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by E. and H. Heron
(Hesketh V. Prichard, 1876-1922) and
(Kate O'Brien Ryall Prichard, 1851-1935)



THIS story is the story Red Detching, who says that Brunton, of the Indian Public Works Department could corroborate it; but as Brunton is road-making somewhere to the north of Gilgit, his version of the adventure is unattainable. All the incidents happened in Spain during a shooting trip undertaken by Brunton, and supervised by Detching in his character of 'passenger' — under which denomination he has accompanied many and varied expeditions, and seen more things than one.

  As to locality, Detching is vague. He says that since the events occurred upon a mountain range within sight of two continents, and close to the beat of a picturesquely active but not too efficient police force, an exact record of names is unnecessary, for it will be seen that the place is already focussed by the vigilant eyes of the public and of the law. The trip vas undertaken, Detching says, for the purpose of shooting, and his own position may be well illustrated by a slight digression. Once upon a time in September, Detching found himself in a big country-house in the midst of acres of coverts. 'Do you shoot?' asked his host of the little red doctor. 'Oh, yes, I shoot,' replied Detching; 'but I don't know about hitting anything.' so he went as a 'passenger' to Spain, and watched Brunton, who nearly always hits. Brunton was beset with a desire to shoot ibex with horns thirty inches long; but after a fortnight, spent in arranging one batida after another, interspersed with many exhausting days of stalking, had only resulted in the death of a female ibex — shot by mistake when her head was hidden by thorn bushes — Brunton determined to have recourse to the method frequently followed by native hunters, who cut off the ibex in the passes by which they descend to their haunts of ice and rock at dawn.

  Accordingly they left the camp where they had their headquarters early in the day, accompanied by a cazador — whom Brunton insisted on calling a shikari — a couple of gun-carriers, and one or two pack-mules. Detching says the adventure began at midday at the moment when they halted for lunch near the lair of a goatherd, whose only shelter was a lentisco shrub. Brunton fraternised with the man, who happened to be a keen sportsman, as are most of his trade in these parts. The goatherd examined the riles and fowling-pieces with much interest, and later on fell into talk with the gun-carriers, from whom he must have gleaned some information; for, presently, he disappeared while the two Englishmen were bathing in the stream which ran from the gorge above.

  By the time they were ready to start again, it became known that the mules had both fallen lame, and there was nothing for it but to stable them under a ledge of rock, and to push on as well as they could, each man with an extra load.

  Spain in sun and Spain in shadow are two different lands. Spain in sun is best to look upon, but clouded dreary Spain is best for travelling in the corderillas. That day, however, was mercilessly hot, and though with the evening they found themselves on the colder levels, they were still a good distance from the spot they wished to reach.

  They were climbing through a beetling gorge towards a strip of windy blue sky against which a lean thicket trembled. As they reached the summit of the ridge two ravens flapped past, and Brunton threw himself down under an upstanding rock and cursed.

  'That means the dark will be upon us in ten minutes,' he said; 'the ravens are always the first to move.'

  Gaspar, the cazador, suggested camping for a few hours and pushing on when the moon rose above the summits, so as to reach the pass before daybreak.

  From their feet a curving spur, covered with brushwood jutted out like a black scimitar into the centre of the bare, snow-streaked ravine, which already lay in shadow, for the sun was low. Suddenly Gaspar touched Brunton on the arm, and crouching behind the rock pointed up towards a brake of Spanish gorse, growing on a ledge at the further side of the ravine. Through this a small herd of ibex were feeding, one of them a fine male with horns raking grandly back. The last rays of the sun shone red upon them as it peered from the west across the distant stretch of sea. Brunton and Gaspar crept away under cover of the brushwood, which ran like bristles along the crest of the spur. Meanwhile Detching and the other men waited in their places and listened. The short dusk closed rapidly during the ten minutes before the shots rang out. Detching peered in the direction of the ibex. For a second he saw a dark body, a tumbling outline of horns and legs, before it disappeared into the gloom of the chasm below.

  The next moment night was upon them, the limpid, delusive darkness of the Spanish night, and by the time Brunton returned a handful of charcoal was glowing in its appointed place, and the supper well under weigh. Afterwards they wrapped themselves in their saddle-rugs and smoked, staring at the star-powdered sky that seemed close as a roof above them, and listened to the growling talk of the cazador and his companions, who sat grouped together lower down the rocky slope.

  'The question is should we wait here and try to recover that ibex at daybreak, or push forward during the night,' said Brunton drowsily.

  'Can't those carriers retrieve the goat while we go on?' asked Detching. He fancies he dozed while Brunton was pointing out the general idiocy of his proposal. For the next thing he remembers was a kick from Brunton, and an effort on his own part to remember where he was.

  Then he saw that Brunton was on his stomach, calling softly for his rifle. And some huge forms were moving down the slope towards them; for though the air above was clear enough, nothing could be distinguished on the ground. But the rifle was not brought, and Brunton began to crawl off in the direction of the men. Detching sat still. He says that a masterly inactivity has pulled him through many an awkward pass. He could now count five shapes closing in round them. It seemed as if they must be in the middle of a herd. By an uncontrollable impulse he sneezed. Now Detching's sneeze is a thing apart. It is disproportionate and unexpected like the blast of a foghorn. He had begun to feel annoyed with himself for this ill-timed interruption when he noticed that, contrary to custom, it had produced no effect. The circle continued to draw in. Then the inward meaning of the situation dawned upon him, and he checked a whistle.

  'Lord!' sang out the voice of Brunton lower down the hillside; 'they're gees.'

  As he spoke a tiny streak of flame licked upon the rock-face, caught and flared, and discovered half a dozen men with mules standing round: swarthy, blackbearded fellows, sashed and armed.

  Now Spanish brigands are only romantic from a distance, and neither Detching nor Brunton was struck with anything but irritation at the sight of that band of dirty, picturesquely garish men, who rose so suddenly out of the soft southern night.

  Detching sat up and found himself winking at a gleaming gun-barrel.

  'Damned theatrical,' growled Brunton; 'ask 'em what they want.'

  Detching put the question into his best Spanish, being wishful to void any misunderstanding.

  A burly ruffian stepped forward and replied that they must consider themselves prisoners.

  'Whose prisoners?' asked Detching again.

  'The prisoners of Don Quebranta Huesos,' said the man with a laugh, which echoed round the circle like dropping shots.

  'Rot!' said Brunton, 'that's the local name for those bone-breaking vultures.'

  'It also happens to be the name of the brigand chief about whom they were telling some stories last week in the passade,' returned Detching.

  The robber who acted as spokesman now intimated that, it was time to move on, as Don Quebranta was expecting them and did not like to e kept waiting. Resistance being manifestly impossible, Brunton and Detching declared they were ready; the brigands formed up round them, and they began first to march upwards and then in a lateral direction northward, every step taking them deeper into the sombre sierras. Presently the mules were left behind, and the prisoners were allowed to walk together whenever it was possible to walk at all. After climbing and stumbling along steep and thorn-grown ways for miles, they arrived in the early dawn before a dense stretch of thicket, in the cover of which they halted for a few hours' rest.

  In reply to a question of Detching's, Vicente, the spokesman, explained that they would reach the retreat of Don Quebranta about nightfall.

  'This chief seems a swell in his own way; I wonder what he's like,' said Brunton, as they lay down. 'It's disgusting luck!'

  'I hope he will turn out to be of another brand to the kind that bite their prisoners' noses off by way of reminder to hurry up with the ransom,' Detching remarked.

  'I can't collect any ransom,' returned Brunton; 'a man's pay doesn't run to ransoms on any big scale.'

  'That's so,' said Detching. 'The end of it will be that we shall be forced to join the band, and tie yellow handkerchiefs round our heads, and live up here in the mountains, until such time as we may be caught by the guardias civiles, and all that's left of us taken down to the plains to die.' At which point, before they had time to look any further into the future, they fell asleep, being dog-tired.

  In the raw morning darkness they were awakened to recommence their journey upwards through matted undergrowth and scattered patches of pine, beneath which the night still lingered.

  Late in the afternoon a halt was called, the men closed in round the prisoners, who were blindfolded and led by the firm grip of dirty brown hands through the scrub; then the wind blew more sharply on their faces, and they knew that they trod on wiry grass, which in turn changed to a surface of bare echoing rock. Passing out of this tunnel, they were secured by having their hands tied, and, when their eyes were uncovered, they found themselves in a small enclosed glade with sheer precipitous sides. The ground was furred with a coarse and hardy grass, but there were thickets of flowering shrubs and a backing of windblown pines, all pictured out by the blaze of torches. The night had fallen, and they perceived the smoulder of a sinking fire, which seemed to burn half way the cliff. They were led by a winding path towards it. Crouched over the fire, on the little terrace fronting a cave, sat a man wrapped up in a cloak and wearing a wide hat of felt, which entirely shadowed his face. He was very small, and, judging from the hand that rested on his knee, very thin.

  At a word from Vicente he rose and bowed, sweeping his hat to his knees, and thus revealing his face. There they saw the narrow wedge of bald head, the hooked nose, the scarlet eyelids — in fact, all the strange and cruel aspect of the quebranta huesos paraphrased into a human face.

  'To whom have I the pleasure of addressing myself, señores?' he asked with extreme and unexpected politeness.

  'Perhaps, as you have forced this interview upon us,' replied Detching, 'you will give us a lead.'

  'Certainly, señor. Few men in Spain have not heard of Don Quebranta Huesos.'

  In return Detching gave his own name and Brunton's.

  'You are travelling for pleasure?' went on the little chief.

  'For sport.'

  'I trust, señor, that you have no reason to be dissatisfied with the resources of our mountains.'

  'None at all,' replied Detching hastily, seeing that Brunton was a very angry man indeed and inclined to speak, 'but we don't find certain other little matters quite so pleasant.'

  Don Quebranta raised his yellow birdlike hand in deprecation.

  'In this world of change, señor, it is necessary for a man to be equal to his fortune. I sincerely regret putting you to inconvenience. I hope my men met with your approval — that they conducted your little affair with courtesy. As long as you are my guests, señores, you may command me.'

  'You are very good,' began Brunton sourly.

  Don Quebranta interposed.

  And now, señores, if you will follow me, we can arrange all that lies between us over a box of cigarettes.'

  So saying, he gathered his cloak around him, and preceded them into the cave, which had been made into the semblance of a comfortless room. A smoky lantern upon the table discovered a few chairs, a case of books, and a trestle bed.

  Don Quebranta waved them to seats.

  'I must apologise for the rudeness of your lodging, but, your stay with me will be only just as long as you choose to make it.'

  'Then I should choose to go now,' said Brunton.

  'But consider, señor. With all my desire to serve you, I must ask two thousand pounds of your English money for a ransom, and even then I shall only bring myself with sorrow to say goodbye to you, my friends, at the head of our little valley. My followers must live — hence the ransom.

  'We are poor men,' replied Detching, 'and are not likely to be able to get together two hundred pounds between us.'

  'We of the mountains must live, and I have said two thousand pounds,' returned the little pale man. 'If you, señores, have not so much money, is there not the British Government, which is rich as a fable, and are there not those who love you? Perhaps even a public subscription — who knows?'

  'I warn you that you will burn yourself over this affair!' exclaimed Brunton.

  The brigand's red eyelids flickered.

  'My turn may be coming some day, but not yet!' he answered, with a change of tone; then resuming his suavity, he added: 'Now I will leave you to consider, for this affair must be finished within the week.'

  'And the alternative? Suppose we can't raise the amount?' said Detching.

  Don Quebranta stopped.

  'Alternatives are so often embarrassing, señor. Permit me to withhold the alternative.'

  'But we prefer to hear it.'

  'The alternative lies with them — I grieve to say it lies with them,' said the brigand with his soft, sorrowful courtesy, pointing to the gaitered figures that flitted across the glade. 'They are sequestradores, who hold to ransom, not pilferers. I can assure you, señores, that I should be heartbroken to have to resort to their customs.'

  'Which means that you intend to throw us to your dogs.'

  'We have laws — even I cannot break them. And these dogs of mine have long fangs, though they kill slowly.' He stood in the middle of the floor, his cloak falling about him like the bedraggled plumage of a vulture, and from the apex of its folds be thrust forward his white wedge-like head with its thickened blinking eyelids, as he went on: 'A finger on Monday, an ear on Tuesday, on Wednesday — but why continue?' And the little soft-spoken, fierce-hearted gentleman drew his cloak round him and walked tenderly out of their presence into the gloom.

  Brunton sat down beside Detching.

  'Do you know, I think the little brute's in earnest,' he said.

  'That's just it. He's very much in earnest.'

  'He said the inside of a week. We might get something done in course of time, but these beggars are impatient it seems.'

  'And their customs are beastly.'

  'How did it go? A finger on Monday ——'

  'Oh, dry up!' said Detching; 'I wonder now what we should do.'

  'I could fall upon him and break his weasel-neck for him,' suggested Brunton. 'Don't say a word — I'd like it!'

  'I'm afraid that would not meet all the difficulties of our case. Your plan is just a little too simple.'

  Whereupon they both laughed, but that kind of laughter is only skin-deep.

  Like many other pleasures, the profession of sequestrador, or brigand who holds to ransom, is good while it lasts. The chief is a local god, a enjoys a wide popularity. The brigand, who respects himself and knows his business, gives with the one hand while he robs with the other. He handsomely subsidises the poor all along the line of his depredations, thus securing spies as well as adherents. And for so long as the carbineers fail to lay lim by the heels he rules, a two-faced Janus, with generosity written on the one face and relentlessness on the other.

  The less pleasant of these two aspects was turned upon the Englishmen, who were helpless in the delicate hands of Don Quebranta Huesos, with death — to be dealt out in ghastly oddments — awaiting them at the end of their eight days' captivity. Their one hope rested on the possible adroit and felicitous action of stout gentleman who represented H.B.M. in the little white town by the shore under the mountains. So they concocted an urgent letter to the consul, written in pencil on the back of an envelope.

  'Ingham will move slowly,' remarked Detching, as they read over the appeal. 'It's his way. And meanwhile this scoundrel will keep sending him bits of us to hurry him up with the coin. I wish I'd stayed at home.' Brunton looked long out into the darkness without answering, until the figure of Don Quebranta reappeared in the arch of the cave.

  For three days they lived in golden sunshine, and on the fourth morning a lean-limbed mule-boy, travelling through the sierras, brought an official letter, which made it known that Ingham had wired for instructions. Also that he had applied to the Spanish executive, who were prepared to take action by sending a troop of carbineers into the mountains to search for the brigands. This help Ingham had for the present declined for manifest reasons.

  Detching told the little chief how matters stood.

  'Ah! I know Señor Ingham. I have had transactions with him before to-day, though indeed it may have been under another name. He haggles like a hen-wife at a fair. It is not well to bargain with the men of my race when the knife is loose in the belt. He will make an offer by-and-bye, and I shall know how to answer him,' was Don Quebranta's significant remark.

  'Then he turned his inflamed eyes in a scrutinising look upon Brunton, who afterwards told Detching that he seldom felt worse than during those few seconds, when he knew the bandit was choosing which slice to take first.

  Brunton had met all Don Quebranta's show of civility with a rigid and unconcealed contempt. And it was evident that when the chief deemed it necessary to take the alternative measures hinted at, Brunton would be the man to suffer.

  The situation was becoming awkward, and Detching felt the moment had come to put into effect a notion from which he hoped something. He presently signed to Brunton to leave him with the chief.

  Don Quebranta watched the stalwart figure of the young man as he lounged down the winding path, and said:

  'The Señor is a strong man, but his ears are peculiarly small. Has he the pleasure of Señor Ingham's acquaintance?'

  'Knows him well,' replied Detching.

  'Then, perhaps, Señor Ingham might recognise one of those ears if he saw it?' asked the chief urbanely.

  'Don Quebranta Huesos may have many captives in the future, but before very long he will not know whether their ears be large or small — or if they have ears at all — unless he is told,' observed Detching.

  The little brigand shivered and thrust his hat over his brows.

  'If this should ever be so, then my children will tell me,' he replied, with a slight gesture towards his men, some of whom were cooking their evening meal in sight of the cave.

  'Within no long time the mountains will grow dim to you and fade away by degrees,' went on Detching. 'When the snows come night will indeed be black, but the day will also be brown; and when the winter falls again, all will be black for ever.'

  'Before the day grows black for me I shall be white for ever!' exclaimed the chief.

  'But the end may come before you desire it,' said Detching, watching Don Quebranta, whose thin fingers played nervously with his knife-hilt. 'The children of the sierras love not a blind father. And there is a heavy blood-money waiting for the traitor who would sell his chief.' As he finished Don Quebranta's long knife flew through the air with a hiss and hung quivering in the back of the chair from which Detching had sprung.

  'The devil is in your tongue,' cried Don Quebranta, still feeling about for another weapon. 'He who utters ill-fortune, compels ill-fortune.'

  'Señor, listen. You are a man of birth and education, one who knows what science can do. Suppose I could help you?'

  The chief dropped back into his chair.

  'I have watched your hands and said, "This is an artist, his fingers quick and skilful." Now I understand why — it is because you are a doctor. But you cannot help me.' He shook his head slowly.

  'How do you know?'

  Don Quebranta smiled a spasmodic smile.

  'Because I have tried. I had a doctor fetched here in the night from the town under the mountains. He was very much afraid, but he promised to cure me. He sent for drugs, and placed them on my eyes. I suffered many things, but day by day I grew worse, and my eyes were made a torment. Therefore, I sent him home again; but, they tell me, he died on the way.'

  'Our English Schools of Medicine excel those of Spain. Let me look at your eyes.'

  The chief took off his soft hat with gentle gravity.

  'If you are so kind, it may be tried. Besides there is a penalty. It is known what happened to the doctor on the plains. I have not heard that he died comfortably.'

  As he spoke he thrust his angled vulture face towards Detching who made an examination. Now, although Detching has never contributed to the literature of the subject, he has had a wide experience in Asia and Africa, and is a very sound eye-doctor. After an interval he spoke.

  'I can cure you in a month — not less, perhaps more. If I succeed, will you let us go?'

  'And what has the Señor Brunton done for me that I should let him go?' asked Don Quebranta. 'Shall I tell you? He insults me at all times by his looks. No, señor, he must pay or ——'

  'He is my friend, and I consider that I have something t say to the bargain.'

  Don Quebranta shrugged his shoulders under his cloak. he was always chilly.

  'So the kid said to the wolf,' he remarked politely. 'No, señor, you must leave the result to me. I will make no bargain. If you are satisfied to trust, well and good. What is your answer?'

  'Who cares what the kid answered?' returned Detching smiling.

  As the days went by Detching began to see wherein lay the power of the soft-spoken, terrible little chief. The yellow, bloodless hands dealt out life and death swiftly and without appeal. Reward came as unsparingly as punishment. At the same time, it occasionally occurred to Detching that the pendulum of the brigand's mind was not evenly weighted. He was insanely jealous of his position. He took council of none. He kept his subordinates ignorant of his designs. Only he made them know their master.

  In due time the month wore round, while two or three messages passed up and down the passes between the chief and Ingham, whose haggling instincts were given full swing while the crafty little brigand laughed in his sleeve, sending evasive replies and laying down impossible conditions to prolong the negotiations.

  Often during the evening hours as Detching sat with Don Quebranta over the fire on the terrace, the Spaniard would wander in talk into the past, making allusions which proved that his early life had been spent among very different scenes. One night as they chatted, Detching said: 'The month is almost at an end, señor.'

  Don Quebranta sighed.

  'It is true,' he answered. 'My eyes are healed, and I must lose the pleasure of your society. You will doubtless have gathered that I have not always been a vulture in an eyrie. My house was in the —— But that is forbidden. Now I am the quebranta huesos, a proud and solitary bird. My mode of life is rough, and I have no companion. I can assure you, señor, that your society has been a great boon to a very lonely man. I find it hard to make up my mind to say good-bye. Besides, the ransom of your friend has not yet arrived. But indeed you are free to go without him, if by any chance you are in a hurry to return to your own people.'

  'You know that I cannot leave Brunton,' said Detching.

  'And how can I let him go without a ransom? My children will grumble.'

  'So they will,' agreed Detching, who by this time knew the man. 'Only yesterday I heard your fellows saying that you would not dare to let us go without a ransom.'

  Don Quebranta was sitting in his usual attitude of a sick bird, his head buried in his cloaked shoulders. Now his beak-like nose and head shot up with the action of some startled wild thing.

  'They said that?' he inquired softly.

  'Someone said so. I don't know who, for I only overheard it. And, further, another added that the only thing in heaven or earth which you feared was the public opinion of your followers.'

  The peaked, pallid face worked.

  'They have not spoken to me,' he said in his gentlest tones.

  'Some opinions are better hidden. Among such as these, public feeling is only uttered through a knife in the dark.'

  'The public opinion of these pigs may go travelling through the sierras. I permit no opinions!' said Don Quebranta, and he remained sunk in sullen thought until Detching rose to say good-night before retiring to his bundle of paja within the cave.

  Don Quebranta rose also and held out his hand.

  'Señor, because you have been the only friend I have known for twenty years and taken a pleasure in, you and your companion shall go free at dawn! You shall also see the public opinion of my followers parade itself. It will be amusing, I promise you.'

  'And I'm very sure we shall see something uncommon,' said Detching later as he gave the news to Brunton. 'I wonder how our little man will cow all this dirty crew. However, he's a good backer to have on our side.'

  During the night they heard an amount of movement in the outer cave, and when they were called out in the morning, they saw the whole band was gathered inside its rocky walls, while near the opening Don Quebranta sat on a raised and draped platform, rocking himself.

  'The time has come, my children,' he said in his low silky voice, after saluting the Englishmen, 'to decide what shall be done with our captives. I have heard rumours that some have been offering suggestions. Is that so?'

  The robbers drew a deep nervous breath and closed in nearer to each other with a curious shrinking movement. But not one of them answered.

  'We did indeed demand a large ransom for these English gentlemen, but nothing has yet been paid. Meanwhile one of them has healed me of my bitter disease, and upon some amongst you also he has laid the hand of the restorer. Therefore, what shall we do in return?'

  'Cut down our demand by half,' said a voice in the background.

  'Who spoke, señores? Come out, my friend. It is well to see the face of the man who talks with.'

  There was a hustling in the crowd, and a big sullen fellow was thrust to the front.

  'So it is you, Vicente? I have long known you had views, and I am glad at last to have a chance of hearing them from yourself. So what say you to releasing our prisoners without ransom?'

  'It must not be done,' replied the man with a sulky courage.

  Don Quebranta laughed in his soft, wicked, sibilant way.

  'But if I say it shall be so?'

  Vicente for answer, with a rapid turn of the hand, covered the chief with his pistol.

  'Pray wait a moment. For if you fire you will kill every living soul in the cave,' interposed Don Quebranta in his most polished manner. 'This curtain behind me is lined with power-barrels, and I stand upon others. Now, my children, choose between this fool and me. If any of you shoot, you are very certain to hit the powder-kegs. Further, unless our good Vicente is at once disarmed, we will all go together.'

  He stood upon his lean legs, his pistol turned not on the picturesquely attired group of men in front of him, but downwards at the red-draped platform. It was clear he was altogether in earnest. And so the band seemed to think. There was a scuffle as a dozen hairy, brown hands seized and disarmed the rebel who had dared to hold an opinion of his own.

  'That is well, my children,' said Don Quebranta, turning his white head and bleared eyes from side to side. 'We are once more reconciled. And for you, señores,' he went on, making a sign of leave-taking to Detching, 'it is farewell. You, Joaquin, will fetch these gentlemen a fowling-piece, not one of their own, which the goatherd envied, and which are in truth most excellent, but an old one. Then you with Manuel and Enriquez shall lead them to the road below the waterfall.'

  Detching hesitated. He feared to leave the little vulture at the mercy of his fellows. Don Quebranta read his thoughts. He came to the edge of the improvised platform and shook Detching's hand.

  'There is nothing to fear, my friend. I thank you for your skill and your companionship. And you, Señor Brunton, I salute. When next your life lies in the hand of another, respect him if for that fact alone. Farewell! Leave me with my children. It is not good that strangers should look upon the wrath of Don Quebranta Huesos.'

  So they left him standing there with his huddled cloak, and his bald-browed malignant face, overmastering by sheer force of will two score of turbulent malcontents. Before the Englishmen entered the tunnel they heard horrible shrieks of agony from the cave, and the guides crossed themselves and muttered 'Aves' to be defended from the talons and tender mercies of Don Quebranta Huesos.

  This is the story as Detching tells it in support of his often repeated assertion that a doctor's is the best travelling trade in the world.