is drunk from, being washed, is clean as before. And when Ramon Garcia, that great Aragonese oaf, kissed little Dol?res, what knew he of pretty Don Rafael de Flores, the alcalde's son? They had been lovers since childhood, and there was no harm. 'Twas pity surely, to part them before the time. Rafael was to marry the rich Donna Felesia, the daughter of the vine-grower of Montblanch, who farmed the revenues of the great abbey. He could not marry pretty little Dol?res! It was a pity – yes, but – she had a feeling heart, this Manuela, the priest's housekeeper, and the trade had been a paying one since the beginning of the world.

"Padre – Padre Mateo!" she cried, raising her voice to the pitch calculated by long experience to reach the father in his study. "Come down quickly. Here is Don Ramon to speak with your reverence!"

"Don Ramon – what Don Ramon?" growled a voice from the stair-head, a rich baritone organ, unguented with daily dole of oil and wine, not to speak of well-buttered trout in a lordly dish, and with rappee coloured red with the umber of Carthagena to give timbre and richness thereto. It was the voice of Don Mateo Balin, most pious and sacerdotal vicar of Christ in the township of Sarria.

"Don Ramon Garcia, most reverend father!" said Manuela, somewhat impatiently. "If you will tap your snuff-box a little less often, you will be all the sooner able to hear what he has to say to you!"

"Don Ramon, indeed! – here's advancement," grumbled the priest, good-humouredly descending the staircase one step at a time. To do this he held his body a little sideways and let himself down as if uncertain of the strength of the Presbytery stairs, which were of stone of Martorel, solid as the altar steps of St. Peter's.

"Good, good!" he thought to himself, "Manuela wants something of this chuckle-head that she goes Don-ing him, and, I wager, battening him with compliments as greasy as an old wife's cookery the first day after Lent. 'Tis only eggs in the pan that are buttered, and I wonder why she has been buttering this oaf." Then he spoke aloud. "Ah, Ramon, back already! We thought you had been buying beeves in the Cerdagne. I suppose the little Dol?res dragged you back. Ho, ho, you young married men! Your hearts make fools of your feet. 'Tis only celibacy, that most sacred and wise institution of Holy Mother Church, that can preserve man his liberty – certainly, Manuela, I will put away my snuff-box, I was not aware that it was in my hand! And I will not drop any more on my new soutane, which indeed, as you say, I had no business to be wearing on an ordinary day."

While Don Mateo thus spoke, and, talking all the time, moved lightly for so gross a man to and fro on his verandah, Manuela with a quick hitch of her muffling mantilla about the lower part of her face, took her way swiftly up the village street.

"This way, Ramon – this way! A plague take those spider-legged chairs. They are all set crosswise in the way of an honest man's feet. Manuela keeps all so precise, nothing is ever left where it would be most convenient. Not that she is not the best of souls, our good Manuela and a pearl of price – a very Martha in the house, a woman altogether above rubies! Is she quite gone? Sit you down then, Ramon, here is the wine-skin, under the seat to the left, and tell me of your journey, speaking at ease as man to man. This is no confessional, which reminds me, sirrah, that you have not come to your duty since Easter. Ah, again the married man! 'He minds the things of his wife,' saith the holy apostle, in my opinion very justly."

Ramon had seated himself on a chair at one corner of the priest's verandah – a deep screen of leaves was over them. The mosquitoes and gnats danced and lit, hummed and bit, but neither the priest nor yet Ramon minded them in the least. They were men of Sarria, bred of the reed-fenced villages of the Aragonese border, blooded by the grey-backed, white-bellied mosquitoes which took such sore toll alike of the stranger within the wall, and through the skin of the Proselyte of the Gate.

But as the priest boomed forth his good-humoured gossip in a voice monotonous and soothing as the coo-rooing of a rock pigeon, suddenly there rose out of the tangle of roses and vine leaves behind him, an evil thing against which Don Ramon's birthright gave him no immunity. It stung and fled.

"Go home, fool!" hissed a voice in his ear, as he sat silent and spellbound in the dusk, "go home, shamed one. Your wife is with her lover, and Manuela has gone to warn them!"

The good priest hummed on, plaiting and replaiting his fingers and pursing his lips.

"As I was saying, 'tis no use marrying a woman without money. That is the olla without bacon. But for pleasure to himself, neither should a man marry without love. 'Tis a lying proverb which sayeth that all women are alike in the dark. A fair maid is surely worth a farthing candle to kiss her by. Not that I know aught about the matter, being a clerk and a man of years and bodily substance. But a wise man learns many things in spite of himself. What is the use of being a priest and not knowing? But believe me, if money be the bacon and beef, love is the seasoning of the dish, the pimientos and Ronda pippins of a wise man's olla!"

Through this sacerdotal meditation the hissing whisper lifted itself again. Ramon had not moved. His great hand lay along the stone balustrade. A mosquito was gorging himself at a vein upon the hairy wrist.

"There is a broken bar on the lower window, Ramon the fool! They are kissing each other thereat and calling sweet names – these two, the cousin whom she loves – Rafael, the pretty boy, and little Dol?res whom you have made your wife – "

"God's blood, for this I will have your life!" cried Ramon so suddenly that the worthy priest tumbled backward before he had even time to cross himself. And Ramon was over the parapet with his long knife bare in his hand. It had gone ill with the traitor if Ramon Garcia had caught him then.

But even as he had arisen, exhaled from the undergrowth like an evil breath, so he vanished into the night, blown away by Ramon's rush over the edge of the balcony like a fly escaping before a man's hand.

"I will follow the liar to the world's end!" said Ramon between his teeth, furiously, and he threshed through the tangle as an elephant charges through young jungle.

But even as he went the words of the viper fermented in his brain till he went mad.

"There is a broken bar – what more likely! The house is old – my father's father's. There was a tale of my grandfather's sister – avenged truly, but still a tale told in whispers in the twilight. God's truth, could it be even thus with Dol?res, little Dol?res, whom I have held next in honour and purity to Mary the mother of God?"

So he meditated, dashing this way and that to find his enemy.

"Ah, fool! Three times fool to trust a woman! How true the proverb, 'Who sees his wife crane her neck through the jalousies, had better twist it and be done!'"

He would go! Yes, he would know. If this thing were false (as he prayed God), he would kneel and kiss her little white feet. They were pink – yes, pink on the instep as the heart of a sea-shell. And he, Ramon, would set the arched instep on his neck and bid her crush him for a faithless unbelieving hound to suspect his own – his purest – his only!

But, that cousin, Rafael de Flores – ah, the rich youth. He remembered how once upon a time when he was a young man going to market driving his father's oxen, he had seen Rafael rushing about the orchard playing with Dol?res. They had been together thus for years, more like brother and sister than cousins.

Was it not likely? How could it be otherwise? He knew it all now. His eyes were opened. Even the devil can speak truth sometimes. He knew a way, a quicker road than Manuela dreamed of – up the edge of the ravine, across by the pine tree which had fallen in the spring rains. He would go and take them together in their infamy. That would be his home-coming.

"You dog of dogs!"

In the darkness of the night Ramon saw a window from whose grille, bent outward at the bottom like so many hoops, one had been slipped cunningly aside.

"Chica, dearest – my beloved!"

The face of the speaker was within, his body without.

Up rose behind him the great bulk of Ramon Garcia, henceforward to be El Sarria, the outlaw.

The Albacete dagger was driven deep between the shoulder-blades. The young lithe body drew itself together convulsively as a clasp knife opens and shuts again. There was a spurt of something hot on Ramon's hand that ran slowly down his sleeve, growing colder as it went. A shriek came from within the rejas of bowed iron.

And after this fashion Ramon Garcia, the vine-dresser, the man of means, became El Sarria, the man without a home, without friends, an outlaw of the hills.

CHAPTER II
THE MAN WITHOUT A FRIEND

Yet on the side of Rafael and little Dol?res Garcia there was something to be said. Ramon, had he known all, need not have become "El Sarria," nor yet need young de Flores, the alcalde's son, have been carried home to the tall house with the courtyard and the one fig tree, a stab under his right shoulder-blade, driven through from side to side of his white girlish body.

It was true enough that he went to the house of Ramon to "eat iron," to "pluck the turkey," to "hold the wall." But 'twas not Dol?res, the wife of Ramon, who knew of it, but pretty Andalucian Concha, the handmaiden and companion Ramon had given his wife when they were first married. Concha was niece to the priest's Manuela, a slim sloe-eyed witty thing, light of heart and foot as a goose feather that blows over a common on a northerly breeze. She had had more sweethearts than she could count on the fingers of both hands, this pleasantly accommodative maiden, and there was little of the teaching of the happy guileful province in which Concha needed instruction, when for health and change of scene she came to the house of Ramon and Dol?res Garcia in the upland village of Sarria.

These were the two fairest women in all Sarria – nay, in all that border country where, watered by the pure mountain streams, fertile Catalunia meets stern and desolate Aragon, and the foot-hills of the Eastern Pyrenees spurn them both farther from the snows.

Well might her lovers say there was none like her – this Concha Cabezos, who had passed her youth in a basket at her mother's feet in the tobacco manufactories of Sevilla, and never known a father. Tall as the tower of Lebanon that looketh towards Damascus, well bosomed, with eyes that promised and threatened alternate, repelled and cajoled all in one measured heave of her white throat, Concha of the house of Ramon, called "little" by that Spanish fashion of speech which would have invented a diminutive for Minerva herself, brought fire and destruction into Sarria. As the wildfire flashes from the east to the west, so the fame of her beauty went abroad. Also the wit of her replies – how she had bidden Pedro Morales (who called himself, like Don Jaime, "El Conquistador") to bring her a passport signed at all his former houses of call; how she had "cast out the sticks" of half the youth of the village, till despised batons strewed the ground like potsherds. And so the fame of little Concha went ever farther afield.

Yet when Rafael, the alcalde's son, came to the window on moonless nights, Concha was there. Hers was the full blood, quick-running and generous of the south, that loves in mankind a daintiness and effeminacy which they would scorn in their own sex.

So, many were the rich golden twilights when the two lovers whispered together beneath the broad leaves of the fig-trees, each dark leaf rimmed with the red of the glowing sky. And Rafael, who was to marry the vine-dresser's daughter, and so must not "eat the iron" to please any maid, obeyed the word of Concha more than all Holy Writ, and let it be supposed that he went to the Ramon's house for the sake of his cousin Dol?res.

For this he paid Manuela to afford him certain opportunities, by which he profited through the cleverness of Concha and her aunt Manuela. For that innocent maid took her mistress into her confidence – that is, after her kind. It was wonderfully sad, she pleaded. She had a lover – good, generous, eager to wed her, but his family forbade, and if her kind mistress did not afford her the opportunity she would die. Yes, Concha would die. The maids of Andalucia ofttimes died for love. Then the tears ran down her cheeks and little Dol?res wept for company, and because she also was left alone.

Thus it chanced that this foolish Rafael, the alcalde's son, marched whistling softly to his fate. His broad sombrero was cocked to the left and looped on the side. His Cordovan gloves were loosely held in his right hand along with his tasselled cane. He had an eye to the pavemented street, lest he should defile his lacquered shoes with the points carved like eagle's beaks. He whistled the jota of Aragon as he went, and – he quite forgot Ramon, the great good-humoured giant with whom he had jested and at whom he had laughed. He was innocent of all intent against little Lola, his playmate. He would as soon have thought of besieging his sister's balcony, or "plucking the turkey" under his own mother's window.

But he should not have forgotten that Ramon Garcia was not a man to wait upon explanations, when he chanced on what seemed to touch the honour of his house. So Rafael de Flores, because he was to marry Felesia Grammunt and her wine-vats, and Concha the Andaluse, because to be known as Rafael's sweetheart might interfere with her other loves, took the name of Ramon Garcia's wife in vain with light reckless hearts. This was indeed valorously foolish, though Concha with her much wisdom ought to have known better. But a woman's experience, that of such a woman as Concha at least, refers exclusively to what a man will do in relation to herself. She never considered what Ramon Garcia might do in the matter of his wife Dol?res.



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