Samuel Crockett.

The Firebrand



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Concha thought that giant cold, stupid, inaccessible. When she first came into the clear air of the foot-hills from Barcelona (where a promising adventure had ended in premature disaster) she had tried her best wiles upon Ramon.

She had met him as he came wearied home, with a basin of water in her two hands, and the deference of eye-lashes modestly abased. He passed her by, merely dipping his finger-tips in the water without so much as once looking at her. In the shade of the pomegranate trees in the corner, knowing herself alone, she had touched the guitar all unconscious, and danced the dance of her native Andalucia with a verve and abandon which she had never excelled. Then when Ramon discovered himself in an arbour near by and congratulated her upon her performance – in the very middle of her tearful protestations that if she had only known he was there, she would never, never have dared, never have ventured, and could he forgive her – he had tramped unconscious away. And instead of forgiving her in a fit and proper manner, he had said he would go and bring down his wife to see her dance the bolero in the Andalucian manner. It would afford Do?a Dol?res much pleasure.

With such a man who could do anything? It was a blessing all men were not alike, said Concha with a pout. And indeed from Cadiz by the sea to the mountains of the north she had found men otherwise – always quite otherwise, this innocent much experienced little Concha.

Meanwhile the hunters closed in on Ramon the brigand on the hills above Montblanch. One cannot kill (or as good as kill) an alcalde's son without suffering for it, and it chanced that the government, having been reproached on all sides for lack of vigour, and being quite unable to capture Don Carlos or Zumalacarregui, had resolved to make an example of Ramon, called "El Sarria."

So to begin with, it had confiscated all that Ramon possessed – house and farm, vineyard and oliveyard, wine-presses and tiers of well-carpentered vats with the wine of half a score of vintages maturing therein. These were duly expropriated in the name of the government of the most Christian regent Do?a Maria Cristina. But how much of the produce stuck to the fingers of General Rodriguez, the military governor, and of Se?or Amado Gomez, administrator of so much of the province as was at that time in the hands of the Cristinos, who shall say? It is to be feared that after these gentlemen had been satisfied, there remained not a great deal for the regencial treasure-chest at Madrid.

Meantime Ramon lay on his rock-ledge and wondered – where little Dol?res was, chiefly, and to this he often returned. If he had had time that night would he have killed her? Sometimes he thought so, and then again – well, she was so small, so dainty, so full of all gentle ways and winsomenesses and – hell and furies, it was all deceit! She had been deceiving him from the first! Those upward glances, those shy, sweet confidences, sudden, irresistible revealings of her heart, he had thought they were all for him.

Fool! Three times fool! He knew better now. They were practised on her husband that she might act them better before her lover. God's truth, he would go down and kill her even now, as he had killed that other. Why had he not waited? He could easily have slain the soldiers who had rushed upon him, whom that hell-cat Manuela had brought – ah, he was glad he had marked her for life.

"Ping! Ping!" Two rifle bullets sang close past the brigand's head as he lay in his rocky fastness. He heard them splash against the damp stone behind him, and the limestone fell away in flakes. A loose stone rumbled away down and finally leaped clear over the cliff into the mist.

El Sarria's cavern lay high up on the slopes of the Montblanch, the holy white mountain, or rather on an outlying spur of it called the Peak of Basella. Beneath him, as he looked out upon the plain, three thousand feet below, the mists were heaped into glistening white Sierras, on which the sun shone as upon the winter snows of the far away Pyrenees.

As the sun grew stronger Ramon knew well that his mountain fastness would be stormed and enveloped, by these delusive cloud-continents. They would rise and dissipate themselves into the faint bluish haze of noonday heat.

Already there appeared far down the cleft called the Devil's Gulf, which yawned below the Peak of Basella, certain white jets of spray tossed upwards as from a fountain, which were the forerunners of that coming invasion of mist that would presently shut him out from the world.

But not a moment did Ramon waste. As quick as the grasshopper leaps from the flicked forefinger, so swift had been El Sarria's spring for his rifle. His cartouches lay ready to his hand in his belt of untanned leather. His eyes, deep sunken and wild, glanced everywhere with the instant apprehension of the hunted.

Ping! Ping!

Again the bullets came hissing past him. But Ramon was further back within his cave this time, and they whistled over his head. The chips of brittle limestone fell with a metallic clink on the hard stone floor.

El Sarria saw from whence one at least of his enemies had fired. A little drift of white reek was rising from the mouth of a cavern on the opposite escarpment of the Montblanch. He knew it well, but till now he had thought that but one other person did so, his friend Luis Fernandez of Sarria. But at the same moment he caught a glimpse of a blue jacket, edged with red, round the corner of a grey boulder up which the young ivy was climbing, green as April grass. The contrast of colour helped his sight, as presently it would assist his aim.

"The Lads of the Squadron!" he murmured grimly. And then he knew that it had come to the narrow and bitter pass with him.

For these men were no mere soldiers drafted from cities, or taken from the plough-tail with the furrow-clay heavy upon their feet. These were men like himself; young, trained to the life of the brigand and the contrabandista. Now they were "Migueletes" – "Mozos de la Escuadra" – "Lads of the Squadron," apt in all the craft of the smuggler, as good shots as himself, and probably knowing the country quite as well.

For all that El Sarria smiled with a certain knowledge that he had a friend fighting for him, that would render vain all their vaunted tracker's craft. Miguelete or red-breeched soldier, guerilla or contrabandista, none could follow him through that rising mist which boiled like a cauldron beneath. Ramon blew the first breath of its sour spume out through his nostrils like cigarette smoke, with a certain relish and appreciation.

"They have found me out, indeed, how, I know not. But they have yet to take Ramon Garcia!" he muttered, as he examined the lock of his gun.

He knew of a cleft, deep and secret, the track of an ancient watercourse, which led from his cave on the Puig, past the cliff at the foot of which was perched the great and famous Abbey of Montblanch, to another and a yet safer hold among the crags and precipices of Puymorens.

This none knew but his friend and brother, dearer to his soul than any other, save little Dol?res alone – Luis Fernandez, whose vineyard had neighboured his in the good days when – when he had a vineyard. He was the groomsman, who, even in those old days, had cared for Dol?res with more than a brother's care. The secret of the hidden passage was safe with him. Ramon held this thought to his soul amid the general wreck. This one friend at least was true. Meantime yonder was a Miguelete behind a stone – a clumsy one withal. He, El Sarria, would teach him the elements of his trade. He drew a bead on the exposed limb. The piece cracked, and with a yell the owner rolled back behind his protecting boulder. For the next hour not a cap-stem was seen, not a twig of juniper waved.

El Sarria laughed grimly. His eye was still true and his rifle good as ever. That was another friend on whose fidelity he could rely. He patted the brown polished stock almost as he used to do little Lola's cheek in the evenings when they sat at their door to watch Jos?, the goatherd, bringing his tinkling flock of brown skins and full udders up from the scanty summer pasturage of the dried watercourses.

Ah, there at last! The mist rose quite quickly with a heave of huge shoulders, strong and yet unconscious, like a giant turning in his sleep. From every direction at once the mist seemed to swirl upwards till the cave mouth was whelmed in a chaos of grey tormented spume, like the gloom of a thundercloud. Then again it appeared to thin out till the forms of mountains very far away were seen as in a dream. But Ramon knew how fallacious this mirage was, and that the most distant of these seeming mountain summits could be reached in a dozen strides – that is, if you did not break your neck on the way, much the most probable supposition of all.

Ramon waited till the mist was at its thickest, rising in hissing spume-clouds out of the deeps. Then with a long indrawing of breath into his lungs, like a swimmer before the plunge, he struck out straight for the cave on the face of the Montblanch from which the bullets had come.

But long ere he reached it, the ground, which had been fairly level so far, though strewn with myriads of rocky fragments chipped off by winter frosts and loosened by spring rains, broke suddenly into a succession of precipices. There was only one way down, and El Sarria, making as if he would descend by it, sent instead a great boulder bounding and roaring down the pass.

He heard a shouting of men, a crash and scattering thunder of falling fragments far below. A gun went off. A chorus of angry voices apostrophised the owner, who had, according to them, just as much chance of shooting one of his comrades as El Sarria.

Ramon laughed when he heard this, and loosening a second huge stone ("to amuse the gentlemen in the blue and red," he said), he sent it after the first.

Then without waiting to ascertain the effect, Ramon plunged suddenly over an overhanging rock, apparently throwing himself bodily into space. He found his feet again on an unseen ledge, tip-toed along it, with his fingers hooked in a crack, and lo! the rock-face split duly in twain and there was his cleft, as smooth and true as if the mountain had been cut in half, like a bridescake, and moved a little apart.

There was the same glad defiance in the heart of El Sarria, which he had felt long ago, when as a boy he lay hidden in the rambling cellars of the old wine-barn, while his companions exhausted themselves in loud and unavailing research behind every cask and vat.

And indeed the game was in all points identically the same. For in no long space of time, Ramon could hear the shouting of his pursuers above him. It was dark down there in the cleft, but once he caught a glimpse of blue sky high above him, and again the fragrance of a sprig of thyme was borne to his nostrils. The smell took him at an advantage, and something thickened painfully in his throat. Dol?res had loved that scent as she had loved all sweet things.

"It is the bee's flower," she had argued one night, as he had stood with his arm under her mantilla, looking out at the wine-red hills under a fiery Spanish gloaming, "the bees make honey, and I eat it!"

Whereat he had called her a "greedy little pig," with a lover's fond abuse of the thing he most loves, and they had gone in together quickly ere the mosquitoes had time to follow them behind the nets which Ramon had held aside a moment for her to enter.

Thinking of this kept Ramon from considering the significance of the other fact he had ascertained. Above he saw the blue sky, deep blue as the Mediterranean when you see it lie land-bound between two promontories.

Then it struck him suddenly that the mist must have passed. If he went now he would emerge in the clear sunshine of even. Well, it mattered not, he would wait in the cleft for sunset and make his escape then. He knew that the "Lads of the Squadron" would be very hot and eager on the chase, after one of them had tasted El Sarria's bullet in his thigh. He would have a short shrift and no trial at all if he fell into their hands. For in those days neither Carlist nor Cristino either asked or gave quarter. And, indeed, it was more than doubtful if even the Carlists themselves would spare El Sarria, whose hand was against every man, be he King's man or Queen's man.

The evening darkened apace. Ramon made his way slowly to the bottom of the cleft. There was the wide arroyo beneath him, brick-red and hot, a valley of dry bones crossed here and there by rambling goat tracks, and strewn with boulders of all sizes, from that of a chick-pea to that of a cathedral.

It was very still there. An imperial eagle, serenely adrift across the heavens, let his shadow sail slowly across the wide marled trough of the glen. There could be no fear now.

"Well," thought Ramon, with philosophy, "we must wait – none knows of this place. Here I am secure as God in his Heaven. Let us roll a cigarette!"

So, patiently, as only among Europeans a Spaniard can, El Sarria waited, stretching his fingers out to the sun and drawing them in, as a tiger does with his claws, and meanwhile the afternoon wore to evening.

At last it was time.

Very cautiously, for now it was life or death, yet with perfect assurance that none knew of his path of safety, Ramon stole onward. He was in the jaws now. He was out. He rushed swiftly for the first huge boulder, his head drawn in between his shoulders, his gun held in his left hand, his knife in his right.

But from the very mouth of the pass six men sprang after him, and as many more fronted him and turned him as he ran.

"Take him alive! A hundred duros to the man who takes El Sarria alive!"

He heard the voice of the officer of Migueletes. He saw the short, businesslike sword bayonets dance about him like flames. The uniforms mixed themselves with the rocks. It was all strange and weird as in a dream.

But only one face he saw crystal clear. One man alone inevitably barred his way. He dropped his gun. He could run better without it. They were too many for that, and it was not needed. He tore his way through a brace of fellows who had closed in upon him eager for the reward.

But through all the pother he still dashed full at the man whose face he knew. This time his knife made no mistake. For assuredly no enemy, but a friend, had done this – even Luis Fernandez, the brother of his heart.

And leaving the wounded strewn among the grey boulders and all the turmoil of shouting men, Ramon the hunted, broke away unscathed, and the desolate wilderness of Montblanch swallowed him up. Yet no wilderness was like this man's heart as he fled down and down with his knife still wet in his hand. He had no time to wipe it, and it dripped as he ran.

For this man had now neither wife nor friend.

CHAPTER III
COCK O' THE NORTH

"Carai! Caramba! Car – ! This bantam will outface us on our own dung-hill! Close in there, Pedro! Take down the iron spit to him, Jos?! Heaven's curses on his long arm! A foreigner to challenge us to fight with the knife, or with the sword, or with the pistol!"

From the kitchen of the venta at San Vicencio, just where the track up the Montblanch takes its first spring into the air, came these and other similar cries. It was a long and narrowish apartment – the upper portion merely of a ground-floor chamber, which occupied the whole length of the building.

Part of the space was intended for horses and mules, and indeed was somewhat overcrowded by them that night. These being alarmed by the tumult and shoutings, were rearing so far as their short unsinkered head-stalls permitted them, and in especial making play with their feet at the various machos or he-mules scattered among them. These gladly retaliated, that being their form of relaxation, and through the resulting chaos of whinnying, stamping, neighing, and striking of sparks from pavement stones, skirmished a score of brown imps, more than half naked, each armed with a baton or stout wand with which he struck and pushed the animals entrusted to their care out of the reach of harm, or with equal good-will gave a sly poke with the sharp spur of the goad to a neighbour's beast, by way of redressing any superiorities of heels or teeth.

But all the men had run together to the kitchen end of the apartment. Where the stable ended there was a step up, for all distinction between the abode of beasts and of men. Over this step most of those who had thus hasted to the fray incontinently stumbled. And in the majority of instances their stumble had been converted into a fall by a blow on the sconce, or across the shoulders, from the flat of a long sword wielded by the arm of a youth so tall as almost to reach the low-beamed ceiling along which the spiders were scuttling, in terror doubtless of the sweeping bright thing on which the firelight played as it waved this way and that.

First in the fray were a round dozen of Migueletes, come in from an unsuccessful chase, and eager to avenge on a stranger the failure and disgrace they had suffered from one of their own race. Next came a young butcher or two from the killing-yards, each already a toreador in his own estimation. The rest were chiefly arrieros or carriers, with a stray gipsy from the south, dark as a Moor; but every man as familiar with the use of his long curved sheath-knife as a cathedral priest with his breviary.

Meanwhile the tall young man with the long sword was not silent. His Spanish was fluent if inelegant, and as it had been acquired among the majos of Sevilla and the mule-clippers of Aragon rather than in more reputable quarters, his speech to the critical ear was flavoured with a certain rich allusiveness of personality and virility of adjective which made ample amends (in the company in which he found himself) for any want of grammatical correctness.

With the Spanish anathemas that formed the main portion of his address, he mingled certain other words in a foreign tongue, which, being strong-sounding and guttural, served him almost as well in the Venta of San Vicencio as his Carais and Carambas.

"Dogs of dog-mothers without honour! Come on, and I will stap twal inches o' guid steel warranted by Robin Fleming o' the Grassmarket doon your throats! A set o' gabbling geese – tak' that! With your virgins and saints! Ah, would you? There, that will spoil your sitting down for a day or two, my lad! Aye, scart, gin it does ye ony guid?"

A knife in his left hand, and in his right the long waving sword, bitter and sometimes unknown and mysterious words in his mouth, this youth kept his enemies very successfully at bay, meeting their blades six at a time, and treading and turning so lightly that as he lunged this way and that, there was a constant disorganisation among the opposing ranks, as one and the other sprang back to elude his far-reaching point.

"He is of the devil – a devil of devils!" they cried. "We shall all perish," wailed an old woman, shrinking back further into the chimney-corner, and wringing her hands.

Meanwhile the youth apostrophised his blade.

"My bonny Robin Fleemin' – as guid as ony Toledan steel that ever was forged! What do you think o' that for Leith Links? And they wad hae made me either a minister or a cooper's apprentice!"

As he spoke he disarmed one of his chief opponents, who in furious anger snatched a pistol and fired point-blank. The shot would indubitably have brought down the young hero of the unequal combat, had not a stout ruddy-faced youth, who had hitherto been leaning idly against the wall, knocked up the owner's arm at the moment the pistol went off.

"Ha' done!" cried the new-comer in English; "twenty to one is bad enough, specially when that one is a fool. But pistols in a house-place are a disgrace! Stand back there, will ye?"

And with no better weapon than a long-pronged labourer's fork snatched from the chimney-corner, he set himself shoulder to shoulder with the young Scot and laid lustily about him.

That son of an unkindly soil, instead of being grateful for this interference on his behalf, seemed at first inclined to resent it.

"What call had ye to put your neck in danger for an unkenned man's sake?" he cried, crabbedly. "Couldna ye hae letten me fill thae carles' skins as fu' o' holes as a riddle?"

"I am not the man to stand and see a countryman in danger!" said the other, while the broad sweeps of his companion's sword and the energetic lunges of his own trident kept the enemy at a respectful distance.

Suddenly a thought struck the Englishman. Without dropping the fork, he rushed to the hearth, where the ollas and pucheros of the entire company bubbled and steamed, he caught the largest of the pots in one hand and threatened to overturn the entire contents among the ashes and d?bris on the floor.

"I speak their lingo but ill," he cried to his companion; "but tell them from John Mortimer, that if they do not cease their racket, I will warrant that they shall not have an onion or a sprig of garlic to stink their breaths with this night. And if that does not fear them, nothing will – not Purgatory itself!"



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