THE name of Don Quebrantahuesos spelled despair to the civil guards of Spain. Time after time he had foiled their best-laid schemes. Yet, it must be owned that he was a fair and even an appreciative enemy. He had been known to say more than once that, but for the existence of the guardia civile he would, in one of his black moods, have taken his own life from sheer ennui.
He was wont to add that he owed a debt to none in the world, save only to the guardia civile and the ibex of the Sierras. For the ibex allured sportsmen to travel up into the solitudes of the mountains, where now and again they were captured by Don Q.'s scouts and held to ransom; while the civil guard kept alive his interest in his own life, since they were always trying to take it.
The guardia civile is a picked corps of military police who possess a manual containing one of the most remarkable and noble codes of regulations the world has ever seen. Part I opens with the following sentence: “Honor must be the chief object of the civil guard, and it must be preserved spotless and intact.” The outcome of such a code as this, added to a gathering halo of tradition, has produced a body of men well-equipped in every sense of the word, splendidly disciplined, only to be matched by the famous Irish Constabulary.
Unless you have traveled through the desert tracts of Spain, or in the lonely Sierras, it is hard fully to understand the duties and the qualities of a civil guard. He holds a roving commission to patrol the highways and mountain passes, and always works with a comrade, for the wild roads owe their safety to his presence.
Thus it will readily be seen why Don Q., in his mysterious eyrie, had long ago ceased to be a pleasing topic in the barracks of the civil guard scattered throughout the towns and villages over which the shadow of the brigand hovered. He had defied them, year after year, setting at naught their efforts, baffling their plans by acuteness of brain and a perfectly systematized intelligence department.
If the history of the various expeditions sent up against the “King of the Brigands” could be set on record, the volume might pass into a standard work upon guerilla tactics and warfare. Regular troops had more than once been impressed into this service, under the guidance of the guardias civiles; but whether they took part in them or not, the outcome of the expeditions presented a weary sameness.
Each started hopefully, caught goat-herds and charcoal-burners and questioned them, and so pushed upwards into the black gorges. After an interval followed the inevitable return of a broken and disappointed remnant, who in many cases had not had time to build cairns over their dead, but had left them lying stark in the haunts of the ibex and the white desolation of the Sierras.
Ultimately a sum, which in some eyes took on the form of a fabulous fortune, was put on the head of Don Q. Broken adventurers of different nationalities came and considered the feasibility of pocketing this tempting reward. For the most part, however, nothing resulted from these surveys.
AT this time, among his numerous foes, was counted one, perhaps the most inveterate of them all, of whom Don Q. knew nothing. Manuelo Moruno was a member of the civil guard, as was his brother Gregorio. They were very silent men, and, after the custom of their corps, they worked together.
It was, I believe, as much the honor of the force to which they belonged, as the hope of gaining the reward and the promotion which follows upon any signal act of service, which induced these two silent brothers to swear away the life of Don Q. They took their oath before one of those tragic crosses which dot the lonely bridle-paths of Spain, and it may be accepted as a fact that seldom in the course of his hazardous career had the Chief been brought face to face with so grave a danger.
The brothers had been born close to Elche, the village of palms, which stands sentinel on the borders of the Garden of Murcia, a district that still bears many traces of the old Moorish days. Such traces the two men carried in their own persons, the melancholy of the East being stamped upon their stern, dark faces. Manuelo, the elder, was a steady man, and had in earlier days drawn back Gregorio from the wild courses of a smuggler's life. Sons of a bad father, they had broken away from their old environment, and put all their hardihood and skill upon the side of law and order.
In the book of their special company, there stood against their names the fact that they had been in the past somewhat unfortunate with their prisoners. They had caught many malefactors, but to the note which recorded the capture was added rather often, “Shot while attempting to escape.”
It may be that neither Manuelo nor his brother trusted greatly to the ever slow and equally uncertain processes of the law. They were inclined to grudge the trouble wasted on securing a murderer, for example, who, if befriended, was sure to wriggle out of paying the penalty of his crimes by some legal quibble raised at his trial, or afterward by interest being brought to bear on the right quarter.
So it happened that these two terrible guardians of the peace would deal personally with the more notorious offenders, waiting until some dark defile closed about them and their prisoner of the moment. Then one or the other would tell him what was about to be done, and by the time they emerged from the farther end of the defile, one of the brothers would be carrying a dead body slung across his horse. Arrived at the prison, they would salute the authorities, give in the formula of attempted escape, and so away to their duties again.
Thus, though they helped many lonely women in distress, guided the benighted traveler to his journey's end, saved many a life at the risk of their own in the swift, hot quarrels of the South, their reputation grew; and in whatever district the two dark brothers rode their patrols, crime died out beneath their system of wild and inexorable justice.
AFTER the affair of the ears of the Governor of the Prison of Castelleno, a chance remark flung in mockery at Manuelo, that he and Gregorio had better try their hand at capturing the mysterious brigand who had for so long checkmated every plot formed against him, planted a seed in the heart of the elder Moruno that soon usurped his whole thought.
Therefore a certain amount of interest was awakened at the headquarters of that tercio of the civil guard to which the brothers belonged, when they requested leave of absence for an indefinite term.
“You want an unusual favor, Manuelo,” the Major said to the elder, “I will see what I can do for you both. You are good men at your work, though a trifle heavy-handed.”
Later a month was conceded.
“It is not enough,” said Manuelo. “We will take no leave, señor comandante.”
The officer looked thoughtful.
“May I inquire where you purpose to spend your leave?” he asked after a pause.
Manuelo's face grew more somber.
“Gregorio and I have given the years of our manhood to the honor of the guardia civile. If we cannot have leave without words spoken, we stay—that is all, señor.”
“Is it true, then, that you would go to the Sierras? Have you a plan?” The officer put the question almost in a whisper.
“There is a saying in my birthplace—‘A loose tongue cuts the throat,’ señor.”
“True. He—hears everything,” the Major said, half to himself. He stared at the blotting-pad on the table before him. He was jealous of the reputation of that portion of the corps which was under his own command. For twenty years, more or less, Don Q. had defied capture—what if these two uncompromising brothers——? He looked up at the dark face of Manuelo, and what he saw encouraged him.
“You may trust me,” he said at last. “Do you want help?”
“No, señor comandante.”
“I wonder if you realize the difficulty? No one has ever got the better of—him.”
“We have made a vow,” returned Manuelo rigidly.
“For the second time?” The comandante referred to a previous vow which the brothers had made concerning an incendiary who had devastated the farmlands on their beat. It was from him that Manuelo had received the scar that seamed his head.
“Yes, señor, for the second time.”
The sporting instincts awoke in the comandante and sent a glow through his veins. It rested with him to slip the dogs on the wild cat.
“Go,” he said; “and may the saints go with you.”
The plan formed by the Morunos was such as might have been expected from men of their character. After many discussions they decided that the chance of success lay in one direction only. By no attempt from the outside could they ever hope to reach the wary and terrible Don Q. They resolved, therefore, to make the desperate venture of following him deep into his unascertained hiding-places in the Sierras, and there to gain accurate first-hand knowledge of his habits, with, perhaps, some measure of his confidence. In a word, they were going to turn brigands and enroll themselves amongst the sequestradores who owed him allegiance.
It must here be understood that the civil guard, the courageous and courteous custodian of the roads, never stoops to be a spy. To quote their Regulations: “An act of espionage is wholly foreign to the office and beneath the dignity of a member of the force.” Again: “Never must the civil guard betray a confidence.” But the Morunos buoyed themselves with the excuse that in this case the end justified the means, a belief which has led the Spaniard to nearly all the wrongs he has committed.
These two dark brothers took life very much in earnest. They had carried their lives in their hands too long and too recklessly to hesitate before the danger of an enterprise which at any unlucky moment might place them at the mercy of the Chief, whose cruelty to his foes was a matter of common knowledge. But they started hopefully, believing that, once enlisted in the band, circumstances must sooner or later conspire to give them their opportunity.
Two days later there arrived at a small village, not far from Castelleno, a couple of unshaven, savage-looking men. In a safe place they had buried their passports. It is necessary in Spain for every man who goes any distance from his home to carry a passport. If he is found without it, the jail is his portion till he can make matters straight A couple of guardias civiles came upon the pair, the inevitable question was asked, and, as they were without papers, the brothers were arrested and taken off to the lock-up, in much the same way that they themselves had frequently arrested suspicious travelers.
Sullenly the two brothers marched to the village jail, and, once within its doors, they felt that the first step that was to lead them to Don Q. had been taken. Other men might have trusted somebody in power with the secret of their design, but suspicion ran like gall in the veins of Manuelo and his brother.
No human being in Spain save themselves knew that beneath the ragged hats of two muleteers in Bechivo jail schemed the calculating, intrepid brains of the renowned Morunos.
The next night the lock-up was thrown into confusion when it was discovered that the prisoners had escaped. Thorough to the smallest details, or perhaps reverting to the tendencies of earlier days, Gregorio had stunned the man who took them their evening mess of pottage. A hue and cry was immediately raised after them, but the two brothers had fled beyond pursuit, into the Sierras.
Impossible as it was for the guardias civiles to get into touch with Don Q., no such difficulty hindered the Morunos in their new character of escaped criminals. Little did the charcoal-burner who sent them to the goat-herd, or the goat-herd who passed them on to a smuggler in hiding, imagine that by so doing they were laying bloodhounds upon the hot track of their protector, the “King of the Brigands.”
THE ever-chilly little Chief, huddled as usual in his cloak, was sitting beside his fire when the men were brought into his presence. He raised his eyes from the book of old-world Spanish poetry on his knee, in which he had been reading.
“Gáspar, take these fellows away and make the usual examination,” he said. “I hope, for your own sakes, that you will fulfill our requirements,” he added to the brothers.
“We do not understand,” Manuelo said stolidly.
Don Q. passed a slow glance over the two fine, well-set-up figures.
“By the way,” he began in his soft way, that somehow sounded so deadly to his hearers, “you are, you say, newly from Malaga. There is a point upon which you can perhaps enlighten me. Is it true that the chest measurement for enlistment in the civil guard has been raised half an inch?”
The two black-haired men kept their expression of impassive dullness.
“We are poor men,” answered Manuelo, “and when we see a pair of guardias civiles we hide in the bushes or the rocks. I do not know. And you, brother?”——he turned towards Gregorio.
“I heard that a recruit must now measure thirty-four inches round the chest if he desires to be of the corps.”
Don Q. considered Gregorio's reply.
“Gáspar,” he said, “I can take no more applicants into our band under thirty-five inch measurement of the chest. The height can remain the same;” then seeing a look of surprise come into the eyes of Manuelo, he added—
“If these men do not happen to reach the standard, you will know what to do with them. Did any tell you on your way here that those unfit to be counted among our number, are also unfit to leave us.”
“We were told.”
With that the Morunos were led from the cave, still wearing their air of dull un-interest, to be measured by the fires in the valley below. Once Gregorio essayed speech, but met with no reply. Then to each was given a slip of paper, and they were led back to the presence of the Chief.
Don Q. was still reading, he passed deliberately on from page to page; at length, shutting the book on his slender finger, he turned toward the men.
“You may speak, Gáspar.”
“Their heights are five feet ten, and five feet nine, their chests measure thirty-seven and thirty-six inches, lord.”
“Good. And now,” Don Q. looked at Manuelo, “let me have a short history of your lives.”
“We are sons of one mother, born at a birth. Our name is Forjado. They call me Miguel, and my brother they call Miguelito. Our father was a smuggler. He is dead. The guardias civiles—on whom be curses—shot him when we were children. A month ago we were running a cargo over the Sierras on muleback. The guardias civiles prepared an ambush. They fired on us from behind the rocks. We fought with them and escaped, but Miguelito killed one, and they had recognized us, so we fled. We entered Bichivo without papers, we were put into the jail. There we met certain men who told us of the ‘King of the Brigands,’ the great sequestradore, Don Q.”
Don Q. held up his hand for silence.
“Is not the name of Don Q., then, known in your province?”
“No," replied Manuelo gruffly, the hatred of the old guardia civile against this imperious brigand rising to suffocation in his gorge.
Don Q. eyed him.
“It would appear that there are other things not known in your province. Do you understand me?”
Gáspar struck Manuelo heavily on the mouth.
“I have done so, my lord,” answered the robber.
“Do you understand now?” asked the Chief.
With a fearful effort Manuelo held down the rage that possessed him.
“Yes, lord,” he echoed.
“It is thus my children address me. Now proceed with your story,” ordered the soft voice.
“We decided to seek refuge in the Sierras. There was a stone in the courtyard. Miguelito has been a poacher. He crept up behind the guard who brought our food. He may or may not be dead. We are here.”
Thus it was that the two brothers gained admission to the ranks of the brigands. Without faltering they took the oath of fidelity and returned with Gáspar to the valley.
Nothing speaks more highly for their power of self-control, or it may be for the power of command inherent in the Chief, than the fact that the brothers learned to treat Don Q. with the exaggerated respect he demanded from those about him. Had they failed in this, there is small doubt a tragedy would soon have resulted.
But the days passed on; the Morunos—though it did not affect nor weaken their resolve—felt something very akin to deep respect grow up in their minds for the iron-handed, inexorable little man who held in abject subjection a bevy of the vilest characters in Spain. The courage of Don Q. was so abnormal, his indifference to death and to danger so absolute, that he compelled their unwilling admiration.
THE life of a brigand is a lazy one for the most part, and after the arrival of the Morunos the days droned by in the Boca de Lobo unstarred by any event of great importance.
When they laid their plans to go up into the Sierras, they imagined that the chiefest of their difficulties would lie in gaining admission to the band; but once belonging to it, they made sure that sooner or later opportunities would arise for two fearless men to wreak their will upon Don Q. They had forecast occasions of various favorable kinds, on foray or reconnaissance, whence they could pluck out the success they had risked so much to reach.
But herein they found themselves mistaken. Don Q. shared with certain present-day statesmen the power of keeping health without taking exercise, and though at intervals he descended into the valley among his followers, it was but seldom that he permitted the light of day to shine upon him. For the most part he remained withdrawn in the cave which served him for a dwelling-place.
It was clearly impossible to attack him among his men, and though the Morunos discussed over and over again the plan of stealing up to the cave by night, and taking their chance of escape after the deed they had come to do was done, they were cast back and deterred by rumors and stories that passed from mouth to mouth round the fires. Disappointed men, rash fools, men maddened by pitiless punishment had attempted to enter that yawning door under cloak of the darkness, but none had ever won across that ominous threshold. There had been, moreover, a hideous dissimilarity in their fates. Some had died of gunshot wounds, one had been found at the foot of the cliff with a broken neck, another at the cave-lip, stark, with horror frozen upon his face, but no mark upon all his body to tell how he died.
Manuelo listened and pondered these things. “I would buy his life with mine, Gregorio, as thou knowest,” the elder brother said; “but he is crafty as the devil. The cave is secure by reason of his craft. We must wait.”
But the weeks drifted by, and the grip of winter closed more and more harshly upon the mountains; the robbers built themselves huts, and, for the rest, shivered round the fires. And, far down in the Murcian plains the comandante shook his head and invented plausible excuses for the absence of the Morunos. In his heart he feared they must be dead, for he believed in their loyalty to the uttermost; but never in their long service had they been opposed to any foe so terrible as the immutable little Chief of the Sequestradores.
It happens that there are few qualities more difficult to throw a veil over than an ingrained self-respect and sense of respectability; and it was a quality the brothers possessed in a large degree. They tried to hide it, and their natural habit of taciturnity aided them in the effort. But a hundred eyes had been told off to watch them. They were unknowingly undergoing the scrutiny which was turned upon every new adherent of the band. For Don Q., in spite of his reckless courage, was far too great a general not to be superlatively cautious.
ON a certain bitter evening in December, Manuelo with Gáspar was summoned to the cave. Although Manuelo had no premonition of it, he was about to utter a few words which in the end brought about that opportunity of dealing hand to hand with Don Q. he had almost begun to despair of finding.
Don Q. spoke vaguely of an errand to the Sierra Segura, and desired to find a messenger acquainted with the region. The Sierra Segura is that part of the mountain range which runs across the province of Murcia, and Manuelo had patrolled it from pass to plain during most of the years of his service in the civil guard.
For that very reason he denied all knowledge of it, and proclaimed himself as having been born and bred in Catalonia.
“It is unfortunate,” remarked the little Chief regretfully, “but the matter, though important, can be delayed. Meanwhile Gáspar, you must go down tomorrow in the early morning to the hut of the charcoal-burner Tomás. I have promised him a reward for information; but you shall give it to his wife, for he is a spendthrift. Miguel goes with you.”
A day later Manuelo again found himself in the cave.
“Miguel,” asked Don Q., “do you ever go to confession?”
A slight change passed across the man's dark face.
“No, lord,” he said stubbornly, for the question somehow made him uncomfortable.
“That is a pity,” returned the Chief, “death is never very far from one of your profession, Miguel. It is as well to be prepared; is it not?”
“Yes, lord,” there was nothing for it but to acquiesce. The topic was ambiguous and might lead anywhere; but the next moment the man's soul thrilled with joy.
“I am thinking of making a little journey to-morrow night,” went on Don Q. “You will accompany me.”
“Yes, lord.” Manuelo had hard work to retain his impassive aspect. The chance so long hoped for was come at last.
“I intend to go down to the little monastery of San Pedro. The fathers are very holy men, and now and again they sing masses, at my expense, for the souls of those who have perished in the mountains. I have chosen you, Miguel, for you are a man of sober habits, not given to gambling as are some about the fires. You will now have time to prepare yourself for confession. It is sad, as I myself know, after receiving absolution of some good father, when one remembers some little peccadillo, such as the name of a man one has been forced to kill in the way of business. And, as I should never dream of detaining a priest as captive, your opportunities may be few and far between. Make the most of this one. You may die, Miguel, before the next. Quien sabe?”
Manuelo left the presence of the Chief filled with strong joy. At last fortune had come over to the side of himself and his brother. He sought Gregorio at the earliest possible moment with the news.
“Thanks be to God,” answered the younger man; “we have now got him between finger and thumb.”
“You must steal away from the valley to-night, brother, when the sentries change, as we have always planned. Take my rifle; it is surer than yours. Strike the bridle-path three miles eastward of the monastery, where the lagoon lies in the valley. Conceal yourself above the track. I go afoot; the enemy rides. His figure will show clear against the water. You must shoot, Gregorio, and at the echo I will spring upon him.”
THE moon, which was almost at the full, climbed up clear of the mountain summits before the party of two set out. They left the barren crags, patched with snow, behind them, and entered upon a region of wild and desert character, where only a few scattered, wind-torn trees stretched their crooked branches against the brightness of the night-sky.
The brothers had in their time taken so many prisoners that Manuelo, as he walked beside the stirrup of Don Q., considered their task practically accomplished, and even found time to regret that so able and resourceful a man as the brigand Chief should have passed his life elsewhere than in the ranks of the force to which he himself belonged.
“What an officer he would have made for us of the civil guard!” he thought, as he glanced upward at the little figure, huddled in a cloak, sitting in its usual attitude of supreme dejection, upon the mule.
Mile after mile was traversed. The lagoon, with its deadly watcher lying in wait, was now no great distance ahead. A jutting mountain flank here thrust its bulk between them and the moonlight. Don Q drew rein before they entered the shadow.
“We need a lantern, Miguel,” he said. “See you those two boulders leaning one against the other. Creep in between them and, to the right-hand side, you will find a lantern and matches. Kindle the lantern; it will light our path through the darkness.”
Manuelo bent down and crawled into the opening. His heels were just disappearing when a sound like a choked cry came from the interior of the cavity, followed by a curse and the sound of savage men fighting.
Don Q. nodded his head at the noise, and began to dismount in his leisurely fashion.
“Have you secured him, my children?”
“Then pull him out into the moonlight.”
The order was obeyed, and Manuelo, bound and black with rage, was placed before the Chief.
“You are a very clever man, my good Manuelo Moruno,” Don Q. began, with his soft, sneering voice, “too clever, I should have thought, to commit the gross blunder of denying all knowledge of Murcia with a strong Murcian burr on your tongue. That pretty fable of having been born and bred in Catalonia should have been supported by the use of a few bastard French words. Thus you might have played your part very creditably. As it is, I am told that the wife of Tomás the charcoal-burner, to whose hut I sent you yesterday, made the sign of the cross when she saw your dark face at her door. She is a Murcian, and she recognized you, as I expected. You and your brother seem to have gained yourselves a pretty reputation in Murcia.”
Manuelo stood silent
“And Gregorio, where is he?” continued the Chief.
“He, at the least, has escaped you,” burst out Manuelo.
“So? We shall see. I do not remember giving him permission to leave the valley. Yet he left it last night; and at this moment, good Manuelo, he lies above the path beside the laguna, watching for us. We will not keep him waiting. I have been told he is a sure shot. We will test his aim. Put this traitor on the mule, my children.”
Manuelo was lifted into the saddle, a noose slipped round his ankles was secured beneath the belly of the mule, a gag was thrust between his teeth, and when he was bound and helpless, Don Q. with his own hands artistically arranged the folds of a cloak about his shoulders.
“Now, Manuelo, we shall take the road. As for you, my children, return to the head of the valley that leads into the Boca de Lobo. I no longer need your help.”
So the journey was resumed.
“I understand, Manuelo,” went on the soft voice of Don Q., “that you and your brother have been ambitious of meeting me alone in some solitary spot. Is it not so? You are about to have your desire. Gregorio will mistake you for me. He will remember the heavy blood money that is upon my head, and will send his bullet straight. The result may surprise him a little, but in this world it is never wise to count upon results.”
The progress made by the mule, regulated by the pace of the terrible little man who walked so delicately behind it, was slow, and before the spread of water with the moon shining upon it came into view, Manuelo had plenty of time to realize his position. It was little wonder that by degrees it affected even his iron nerves. Two miles ahead, Gregorio was waiting, with his rifle on his knee, ready to fire, not dreaming that the muffled figure on the mule was not Don Q., but his own brother.
The first part of the lagoon was bordered by gritty sand, a flat surface without any cover where Gregorio could hide; but later the bank rose abruptly, set thick with boulders and thorn bushes. Manuelo searched the tangled shadows with eyes that ached. Outwitted and outmatched as he was, he almost forgot his wrath in the tension of those moments. If only he could make some sign of warning whereby Gregorio might escape the cruel vengeance of the Chief! For himself, he could rely on the accuracy of his brother's marksmanship.
While he still listened the earth seemed suddenly to reel and give way beneath him, and he knew no more. After he had fallen, the bark of Gregorio's rifle reached Don Q.
Don Q. stood back in the shadow of a rock and watched the active figure of Gregorio leaping down the slope.
“Where are you, brother? Is he stunned? I shot the mule under him when I saw you alone were with him,” said Gregorio, stooping over the fallen animal and his rider.
The dim shape by the rock laughed and sprang at the same instant. Beneath the iron-bound musket-butt, which descended on his head, Gregorio went down, kicking feebly on the sand. Don Q.'s delicate little hands pinioned him with rapid and scientific completeness. Then he went over to Manuelo, tore the gag from his mouth, and with a strength surprising in so fragile a body, pulled him free of the dead mule. He rolled the brothers into a sitting posture against the moonlit rock, dashed water over them, and finally sat down in front of them to watch their return to consciousness, breaking now and then into shakings of sibilant laughter.
Manuelo, who had been stunned when the mule collapsed, was the first to regain a knowledge of what so much concerned him. His eyes took in the whole scene, the fallen mule, his brother bound beside him, and the cloaked figure in front. He spoke no word, but Don Q. read much in the flare of hatred with which the black eyes turned upon him.
“We will wait until our excellent Gregorio, whose shooting is so admirable, has regained his senses sufficiently to join in our conversation,” Don Q. began as Gregorio with a groan shifted his head from one bump on the rock to another, and blinked dizzily at the moon. “He is already better. I trust, Gregorio, that your thoughts are quite clear?”
The man shivered, then scowled. Recollection had come to him.
“I wish you both to listen to me very carefully,” the Chief pursued. “We have played a very interesting game together, Manuelo, for yours is the brain behind it. But I do not think I flatter myself when I say that the honors rest with me.”
“Yes, we have lost the game,” said Manuelo, in the old rigid manner. “But we are not afraid!”
“You are a brave man,” commented Don Q. politely; “but because you are not afraid now, it does not follow that you will not be afraid before we have done with one another.”
“What does it matter?” answered Manuelo. “My brother and I took an oath to kill you. We have failed. Nothing remains but to make an end of us.”
“Not so fast, Manuelo,” put in the Chief. “I have just been thinking how full of poetry is your situation. You and Gregorio are twins. You were born together, you have lived and worked together, and now in the fitness of things you should die together. Is it not so?”
The brothers made no reply.
“And,” resumed the little brigand, “believe me, I should not interfere with so artistic a conclusion had I only ourselves to think of. But I cannot afford to forget that you have both belonged to that estimable force to whose kind interest in my life I owe so deep a debt. It is incumbent upon me to send them information by a reliable hand—say by one of you—how a guardia civile dies, who has failed in a duel with Don Q. I trust you follow me?”
The two men stared at him stolidly.
“It is clear that you do. There are, to return to my subject, many channels by which the whole story will find its way down to the plains, and even to the tercio in which you have the honor to serve in Murcia. But that is not sufficient for my purpose. I wish the civil guard to know from the lips of one of its own corps that I have scored another point in the twenty-years' gamble that has been played out between us. Also the forfeit that must be paid by the individual loser. I have therefore decided that one of you shall go free. The other must die, and—well, I warn you he will need all his fortitude before the happy moment of his departure from life. You are brave men; choose between you which shall go free and which shall—remain for ever in the Sierras.”
Don Q. moved away a little space and the brothers began to talk eagerly together in low tones. At the end of five minutes the Chief returned.
“Well,” he asked, “I am waiting for your decision. Who is to be the lucky one?”
“Gregorio,” shouted Manuelo at once.
“No, no, Manuelo, I cannot,” declared the other hoarsely.
“There seems to be a slight difference of opinion; shall I decide the matter?”
“I will decide,” said Manuelo; “I have the right of choice before my brother, since I am the elder.”
“No, no!” cried the other passionately; “I will not buy life at such a price.”
Don Q. held up his hand.
“It is enough. You cannot agree. The decision must be mine, for I regret I have not time—interesting as it would be—to listen to an argument between you——”
Manuelo broke into his speech.
“Hear me,” he groaned; “Gregorio has a wife and child. Let him go!”
“The choice is in my hands, and in my hands it must remain,” Don Q. answered; “I have decided. Gregorio shall go free after he has looked upon his brother's death. I have chosen him, not because he has a wife and child waiting for him in Murcia, but because, being readier of speech than our stiff-tongued Manuelo, he will render a more vivid picture of what he has witnessed.”
The soft flow of the Chief's voice neither rose nor fell. Gregorio shuddered violently.
“I will not witness it!” he cried. “Shoot us both, in the name of the Virgin!”
“Be reasonable,” said Manuelo. “For my sake, Gregorio, go free. Why should two die? Besides, the thought that you live will be with me when the quebrantahuesos is doing his worst. We Morunos do not know fear.”
THERE followed a silence, during which the Chief stood like a dormant bird, his cloak half fallen on the sand at his feet. The water of the lagoon rustled under a ripple of wind about its rimming stones. The cry of a green plover struck the key-note of sorrow on the night air.
“Other men beside you, Manuelo, other brave men have challenged me to do my worst, and, with one exception, I have always lived to hear their vain appeals for mercy.” Don Q.'s low tone had an echo of weariness. “Now hear me, Manuelo; what if I give you, also, your life?”
The man did not reply at once; then he said:
“Why mock me? Speak plainly.”
“I do not mock you. I have many faults in the eyes of men, but it is well known that I never lie. Is it not so?”
“That is so.”
“Tell me then, Manuelo, the truth in return. What if I let you go free, also?”
The love of life was strong in Manuelo. Who knows what struggle went on in his breast at that moment?
“It is impossible, señor,” he said at last, “it is impossible. We have taken an oath that while life remains in our bodies we will seek your life. If you spare us now, we will come again. Shoot me, and be done with it. We are honorable men.”
Don Q. burst into a shriek of hissing laughter.
“Manuelo, go free!” he cried. “See how I give myself into your hands. Go back to Murcia; and when your vow troubles you, come again and cross swords and wits with the King of the Sequestradores. I really feel quite indebted to you, Manuelo; you have given me something to look forward to, and added zest to life, for death stares at me forever from your eyes. And although I have outgrown most of the human weaknesses, I still have in my heart a warm feeling for a very brave man.”
(The next Chronicle will tell how Don Q. played a three-cornered game.)