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Romance of War (or The Highlanders in Spain)
Chapter 38 - An Adventure

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 life.

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 usual.

One evening, 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 legend.

'Pooh!' said 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 Abercromie.'

'He 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.

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