Before the regiment left
Banos to take the field again, Ronald had an unlooked-for adventure with a
fierce denizen of the neighbouring mountains, which nearly cost him his
There was a certain part of
the hills from which the valley of Banos strongly resembled his native
place, Strathonan, but on a much smaller scale ; and thither Stuart was in
the habit of repairing almost daily, to indulge freely in those long
reveries so usual to a Highlander, and enjoy the beauty of the prospect
which bore so near a resemblance to his home. A slight effort of the
imagination made it at once Strathonan, near the source of that celebrated
trout-stream, the Isla; but the sound of the guitar and castanets came on
the wind instead of the war-pipe of Albyn, and destroyed the illusion.
There were neither bucks nor roes bounding over the mountain-slope ; and
instead of the plaided shepherd or agile huntsman starting from the
copsewood, a lazy yet handsome Spanish peasant appeared at times,
sauntering slowly along, clad in his short brown jacket tied round the
waist by a broad yellow scarf, leather gaiters bound with red thongs, a
cigar in his mouth, a staff in his hand, and a stiletto in his girdle.
Often did a figure wearing this romantic dress, or enveloped in a huge
brown mantle, appear on the solitary pathways on the hills. Far down
below, on the village green, instead of the lively strathspey or martial
gilliechallium, the graceful fandango or bolero was danced by the athletic
paisanos and olive-cheeked girls of the valley.
His patron had often warned
him of the danger which he incurred by wandering so far among mountains so
much infested by wolves ; but Stuart always considered himself safe
enough, as he never went without his sword and dirk. His host acquainted
him with many wonderful tales of men having been killed and devoured by
them among the wild places; and said that, within his recollection, nearly
twenty children had been carried off from the very heart of the village.
'Senor,' said he, on one
occasion, 'you can know little of the nature of the wolf, as perhaps there
are none now in your country; but he has the cunning of the fox, together
with the strength and ferocity of the tiger. On entering the village in
the evening, he moves about with careful and stealthy paces; and when he
seizes on a child, grasps it by the throat so as to prevent it giving a
single cry, and bears it away to the recesses among the hills, I have
known of a lad of fourteen being carried off thus. A man belonging to the
village, a brave guerilla of Mina's band, was attacked one evening in the
pass of Banos by a band of wolves. He slew three with his rifle and
poniard, but the others tore him to fragments. This brought the attention
of senores the alcaldes of the valley to the matter, and they offered a
reward of eighty reals, or four duros, for each wolfs head brought to
their houses, and forthwith war was proclaimed against these fierce
inhabitants of the sierras.
'A dozens hides and heads
were brought in weekly, and we continued this dangerous sport until the
British entered the valley, when firing in the neighbourhood could no
longer be continued. Since we acted upon the offensive, the wolves have
become more shy, and never enter the vale, but it is death to encounter
the herds on their own ground; therefore I would pray you, senor, if you
value your own safety, never to wander about as you are pleased to do.'
Ronald thanked the worthy vine-dresser for his
advice and good wishes, but laughed at his fears about the wolves, and
told him that, while he was armed with his sword, he considered himself
secure against any such antagonists; and so continued to ramble about as
while he was surveying the valley from his old post when the sun was
setting, he became overpowered with the heat of the atmosphere and the
fatigue of a long walk, and fell fast asleep beside a rude wooden cross,
erected to mark the spot where the only abogado who ever appeared in Banos
had been poniarded by his first client for unfair dealing. How long Stuart
slept there he had no idea, but while dreaming that he had that worthy
clerk to the royal signet, Mr. Macquirk, among the mountains of Banos,
even close to the abogado's cross, and was about to take summary vengeance
upon him for the manner in which he had bamboozled and swindled the old
gentleman at Lochisla, he was awakened in a very disagreeable manner by
something grasping him roughly by the throat. With the rapidity of light,
all the stories he had heard of the wolves flashed upon his memory. He was
fully awake in an instant, and found himself grappling and struggling
savagely with one of those terrible animals, by moonlight, on a solitary
hillside many miles away from the village, where the watch-fires of the
guard-houses could be seen twinkling afar off at the bottom of the deep
valley, like red stars. His brass gorget, and the massive lace on the
collar of the coat, together with a stout military stock, had saved his
neck from the fangs of the gigantic wolf, which, by straining every energy
of strength and courage, or rather desperation, he grasped with a ferocity
almost equal to its own, and retaining his hold, threw upon the turf
beside him. Its struggles were terrible, and his hands, which encircled
its tough and brawny throat, were torn by its claws; yet he never relaxed
his iron clutch until the breath and strength of his antagonist began to
fail, and then, putting his right hand to his side for his Highland dirk,
he remembered with rage and anguish that it was left behind at his billet.
The moment was indeed a critical one. Two other wolves were approaching
the spot cautiously, and Stuart, remembering how often he had heard of
their overpowering man by numbers, considered himself for ever lost. It
was like some horrible dream, and his heart became filled with an agony of
horror and alarm which it had never known before.
'Heaven help me now!' gasped he. 'Ah! had I
only my dirk, or even a skene-dhu, they would be welcome.' He cried aloud
for aid, but the cries were feeble, as his tongue was swollen, and clove
to his palate with the keenness of his terror ; and ere the echoes of his
last shout died away he was struggling with the others, and was
endeavouring to elude their fang's by rolling over and over, and fighting
fiercely with hands and feet. Scarcely had the two wolves come to the aid
of their half-burked comrade ere Stuart imagined that other sounds than
the echoes of his cry reverberated through the wilderness. It was—what?
the halloo of a true Highland huntsman!
'Hoigh! Diaoul! what's a' this?' cried Dugald
Mhor Cameron, plunging headlong among them, with a long dirk gleaming in
his right hand and a skene-dhu in his left. 6ne wolf fled, another was
pierced thrice to the vitals by Dugald's dirk, and rolled away for several
yards, tearing up the earth in rage and agony, until it was finally
destroyed by the sharp black knife being drawn across its thick throat by
Dugald, who handled it well, being an adroit deer-stalker. The other
savage, which had been so gallantly grasped by Ronald, he despatched by
repeated stabs of the dirk, which he drove home to the hilt, sending
eighteen inches of cold iron into the body at every stroke. While this
passed, poor Stuart, exhausted and overcome, sank backward on the turf,
just as Fassifern rode up with his claymore drawn.
'I trust we have not been too late,' he cried
earnestly, as he leapt from his horse, which had been snorting and shying
aside from the scene of the fray. 'I am sure, Dugald, we answered to his
first cry. He is one of ours ; an officer, too,—Stuart, by heavens!'
'But for Dugald's prompt and gallant succour,
all would have been over with me by this time, colonel,' said Ronald, as
with difficulty he staggered up from the turf, which was plentifully
besprinkled with the blood of his enemies.
'Are you hurt in any way?' was the eager
inquiry of both. 'My hands are torn a little; but my sash and coat are all
rent to fritters.' 'How opportunely Dugald came to save you!'
'Opportune, indeed! I will never be able to
repay him for this night's work.'
'Ochone! Mr. Stuart,' replied the old man, who
was cleaning his weapons in his plaid, 'dinna say a word about thanks;
keep a' them for the kornel there.'
'I was coming over the mountains from
Candeleria,' said Fassifern, 'where I have been president of a
court-martial. Your cries alarmed us within a few yards of this old cross,
and my horse began to snort and rear, refusing to advance a step ; but
trusty Dugald went headlong on, and with his short weapons, I see, has
done you right good service. 'Tis well the matter is no worse, and had the
wolves not given you so severe a mauling, Stuart,' added the colonel with
a smile, as he put his foot in his stirrup, 'I should have sent Claude for
your sword again. You know you should never be without your arms, or
forget the order against strolling more than two miles from camp or
quarters. By my word, these were no ordinary foes to contend with, these
wolves; they are larger than Highland shelties, and their skins will be a
prize for the paisanos in the morning, for Dugald is, of course, too proud
to take fee or reward from the alcaldes.'
'I have escaped their maws by a miracle,' said
Stuart, yet gasping with the excitement of the fierce struggle.
'By nae miracle at all, sir,' said old Dugald,
'by nae miracle; but just by the help o' a teuch auld carle's hand and the
bit cauld iron; and I assure your honours I wad rather face a thoosand
rampaugin wolves than ae kelpie, habgoblin, wraith, spunkie, sheeted
ghaist, deidlicht, broonie, or ony ither scrap o' deevildom sae common at
hame in the Hielands. Hoich, sirs! it was indeed nae sma' matter to cut
the weasens o' thae awfu' monsters o' wolves; but,' said he, holding aloft
his long Highland dagger, which flashed back the rays of the moon, 'but
that is a blade that has rung on the target o' the lham-dearg; and after
that, what could a bold hand not do wi' it?'
'On the target of whom?' asked Ronald. 'The
lham-dearg, sir.' 'The words are Gaelic; but who is he?'
'A spirit wi' a bloody hand, that haunts at
the mirk hour the wood o' Glenmore, in the Grants' country.'
'What has this to do with your dirk?' said
Stuart, who became interested in everything which looked like a northern
Cameron; ''tis an old ghost story, and not one of Dugald's prime ones. But
he is as prosy with his legends as Colin Campbell is about Egypt and Ralph
doesna believe it noo,' muttered Dugald, shaking his white hairs
sorrowfully; 'but when he was a bairn at hame in Fassifern House, I hae
made his vera lugs tingle wi' fear at the name o' the lham-dearg, and he
used to grane and greet tor a licht that he micht see to sleep, as he
said; and in thae days he wadna hae gane into a dark place, to be made
king o' the braw Highlands frae Castle Grant to Lochaber. But noo wars and
campaigning hae learned him to scoff at a' thae matters, though his
faither, the laird (gude guide him!), a man as auld as mysel, believes
every word o' them. I daursay, he doesna believe noo that deidlichts burn
on the piper's grave in the auld kirkyaird at hame; or that spunkies and
fairies bide in the glen o' Auchnacarry, kelpies in Loch-Archaig, or that
the daoine shie haunt the dark holes, cairns, round rings, and unco places
o' the Corrie-nan-gaul in Knoydart, where I mysel hae seen them dancing
Tullochgorum in the bonnie moonlicht.'
'Certainly not, Dugald. What I believed when a
child will scarcely pass now for truth; and I believe you never saw
anything unearthly until Ferintosh had swelled your belt to bursting.
Come, Dugald, acknowledge this to be true,' said Cameron, laughing.
'Maybe ye'll no believe in the red-cap, that
haunts the auld tower at Archaig; and maybe no in the vera taisch?' said
the old servitor, in a voice approaching to a groan, at the other's
apostasy. 'Ochone, maybe no ! although I mysel saw bluid on his hand, and
tauld him o' it the day before the shot struck him there at the battle of
Arroya del Molino.' 'Dugald,' said the colonel, 'I will not argue with you
about the second sight, because I know you have some pretensions to the
character of a taischatr. You certainly have me at vantage there, and your
prediction about the shot at Arroya came true; and exactly twenty-four
hours after you said my hand dropped blood, a musket-shot passed through
it. A very singular coincidence indeed.'
'It was nane,' replied the old Gael firmly,
'it was nane; and I saw the shot before it came, because there was a
wreath before my een, and a' the power o' the taisch was in me.'
'Well, Stuart, what think you of the second
sight?' Ronald was loath to express his disbelief in this superstition,
which found a disciple in the colonel, and so hesitated to reply.
'I see you are too true a Highlander to
disbelieve in its existence, and yet you are reluctant to acknowledge the
truth,' said Fassifern, laughing, while he mistook the other's meaning.
'But let us reach Banos, and over some of the bottled sherry which I
lately got from Lisbon we will discuss these matters.' This proposal was
at once accepted, and they began to descend the narrow and winding pathway
which led from the rugged summits of the sierra towards the village.
Dugald advanced in front, leading the horse of Cameron, who followed
behind with Stuart. The latter thanked his stars for escaping from his
late encounter so easily, having only sustained a few severe scratches and
bruises. While enjoying some of the colonel's pure bottled sherry, a
rarity in Spain, where the wine is ever kept in greasy hog-skins, Ronald
soon forgot his disagreeable adventure at the abogado's cross.