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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 15 - The Banditti

Treading softly and warily, they came to an opening in the wood, and found themselves close upon the ruins of the ancient structure. It occupied the summit of a grassy mound, which sloped down on all sides, and where the mouldered remains of some ancient crosses and tombstones lay half sunk and buried among the long rank grass. The chapel had almost disappeared; little remained save the crypt; and at intervals, amid a heap of shattered stones, rose tall ornamented buttresses (surviving the intermediate walls), their summits glimmering in the moonlight, which streamed through loopholes and yawning rents in the massive masonry, showing the weeds and grass which waved in every nook and corner, flourishing around the prostrate effigies of departed warriors, whose monumental busts lay stretched like rigid corpses under their ruined canopies.

'The old kirk o' Inchisla just ower again!' exclaimed Evan, as he surveyed the heaps of prostrate pillars and crumbled arches with feelings of awe and veneration.

'Santos! will you be silent?' asked Pedro, in a fierce whisper in Spanish. 'I dinna ken what ye say, mon; ye are waur than an Aberdonian.' 'Keep silence, Evan!' said Ronald; 'we are close upon their lair now.' A ray of light, streaming through a cross-formed loophole, drew them towards it; and on looking in, they beheld the assembled conclave of the worthies they were in search of, but found them more numerous than Lazaro Gomez had given them to believe. In the crypt, or lower vaults of the chapel, stood upwards of twenty, perhaps thirty, black-browed and swarthy desperadoes, clustered around the marble pedestal of a tomb, upon which were displayed a great quantity of coin, jewellery, and various articles of value, all glittering in the streaming blaze of a huge oil-lamp placed amid them. Most of the fellows were attired in embroidered jackets, adorned with rich military lace torn from the uniforms of the dead, laced hose, and high-crowned sombreros adorned with feathers, or long cloth head-dresses resembling a nightcap. Some, however, were in absolute rags; none appeared to have been shaven, for a month at least, and had their ferocious faces covered with masses of black glossy hair, — probably as a disguise, to be removed as occasion required. All carried pistols and poniards in their sashes or waist-belts, and most of them were armed with military carbines, muskets, and accoutrements, French and English, thousands of which were in these days to be found on every battle-field, and to be had for the trouble of taking them away. Trunks, portmanteaus, mails, and innumerable articles of plunder lay piled in various corners.

Fastened by strong cords to the pillars which supported the groined roof of the crypt, appeared five or six fierce Spanish mastiff dogs, animals of a reddish colour generally, larger and stronger than British greyhounds. They seemed aware of the approach of strangers: every moment they made the hollow vaults ring with their hoarse yells, while they rolled about their fierce red eyes, and shook the snow-white foam from their jet-black muzzles as they strained and strove, almost strangling themselves in the attempt, to snap the cords which bound them to the stone columns.

'Senor, we must retire, if it please you,' whispered Pedro; 'it would be worse than Moorish rashness if three of us were to encounter thirty such devils. And then the dogs------!'

'I fear we must abandon the attempt,' replied the officer, in a voice of stern regret. 'Discretion is the better part of valour, and Narvaez and I may meet again; but now------'

'It is just a temptin' o' Providence, sir,' said Evan, 'to bide here, wi' sic a nest o' born deils below us. What an awfu' looking gallows rogue the chield is that counts out the siller!'

The light fell fully upon the robber's face as Evan spoke. 'It is, — it is the very villain who fired at me near Merida,' muttered Ronald, almost aloud, in a tone of uncontrollable passion, and feeling scarcely able to restrain himself from shooting Cifuentes dead upon the spot; but he repressed the fierce sentiments of intense hatred, indignation, and horror which he entertained for him, and paused even when his hand was on the lock of the musket which he carried.

'Whelp !' exclaimed one furiously to Narvaez, 'think you I wi!l thus tamely submit to be defrauded of my share in this matter ? Remember, you are not at your old work of dealing out sour wine at Albuquerque ! The rings I took from the image of our Lady at Majorga were alone worth two hundred duros.'

'Pesetas, you mean, Julian Diaz — pesetas; they were copper trash.' 'I say duros; they were pure and beaten gold, embossed richly. Methinks I should best know : I have prayed at that shrine some hundred times ere——' He paused, and grew pale.

'Bethink you, Julian, of my last night's work, and------'

'Bah! The stabbing of an old abogado.'

'Old? Perdition seize him ! he fought fiercely for his ill-gotten gold. I broke the blade of a choice knife on the bones that cover his hard heart But silence, Diaz, my pet! Though we may eat flesh in Lent, and rifle our Lady of Majorga, we would scorn to cheat each other.

Honour among — among------'

'Thieves! End the adage at once, driveller,' cried he whom they named Julian Diaz, a wild-looking fellow, with a broken nose and a frightful squint. 'Honour,' he added impatiently, 'sounds strangely indeed in such a rogue's mouth as thine, Narvaez, — the broken keeper of a wine casa.' 'Why not ?' cried a third. 'Every man, from the king and the soldier down to the lowest abogado, swears now by his word of honour ; and why may not we?'

'Agreed, agreed. Go on, diavolo! go on with the distribution,' cried the others impatiently.

'Fiend take these dogs ! what do they growl at? Some one surely approaches.'

Impossible,' answered Diaz. 'Lazarillo is watching the only approach, and all is right; so count on, Narvaez.'

'Where was I? Ay — three hundred and ninety-eight, three hundred and ninety-nine, four hundred reals,' continued Narvaez, counting the money, ' are one hundred pesetas; now, we are thirty in number, including Lazarillo-------'

'But the necklace and rings which I took from the old lawyer's daughter?' interrupted the avaricious Julian.

'San Jago of Compostella wither your accursed tongue !' exclaimed Cifuentes, grasping fiercely the hilt of his poniard; ' how often am I to lose count by your interruptions? Allow me to deal to each man his share, and then preach, as of old, until you are weary. When you left your cloister at San Juan, you should have left there your monkish greed with your beads and cowl. One hundred pesetas, then, is — is — twenty duros,' etc., etc.; and so on he continued to reckon and count, while his brother desperadoes watched round in silence, with lowering looks of eagerness, ferocity, and avarice, their hard-featured countenances appearing like those of demons, as the yellow lustre of the lamp fell on their harsh outlines.

'Let us retire now, while we may do so in safety,' whispered Ronald. 'But how now, Pedro ! what is the matter with you?' he asked on observing that the face of the Spaniard was pale, fierce, and betrayed symptoms of deep excitement.

'Ah! senor officiate,' he replied in a scarcely audible voice, 'Julian Diaz, the wretch who was this moment disputing with the master rogue, has done me more wrong than even his life can atone for.' 'How — how so? Speak low and quickly.'

'Two years ago I was about to be wedded to a girl of Merida, Isobel Zuares, — a fair creature, senor, and of good birth, for her grandfather had been an alcalde. The very evening before our marriage, this fiend Julian Diaz, who was then a monk in the Convento de San Juan, sacrilegiously conceived a passion for her at the confessional, and bore her that night by force to the forest of Albuquerque. Dios! O Dios! senor, I never again beheld her, — never again in life at least: poor Isobel!' He paused a moment, and the quivering muscles of his face, which appeared pale as that of a spectre in the moonlight, showed the inward agony of his soul.

'Well, Pedro, and this Diaz——'

'Since that day has been a robber and outlaw : as such he has eluded my search. But now——' He cocked and raised his carbine.

'For Heaven's sake — for our own sakes, beware what you do, Gomez ! We must retreat rather than attack. Our lives would pay for our rashness in encountering so many.'

'God be wi' us! Would ye be temptin' Providence by firing on sic a nest o' caterans?' said Evan angrily as he dragged Pedro from the wall towards the gloomy dingle. 'Come awa, ye desperate loon. If ye haud your life at a bawbee only, I haud mine dearer than a' the goud in the hill o' Keir; and there lies the ransom o' seven crowned kings.'

'Diavolo! I will not be restrained,' cried the dragoon fiercely, disengaging himself from the grasp of the Highlander. 'I will revenge Isobel Zuares, or die!' He rushed to the loophole, and fired at the group of banditti. Julian Diaz, shot through the heart, fell dead among his terrified comrades.

'Follow me, senors! I know every pass and thicket of the wood, and will easily elude their pursuit,' exclaimed Pedro, dashing into the bushes, and threading his way at random through the maze of dark thickets and entangled underwood. The two mountaineers, acting on the first impulse of the moment, also sought safety by retiring, and followed Pedro with ease and rapidity through every obstacle, having been accustomed from their boyhood to thread the dense pine forests of the Scottish highlands.

On they hurried at random, pressing aside the heavy bushes and branches, getting themselves bruised and torn by sharp brambles and hard stumps; but wounds and contusions were unfelt or unheeded in the excitement of the moment, as they pressed forward regardless of immediate consequences. Ronald was boiling with inward rage and vexation to find himself retiring thus from wretches whom he so heartily hated and despised, and more than once he almost resolved to stand and fight against them to the death; but his discretion overruled his desperate resolution, pointing out that flight and deferring his revenge till another time would be the most prudent course to pursue ; but that a future time would ever be, seemed at present very doubtful. Fiercely in pursuit, following their path with scrupulous precision, came the outlaws, eager for plunder and revenge. These savage desperadoes had, however, been distanced by some hundred yards ; but their shouts, outcries, and the tread of their feet were distinctly heard, as they pursued with the speed and accuracy of men accustomed to the ground, and to the irregular warfare of guerillas.

Now and then the gloom of the dark wood was illumined by a lurid flash, as a random shot was fired in the direction of the fugitives, who more than once had narrow escapes from being killed or wounded; the latter was to be dreaded, as it would have ensured, perhaps, a death of torture from the poniards of the banditti. A part of the forest was now gained where the trees grew thinner, and the ground was more open; but their path was embarrassed by piled masses of rocks, roots and stumps of decayed trees, entwined bushes, fallen cork-trees, deep gorges and holes, and here and there the stony bed of some bubbling brook. Nevertheless, they still kept their pursuers at the same distance, and trod on quickly and in silence.

The moon, which had been obscured for some time, now broke forth and lighted the wild scenery with the pale splendour of its silvery light.

'These wretches are undoubtedly gaining upon us,' said Ronald, pausing a moment to listen and draw breath. 'Your ill-timed rashness, Pedro, will certainly cost us our lives.'

'For my own I care not; but I regret that yours, noble senor, or that of my gallant comrade, should be placed in such deadly peril by me.'

'It was a temptin' o' Providence to attack sic a gang,' observed Evan, who had begun to comprehend Spanish a little. 'O'd, sir! gin we had but ten o' our ain braw fellows here, we would soon gar them ca' a halt.'

'Yes; oh ! had we but so many of the Gordon Highlanders here, I would soon give these vagabonds fight, thirty of them though there be.'

'Twenty-eight, senor; my hand has struck two from the muster-roll,' said Pedro, ducking his head to avoid a shot which whistled past.

'There they are now. How it stings me to the heart's core to fly thus before such a despicable crew!'

As the moon shone forth again, their pursuers were distinctly seen behind, bounding over rocks, and leaping through bushes, clearing every impediment with the activity of roes, while the wild yells, maledictions, and blasphemy, with which they startled the far echoes of the lonely forest, imparted to the scene a singular and exciting, but certainly terrible effect.

Some becoming weary, or missing the track, their numbers were now diminished to about a score, and shot upon shot they sent after the three fugitives, the glitter of whose polished appointments they could plainly discern in the moonlight.

'Fire on them ! take a cool and deliberate aim, that every shot may take down its man!' cried Ronald, in a voice which had become hoarse with passion and fatigue ; while, by way of example, he levelled the musket of the dead robber over a fragment of rock, and let fly its contents at the nearest pursuer, who fell with a shriek that started the wild birds in the farthest recesses of the wood, and gave a temporary check to the ardour of the banditti, who still followed them closely, but more warily — firing at them from behind rocks and bushes, maintaining a running-skirmish, which, notwithstanding the danger, had something very exciting in it, and pleased Ronald's bold and fiery disposition better than the unresisting manner of their previous flight.

'Our Lady of Majorga assist us!' cried Pedro, in a voice of dismay 'We are lost now, senor: the fiends have brought up the dogs to their assistance.'

'Pause not a second, but fire and reload; we have steel and lead for the dogs, as well as for their less noble masters. Excellent! that shot told well, Evan.'

'Ay, sir, the fallow is kicking up his shoon like a red-rae. I see his legs in the moonlicht dangling ower the earn o' stanes,' replied the other, coolly trailing his piece, and ramming another charge hard home.

'But o'd, sir, look at thae awfu' black tykes louping ower scaur and bush, bank and brae, like fairies, or sic-like awsome things. Sleuth-dogs, I declare the born deevils!'

'Demonios! senors. I tell you we are lost,' said Pedro, in a tone of anger and impatience. 'You know not the unmatched ferocity of our Spanish mastiffs. They are yet far off; but should they reach us, all the rotten bones in the relicario of San Juan would not save us, if we had them here.'

'Take courage, sargento! I place more reliance upon a strong hand and a bold heart, than all the relicarios in Spain; but, certes, these are most devilish antagonists.'

Leaping over every intervening obstacle with incredible speed, onward came the six mastiff dogs, yelling and growling as if Pandemonium had broken loose. Clearing rock and bush at a bound, on they came, their glossy skins and starting eyes shining and gleaming in the light, which showed distinctly one that had outstripped its comrades. Its growls were deep and hoarse; the snow-white foam was dropping on the grass and leaves from its red open mouth, as it came careering forward with the fearlessness, ferocity, and determination of some diabolical spirit.

'For this one I will reserve my fire,' said Stuart, knowing himself to be a deadly shot; 'meanwhile blaze away, and aim steadily, brave hearts!'

'A minute more, and it will be upon us: one must certainly become its victim,' replied Pedro: 'that victim must be me, if my poniard fails to despatch it. My rashness brought this about, and I am ready to pay the penalty.'

'Pshaw! never despond. Mark that fellow with the red cap.'

'He is down, senor,' replied the other coolly, as he shot the man dead.

'I can die content. I have gained vengeance on Julian Diaz, and I should have been no true Spaniard had I not revenged myself.'

'I will hold you but medio Espanol, if you talk thus. Courage, good Pedro ! I will rid us of this pursuer, — my aim is deadly.'

'Could we but escape this one, our safety would be secured. On the other side of this stream is a cavern, the mouth of which is concealed and overgrown with wild vines ; but I know it well, as I do every foot of ground hereabout. Let us but gain it, and we can remain there in safety until some assistance arrives. We are now close on the road that leads from La Nava to Albuquerque.'

They found themselves on the brink of a rushing torrent, which, hurrying down from the summits of the Sierra de Montanches, swept over its rugged channel towards the Guadiana, seeking the most unfrequented and solitary gorges and defiles to wander through.

'Let us jump into the burn, sir,' cried Evan eagerly. 'Let us jump in, and gang up the water a wee bit, and the sleuth hounds will sune tyne the scent. My faither, the piper, aye telled that was the only way to get rid o' evil speerits and sic-like, to put a rinnin water between them and yoursel.'

'Right, Evan! we are almost safe. Plunge in: follow me!' cried Ronald, springing into the stream, which rose to his waist: the others followed. Keeping close under some weeping willows, that thickly overhung the water, they eluded the search of the ferocious dog, which at that instant gave a yell of disappointment as it shook the foam from its chaps, and stood panting and growling on the bank above them. It next ran fiercely to and fro, snorting and snuffing the air, and tearing up huge pieces of turf with its sharp fangs, as if to discover the lost prey.

'We must cross and gain the cavern now, senor, while the rogues are so far in our rear,' said Pedro Gomez, after they had advanced up the bed of the current a little way, treading with difficulty on the slippery pebbles. 'I know the path, senor officiate; follow me promptly, if you please, — now is the critical time to elude them altogether.' Pedro sprang with agility up the steep bank; Ronald followed; but poor Evan, encumbered by his wet tartan kilt, which in the hurry he had neglected to lift in the Highland manner, stumbled in the centre of the rushing torrent, and at the moment he fell backwards the fierce quadruped sprang upon him from the bank above with a wild yell, and seizing him by the thick folds of his filledh-beg, drew him under water. He was so much disconcerted at finding himself grasped by the terrible foe, that he was only able to utter a faint cry when the stream closed over him; but yet he struggled fiercely with his growling antagonist.

'God, he is lost!' exclaimed Ronald, when on looking back he beheld the danger of his faithful follower. Half swimming, he hurried to the spot, with his broadsword shortened in his hand, and grasping the dog by the throat, plunged the sharp weapon twice through its body. Its teeth relaxed the hold of Evan's tartan, and the quivering carcass floated bleeding down the stream ; while the rescued Highlander, propping himself with his musket (which luckily he had never relinquished), sprang up the bank, where he shook himself like a water-dog, the wet streaming from his bonnet and every part of his dress.

'Viva! noble cavalier; gallantly done! Follow me, — this is the cavern,' exclaimed Pedro; and rushing up a steep ascent, they followed his example in plunging at once through a thicket of dark green bushes, and found themselves in a gloomy hole, the extent or height of which it was impossible to discover, being involved in utter darkness. The densely thick foliage around the entrance formed a complete exclusion to the light of the moon, which now revealed a dozen or more of their pursuers on the opposite bank of the stream, about which they hunted in every direction for some trace of those they had pursued, and urged on their dogs, which, now completely at fault, ran up and down, scenting among the willow-trees and shelving rocks, mingling their hoarse baying with the loud and bitter curses of the banditti.

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