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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 14 - The Muleteers

THE red sun was setting amidst a sea of light floating clouds, which displayed a thousand blending shades of purple, saffron, and gold, shedding the same warm hues on the scenery around Merida, tinging every object of the beautiful landscape, through which, meandering between dark green groves of the orange and olive, wound the slowly rolling and broad-bosomed Guadiana, seeming like a flood of lucid gold, in which the objects on its sides were reflected downwards, the changing sky above and the black round arches of the noble bridge all appearing inverted in the bosom of the stream, as on the surface of a polished mirror.

The dark shadows of the neighbouring mountain were falling across the plain and the city, rendering yet darker the gloomy and antique streets, where all was still confusion and dismay, and from which the chant of the ecclesiastics, and the deep ding-dong of the tolling bells, were borne on the wind towards them, mingled with the shouts of the advancing cavalry, who came on in a clamorous style truly French.

Suddenly the dark mass emerged from among the trees which had concealed their approach, and galloped across the bridge some hundred in number, with accoutrements glittering, plumes waving, and the tricoloured pennons fluttering from the heads of their lofty lances.

'Now, then,' exclaimed Ronald, as the last file disappeared from the bridge, 'we must strain every nerve to gain the wood of La Nava. A party of these lancers may be sent forward to scour the roads, and we are very far from safe yet.'

'Courage, senor: 'tis but a couple of leagues or so from hence, and I am well assured that no patrol will they send out while there is a single wine-house unsacked in Merida.'

'Cast away your knapsack, Evan: you will get another when we rejoin. It is an encumbrance to you, so toss it away. Let us but gain the shelter of the wood, and we will there await, in safety, the arrival of our own troops, as they pass en route for Portugal.'

Evan took his knapsack by the straps, and cast it into a deep pool by the wayside, saying it was better 'A' should gang that gate, than fa' into the hands o' uncanny folk.'

About eight miles from Merida they met Lazaro Gomez, the brother of Pedro, and a party of muleteers of Catalonia, halted at a fountain which babbled through an iron pipe fixed into the rock, from which the water gushed, and fell into a little pebbled basin. Near it stood an ancient stone cross, marking the tomb of one of Don Alvaro's ancestors, who reposed here in unconsecrated ground. In the course of centuries it had sunk deep into the earth ; but on the upper part yet appeared the time-worn and half-obliterated inscription :—

.... MUERTOS .... BATALLA ANO D. 1128.

This fountain and ancient tomb had been the object of many an evening ride with Catalina, who related the history of Don Juan, a romance which I may give to the public at some future time. Ronald paid but little attention to either the cross or brook, but advanced towards the jovial muleteers, who were smoking paper cigars of their own manufacture — laughing, singing, and drinking aguardiente to wash down their repast of bread, onions, and bacallao, oil and lettuce, which was spread on the sward by the side of the fountain; around which, cropping the herbage, wandered their mules, from whose harness jingled a thousand little tinkling bells. On the approach of the British officer the frank fellows sprung to their feet with one accord, and held their brimming horns towards him, while he was greeted with many vivas and sweeps of their sombreros.

'Senor cavalier, I am glad you have escaped our enemies by means of the intelligence I brought to Merida,' said Lazaro Gomez, the master-muleteer, a short, thickset fellow, with a round bullet-head and good-humoured face, containing that roguish sort of expression which is always given by artists to the features of Sancho Panza. He was tanned to the colour of mahogany by continual exposure to the sun, and his chin displayed a short stunted black beard, and slovenly ill-trimmed moustache.

'I am much obliged to you indeed, Master Lazaro; and I would that it was in my power to reward you.'

'Mention not reward, I beg of you, senor cavalier,' replied Lazaro, making another sweep with his sombrero. Ronald answered by a grave bow. He had become too much accustomed to the appellation of 'cavalier,' and the pompous politeness of the Spaniards, even to smile when he was addressed in a style that would pass better with the renowned Cid, Rodrigo of Bivar, than Ronald Stuart of the Gordon Highlanders. 'But you must condescend to drink with us, senor,' said a muleteer. 'My horn is filled with the best aguardiente.'

'Viva el Rey!' said Ronald, in a complimentary tone, as he emptied the cup.

'Viva el Rey!' cried the others, draining their liquor to the dregs. 'Evan,' observed Ronald, 'you will relish this beverage; 'tis somewhat like our own mountain dew at home.'

'It smells o' the peat reek, sir,' said Evan, snuffing with his nose over the horn which Lazaro had given him. 'Sour water, I declare! perfect fushionless water,' said the young Highlandman, after he had drunk it all off, however. 'Meeserable trash! O'd, sir, I wadna gie a gill stoup fu' o' what Alpin Oig used to brew wi the sma' still in the hole at Coir-nan Taischatrin, for a loch fu' o' this agyerdent, as ye ca' it'.

'How is this, Lazaro?' asked Pedro, observing that Evan disliked the liquor. 'Have you nothing else but muddy aguardiente to offer to honest soldiers? Come, my jovial brother, broach us one of those bloated pigskins, which are piled on the backs of your mules there.'

'Our Lady del Pilar! a modest request,' replied Lazaro. 'Why, brother Pedro, bethink you. I cannot touch the burdens of my cattle — they are the property of others. Could I broach a skin, our best would be at the service of the noble cavalier. And as for our aguardiente, I avouch, by the head of his Holiness ! that better never came out of Catalonia.'

'I may pretend to be a judge,' said the soldier, 'as I have drunk some thousand flasks of it; and avouch, in return, 'tis muddy as the Tajo in a shower, and only fit for a Portuguese or a dog to drink!'

'Never mind, Lazaro; your aguardiente is most excellent,' observed Ronald, seating himself by the gushing fountain, and partaking of the bread and bacallao, or dried cod-fish, which composed their simple fare. 'Your mules seem heavily laden: how far do you mean to travel to-night?' As far as the first posada on the road to Majorga.' 'What do your cattle carry in these large packages? 'Oh! senor, many things ; principally flour, rice, corn, pulse, and wine and oil in skins. These commodities we have brought from the centre of Catalonia and Arragon, and are carrying to the frontiers of Portugal, to sell among the British troops. We hope to find a good market at the camp before Ciudad Rodrigo, in the kingdom of Leon.'

'Catalonia and Arragon, did you say? How ! These provinces are in possession of the French troops!'

'True, senor; but we muleteers have ways of our own, by which we evade the out-pickets and foraging parties of the enemy.'

'Such as------'

'Travelling fast all night, and concealing ourselves closely all day — and a hundred other modes. Senor, we would evade Satan himself, did he lay snares for us. We muleteers are cunning fellows!' 'You speak truly,' observed Pedro. 'A Spanish muleteer is a strange being, and one that is as wily and active as a serpent; but they are happy fellows, I assure you, senor, and like no other men that I know of. A muleteer makes his home everywhere, because he is for ever wandering over all wide Spain. Cracking his whip and his joke, he travels with a light heart over our long dusty plains, and through the deep passes of the lofty hills and sierras, singing merrily to the jingle of his mules' bells, stopping only to smack his wine-horn or the lips of the peasant-girls, whom he loves almost as well as his mules — only almost, senor, because he loves his mules better than himself. He gives them fine names; he scolds, talks, kisses, and sings to them, to cheer them by the way; and at the posada or the bivouac he provides for their wants before he looks after his own. Caramba! were I not a soldier, I would certainly become a jolly muleteer. He is a droll fellow indeed — soft-hearted and hard-headed, but always honest, and true as the sun, senor.'

'You have made a most excellent panegyric upon them, Pedro,' remarked Ronald, when the soldier had stopped to take breath, and the shout of laughter which his observations called forth from the muleteers had subsided. 'Our Lady del Pilar ! good, good ! Well said, Pedro; you deserve another horn for that,' cried the master-muleteer. 'But if it please you, draw some distinction between us and the muleteers of Valencia, who are none of the best — in fact, the veriest rogues in all Spain. They would cheat the holy Virgin herself, were she to traffic with them. But talking of rogues, senor, if you would travel with us to Majorga, we should be proud of the honour of your company, and in truth you may find some advantage in ours.'

'Why so, Master Lazaro?

'The ruinous chapel of Santa Lucia, in the cork-forest yonder, has become the haunt of some desperadoes for this week past — fellows who are very unscrupulous whom they attack or encounter, and with us, who are all stout and honest men, and well armed to boot,' — every man had a trabuco or blunderbuss with a brass bell-muzzle slung across his back — 'you will be in greater safety. Our escort is not to be despised in these perilous times.'

'I thank you for your offer and advice; but as I mean to await in this neighbourhood the arrival of our troops, it would not suit me to travel so far westward as Majorga, and so I care not to take my chance of encountering the thieves in the wood yonder. My Highland follower will, of course, stand by me; and Pedro will, I suppose, likewise.'

'May I be blasted by a curse if I do not, senor!' The muleteers clapped their hands in applause.

'Are the rogues numerous?' asked Ronald.

'Three or four, senor; but stoutly-armed desperadoes, and led by a regular demon, long well known as a frontier guerilla, whose only delight was slaughter and war to the knife! A fellow that could eat fire, as the proverb says, and upon whom lead and steel were alike ineffectual.'

'We will put him to the test, if he crosses our path. I never heard of a hide yet, unless covered by steel, that was proof against the point of a claymore. Three or four, did you say? We are but three; but then we are soldiers, you know, and are alone worth a dozen such as these fellows you speak of. But what has caused a gallant guerilla to turn robber?'

'Why, senor, 'tis a long story; and we had it yesterday from a poor muleteer of Codeciera, whom the villains rifled of his mules and every maravedi in his pouch — the devil confound them for it!'

'Well, and this guerilla------'

'Kept a wine-house in Albuquerque; but for some attempt to assassinate the famous cavalier Don Alvaro de Villa Franca, his goods were confiscated to King Ferdinand by the corregidor's order. On finding himself a penniless outlaw, he took his musket and dagger, and turned bandit — keeping himself in the desert places of the forest of Albuquerque and the Sierra de Montanches for some weeks past. Now he has begun to collect followers, and has stationed himself in the wood of La Nava, rendering its neighbourhood anything but a safe one.'

'Go on, Lazaro,' said Ronald eagerly; 'his name is------'

'Narvaez Cifuentes — a fellow I never much liked, although I have emptied some thousand horns at his casa. But what is the matter, noble senor; surely I have not offended you?'

Ronald's eyes sparkled with stern delight, and true Highland fury swelled within his breast, at the intelligence that Cifuentes was so near; and his wild reckless spirit and love of adventure made him instantly resolve to search the wood and confront his hated enemy, at all risks and hazards.

'Evan — Evan! the daring wretch who attempted to assassinate me is lurking among the dingles of the wood yonder. I will seek him out and take vengeance on him, or perish. He has but three armed villains with him: you will, of course, follow me?'

'Sir, I wadna be my faither's son, if I didna follow whare'er ye led the way,' replied Evan testily. 'The venture's no' what I would just like; folk shouldna tempt danger or Providence, but follow ye I will as long as I can draw breath; and, troth, I would amaist gie up my hope o' salvation, to hae but a chance at the infernal riever wi' my firelock!'

To Pedro and the muleteer, who were surprised at his sudden excitement, Ronald related all he knew of Cifuentes; and during the narrative he was interrupted by many an indignant 'carajo' and malediction on the wine-seller. When he had finished, the muleteers declared with one voice, that if they had not their mules to attend to, they would have followed him into the wood and assisted him to attack the haunt of the robbers among the ruins, and to kill or capture his enemy; but Pedro, animated by the natural daring of a Spaniard, and as a soldier of Spain considering it his duty to follow Ronald as an officer of the allies, he at once volunteered frankly to attend him in his rash undertaking.

The evening had begun to deepen into the darker shadows of night; and the pale evening star, twinkling amidst the blushing blaze of the western sky, had risen above the wood of La Nava, when the sturdy muleteers, collecting their beasts of burden, moved off with much noise, jollity, and cracking of whips, in the direction of the place where they meant to pass the night. Ronald bade them farewell, and, followed by his two soldiers, left the fountain, making straight for the cork-forest, the dark foliage of which lay involved in 'a brown horror' before them.

It was a clear and beautiful moonlight night when they reached the skirts of the wood, whence, on looking back, they beheld a red light, which spread over the sky, rising in the direction of Merida, telling that the French were at their old work — pillage and ruthless devastation. Stuart trembled for the safety of the fair friends he had left behind, and earnestly trusted that the Count d'Erlon's letter would protect them from insult or outrage.

'Braw wark at Merida this bonnie nicht, sir,' observed Evan, giving a last look to the rear ere they plunged into the recesses of the forest. 'My certie! the very lift seems a' in a low, the clouds are red wi' streaks o' fire; and here's Pedro, puir gomeril! he is like to gang clean daftat the sicht o't.'

'You would not be in a very pleasant humour yourself, Evan, were you to see the clachan of Strathfillan, or the "fair city" of Perth blazing by the hands of invaders; and Jessie Cavers, perhaps — ay, even your Jessie — carried off like a stricken deer across the saddle-bow of a French dragoon.'

'Sic waefu' things will never happen at hame in auld Scotland, God be praised fort ! never, sir, while oor men are made o' the stuff they are ; the broad-sword has bent, but it has not yet broken! But it's unco droll to hear how Pedro, puir chield, havers to himsel.'

Unaware of how he was listened to, Pedro Gomez ground his teeth with ill-concealed rage, while he invoked the curses of San Juan, San Geronimo, and a hundred others, not forgetting our Holy Lady of Majorga, on the enemy. This vituperation appeared to give him a deal of comfort; and thus consoling himself, he led them on towards the ruins of Santa Lucia, by a pathway with which he was well acquainted. It was so narrow that only one could pass at a time, and so much intersected, crossed, and barred by brambles, bushes, and foliage, that they had infinite trouble in proceeding at all. It led them into a deeper and denser part of the forest, the dewy branches of which were now in full foliage; the waving leaves were glittering in a thousand hues and shades of green, as the pale moonbeams fell on them, streaming in a gush of silver light on the glistening grass, or down the dark dingles, as they pushed aside the heavy branches in their progress, tearing the nets of silvery gauze which many a busy spider was weaving from tree to tree in the merry moonlight.

'For ony sake, Pedro, haud your wheesht, man!' exclaimed the Scottish soldier impatiently; 'it's enough to mak' a body eerie to hear ye growling and yammering that gate, in siccan a dismal place as this. O'd sir, I never heard ony ane blatter sic words, exceptin' the auld lawyer body at Almen-drelauchy, when Angus Mackie and mysel had a fecht wi' him. Would ye like to hear that story, sir ? he added, turning to his master.

'No, not at present,' was the reply; 'we must move in silence, else 'tis useless to move at all. Look well to your flint and priming, and keep your lock clear of bushes. Should a musket be discharged, it would alarm the thieves, on whom I wish to steal unperceived, if possible.' Ronald repeated these injunctions in the Spanish language, as indeed he had to do most of his observations, and they now advanced in perfect silence, following the intricate windings of the narrow track, which in former days had been a well-beaten road to the sequestered chapel of the forest, the fame of whose relicario drew, in ancient times, scores of devout pilgrims at certain seasons. As the pathway was now more open, Ronald took the lead.

It was certainly a rash and daring attempt to enter thus a wood, every pass of which was unknown to them, and at night, on such an errand, to search for so formidable a desperado as Narvaez Cifuentes, a name which is yet a bugbear to the children of Estremadura, and used by their mothers to frighten them to sleep; more especially as the number of his followers was doubtful, and it was only certain that they would all be equally desperate and ferocious as himself. But Ronald's bold blood was up, and his eagerness to take vengeance upon him for the recent wound that his hand had inflicted, and the pain and suffering which that wound had caused, rendered him blind to what might be the probable consequences.

Alice's desertion of him for a higher-born and more wealthy lover had rendered him careless of life, prompt to encounter and utterly regardless of any danger, which was proved by the cold insensibility with which he conducted himself during his duel with the condι. The native spirit of daring which exists in the bosom of every mountaineer, and which he possessed in no slight degree, likewise spurred him on; and thinking not of the rash manner in which he was perilling his own life and the lives of his friends, he continued to penetrate resolutely into the most gloomy part of the wood.

'Eh! gude guide us! what is that, sir? exclaimed Iverach, charging his musket breast high, while he started back in dismay as some huge animal arose from its lair, upon which they had encroached, and dashing furiously past them, swept through the forest glade like a tempest.

'What an awfu' like beast to meet in siccan eerie a place!'

'Many such have we shot at home on the green braes of Strathonan and side of Benmore. Is it possible that you knew not what it was?

Evan was abashed, and trod on without replying, while he was sadly incommoded by the rough brambles and stunted bushes, which tore his bare legs, where left uncovered by the tartan kilt and gartered hose.

'Senor,' said Pedro, ' what a noble deer it was that rushed past Us just now!'

'Ay, faith ! and a splendid mark for a single ball at a range of forty yards or so; but I am surprised to find it here in a cork-forest.'

'It must have come down from the Sierra de Montanches, for there, and among the high mountains of Guadalupe, many thousands of gallant deer and the dark-brown roe-buck rove about in freedom.'

Their attention was now attracted by a strange noise, which seemed to approach them in front: it was a series of sounds, in tones something between the snorting growl of some wild animal and the squeaking of young swine. Ronald, who had never heard such noises before, was very much surprised, and kept his hand on the hilt of his sword; but poor Evan's nerves were sadly discomposed, and he felt every hair on his scalp bristling under his bonnet, as the dismal remembrance of the many awful beings who peopled the. Coirnan Taischatrin, and every thicket and corrie about Lochisla, rushed upon his mind. All the stories he had heard of the dreadful water-horse that dwelt in the castle loch (and which his father, the piper, beheld one clear moonlight night floating on the surface of the placid water, as he was returning from a dredgie), of the little fairies who lived under the green holms of Corrieavon, and the yet more terrible white woman who haunted the black muir of Strathonan and howled to the wind the livelong night, all crowded horribly upon his memory, and the perspiration burst forth from every pore, as something like a legion of flying devils swept tumultuously past them, and plunging into the underwood disappeared, squeaking, growling, and tearing the bushes to fragments in their wild career.

'Pedro! What are all these, in the devil's name? cried Ronald, starting back and half unsheathing his weapon.

'Only a herd of wild swine, senor,' replied Pedro, with a laugh. 'Demonios, one fellow has given a stroke with his tusk in passing, which I little like!

'Twas only a drove of wild pigs,' said Ronald. 'Cheer up, Evan; surely you were not frightened? Yet you seem very pale in the moonlight.'

'Frightened, said ye, sir? replied, or rather asked, Evan indignantly, but feeling considerably reassured the while — 'frightened! the deil a bit, sir. But I never got sic a start in a' my born days syne the nicht the howlet gied me a flaff wi' its wing, when we took Maister Macquirk ower to the ruins on the Kirk-inch. Ye'll mind o'd, sir; he was living wi' the auld laird for a day or twa at the tower, and we rowed him ower the loch in the boat, to gie a look o' the bonnie ruins in the moonlicht.'

'Macquirk!' reiterated Ronald, the name recalling a disagreeable passage in his father's letter.

'Ay, sir, Maister Macquirk, — a pleasant smooth-spoken gentleman, as a' Edinburgh writer-folk are. Eh! God be wi' us, sir! what's this noo? Mair wild pigs, I declare!' cried he in considerable trepidation.

'Pshaw! Evan. Your father, old Donald, has made a complete old wife of you, by his horrible legends and stories.'

'It's no for me, sir, to — But its just a temptin' of Providence to be-----'

'Hush! 'tis only the barking of dogs. Tread softly, and keep close under the darkest shadows of the foliage.'

'There is a man yonder, senor, — evidently a sentinel,' whispered Pedro in a low voice.

'Where?' asked Ronald as they halted.

'About thirty paces off.'

'Under the dark tree?'

'Ay, senor, — the moon shines full upon him.'

'Keep close in the gloom; he sees us now, I think.'

The figure of a man armed with a long musket appeared clearly as the bright radiance of the moon streamed down the narrow path, glittering on the butts of his pistols and hilt of the poniard stuck in the worsted sash which was twisted round his waist. He wore a long slouched cap, which hung down his back, and various tassels, ribbons, and gewgaws of gold lace that adorned his short velvet jacket glimmered in the moonlight.

'Quien vive?' challenged he, like a Spanish sentinel, while he stooped his ear towards the ground, listening intently for a few seconds. He appeared to have heard something. It was Evan's feet rustling among the last year's leaves. The robber stood erect, and cocked his musket while he looked forward into the gloom, a passing cloud having obscured the face of the moon.

'Carajo! Quien vive? Amigos enemigos?' he repeated, the sonorous tones of his voice re-echoing in the dingles of the wood, and arousing the fierce growling of some dogs near at hand.

'This is one of the villains, senor, bedecked in all his ill-gotten finery.''

'We must despatch him,' answered Ronald in a fierce whisper, his natural impetuosity becoming roused; 'we must rid ourselves of him, but how?

'Quietly, senor, — leave him to me. Every man lost to the enemy is one gained to us, — so says Murillo, and he------'

'Pshaw! never mind Murillo. This fellow must be settled warily, if we would steal upon the rest. What would you advise? He certainly hears us, and should he fire in this direction, one of us may be knocked on the head. I will rush on him, and disarm or cut him down in a twinkling.

'Nay, noble senor; his outcry would be as mischievous as the discharge of his musket; the ruins of the chapel are close at hand, remember. Leave him to me,' was Pedro's answer, while he coolly displayed the blade of a long Spanish knife, which flashed as he drew it, and, gliding from Ronald's side, advanced softly towards the brigand under the shadow of the trees.

The challenge of the bandit again sounded through the lonely wood.

'Cuidado, amigos mios; cuidado?' he added in a voice of taunt and warning, but evidently while he was uncertain whether or not anyone had approached his post. He drew his thumb-nail cautiously across the sharp edge of his flint, he raised his musket to his shoulder, and was about to fire in the direction of the place where Ronald and Evan stood concealed. Another second would perhaps have sealed the fate of one of them, when the stiletto of the dragoon glittered near him in the pale moonlight, — a heavy blow was given, and a deep groan succeeded; the robber fell dying upon the sward, while his musket only flashed in the pan, and fell rattling from his grasp without doing damage. Ronald rushed towards the spot, and found the bloodthirsty sargento wiping his deadly weapon with scrupulous accuracy, while he kept his foot upon the yet warm though breathless corpse of the man he had destroyed. The light of the moon fell with a cold and ghastly lustre on the pale and rigid, yet very fine features of the dead man, becoming contracted and fierce with the recent death-struggle. His white and upturned eyes shone with a terrible glare as the moonbeams fell on them, and altogether there was something sad and appalling in the sudden manner in which this desperado had been hurled into eternity, with all his unrepented and manifold sins upon his head.

'Awfu' work this, sir!' said Evan, with a shudder, while he surveyed the stark and bold features of the slain, around whom a black pool formed by his blood lay increasing. 'A dour-looking chield he is, wi' a gloom on his brow that would suit Rob Roy himsel.'

'I would to Heaven, Gomez,' observed the equally-excited Stuart, 'you had found some other mode of silencing him than this; there is somewhat in it at which I revolt.'

The Spaniard laughed grimly.

'Senor,' said he, 'the man was only a robber; and when old Murillo gets hold of such he hangs them by scores at a time, and I have seen a stout beech bending under a load of such devil's fruit. Pho! senor, it matters not. We are now close upon the ruins of the chapel, and the villains who harbour there have some formidable allies — mastiff dogs. I hear them growling, and I assure you, senor, that a demon may be as easily dealt with as a Spanish hound. You will require all your resolution and energy to------'

'I do not mean to relinquish the search, after having proceeded so far,' replied Ronald, interrupting the Spaniard, at whose tone he felt a little piqued. 'I assure you, Sargento Gomez, 'tis not the sight of a little blood that will make the heart of Scottish Highlander fail.'

'I meant not to offend, senor; but let us proceed. The ruins of Santa Lucia are some twenty yards from this.'

'Forward, then, — lead on.'

Ronald in passing possessed himself of the dead man's loaded musket and well-filled pouch of ball cartridges, an acquisition on which he had soon reason to congratulate himself.

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