The Young Buglers by G. A. Henty
Chapter IX. With the Guerillas.
It was on a fine morning at the end of March that a cortege of muleteers and mules left the little town of Alonqua. It was now four months since the Scudamores left the army, and in the intervening time they had tramped through a large portion of Spain. They had carried with them only a dozen or so little despatches done up in tiny rolls of the length and about the thickness of a bodkin, These were sewn inside the lining of their coats, in the middle of the cloth where it was doubled in at the seams, so that, even were the clothes to be examined carefully and felt all over, the chances of detection were slight indeed. They had each, on starting, half a dozen pieces of Spanish gold coin sewn between the thicknesses of leather of the soles of each of their shoes, for they did not start in the beggar clothes in which they had first disguised themselves. Their clothes were, indeed, worn and somewhat patched, but were of stout material, and they wore shoes, but no stockings. They had, indeed, the appearance of Spanish boys of the peasant class. The weather in the north of Spain is often very cold in winter, and the boys felt that, with rags and bare feet, they should suffer severely. All that they had to say and do had been learned by heart. The names and addresses of the agents of the British Government at every town had been laboriously learned before starting, and, as Peter said ruefully, it was worse than a dozen Greek impositions.
At each place of any importance they would find the person to whom they were instructed to apply, would accost him with some password, and would be put up by him while they remained there. When they had gained the intelligence they required--of the number of French troops in the place and its neighborhood, a knowledge always obtained by going round, counting the men on parade, or, in the case of small villages, finding out easily enough from a peasant the number, quartered there, they would write a report on the number the intentions as far as they could learn them, the amount of food in store, and the sentiments of the population, would enclose the despatch in a goose-quill and give it to their host, who was responsible for forwarding it.
In a great number of cases, indeed, the man to whom they were accredited was a muleteer. These men hated the French with a hatred even more deep and deadly than that of other Spaniards, for, in addition to the national causes of hatred, their mules were constantly being requisitioned or seized by the troops and they themselves forced to accompany the army for long distances at a nominal rate of pay for themselves and their animals. Then, too, they were in close connection with the guerillas, for whom they carried goods up into the mountains from the towns, and when the chance came would leave their animals in the mountains and join in cutting off an enemy's convoy. They acted as messengers and spies too, and took their friends in the hills early news of intended movements of the enemy. Many a day had the boys traveled in the company of these muleteers, merry, careless fellows, singing and talking to their mules, apparently the best-natured of men, until something would be said which would recall the hated foe, and then their black eyes would flash, their fingers clutch their knife-handles, and they would pour out long strings of deep Spanish oaths. Great was the surprise of these men on receiving the password from two boys, but they never hesitated an instant in taking them in, in giving them hospitality as long as they remained, and in either accompanying them to the next town, or handing them over to the charge of some comrade going in that direction. Not even to them did the Scudamores ever betray that they were not what they were taken to be, two Spanish boys employed by the English commander as messengers. Often they were questioned how the English had come to entrust important communications to two boys, and their reply always was that their father and mother had fled to Portugal from the French, and were living there near the English lines, and that they had offered their lives in case of their sons' treachery.
This system of hostages seemed probable enough to their questioners, and if the boys' fare was rather harder, and their treatment more unceremonious than it would have been had they said that they were British officers in disguise, they ran far less risk of detection from an accidental word or sign. Indeed it would have been next to impossible for them, had they desired it, to convince any one of their identity. There was no fear now of their accent betraying them. Since they had left the army they had never, even when alone together, spoken in English. They made the rule and kept to it for two reasons, the one being that they found that if they did not get into this habit of always speaking Spanish, they might inadvertently address each other in English, and thus betray themselves; the second, that they wanted to learn to speak absolutely like natives. This they had in the four months thoroughly learned to do. At first their pronunciation and occasional mistakes excited curiosity when asked questions as to the part of Spain from which they had come, but their constant communication with their muleteer friends had quite removed this, and for the last two months not one person had doubted that they were not only Spanish, but that they came from the northern provinces.
Hitherto they had journeyed principally between large towns and over country held by the French, but that part of their work was finished; they had accurately computed the number of the army with which Massena was to advance shortly to besiege Ciudad Rodrigo, and they had now to carry the despatches to the guerilla leaders. Hitherto they had not in a single instance excited suspicion. Not a Frenchman had asked them a question, and no adventure of anything like an exciting nature had taken place. They were now, however, entering into a country entirely different from that which they had hitherto traversed. The northeast of Spain is wild and mountainous, and offers immense natural facilities for irregular warfare. Through the various passes of the Pyrenees lead all the roads from France, whether to Vittoria on the great road to Madrid, or through Navarre to Catalonia. Here and there fortified towns still held out against the French, and the town of Gerona, in Catalonia, had only fallen after a six months' regular siege, and a desperate defense which fully rivals that of Saragossa. Is it not a little singular that the Spaniards, who in the open field were, with a few remarkable exceptions, absolutely contemptible, yet frequently defended towns with wonderful fortitude, courage, and desperation. It may, indeed, be said that in every siege where the Spaniards were commanded by brave and resolute chiefs they behaved admirably. This great range of hill country was the stronghold of the guerillas, and every convoy from France had to be protected by a large force, and even then often suffered greatly from the harassing attacks of their active enemies.
The bands of the guerilla chiefs differed greatly in strength, varying from merely ten or a dozen men to three or four thousand, and indeed each band varied continually. The men, when not required, would scatter to their homes, cultivate their little patches of ground, and throw down the spade and take up the rifle again when they heard of a convoy to cut off, or an invading column to beat back. The bands, too, would vary in proportion to the renown of their chiefs. An energetic man, who, at the head of a handful, had performed some daring feats, would find himself a week afterwards the leader of many hundreds, while a chief who was slow and dilatory would find his band melt away like snow in summer.
The character of the warfare depended much upon the character of the French generals. A few of these kept the troops under their command sternly in hand, would permit no plundering, and insisted upon their fair treatment of the Spaniards. These in turn wanted nothing better than to remain quietly in their homes, and the guerilla bands would melt away to nothing. Other generals, furious at the savage nature of the warfare, and the incessant toil and loss entailed upon their troops, allowed the latter to do as they pleased, and burning houses and dead bodies marked their course. Then the peasantry, now turned guerillas, retaliated as savagely, giving no quarter, sacrificing all prisoners, and putting the wounded to death, sometimes with torture. On both sides horrible atrocities were committed.
The guerillas were armed partly with rifles and carbines, partly with muskets landed on the coast by the British Government, who also, from time to time, sent powder and money to assist them to continue their resistance to the French. Although nowhere really formidable, yet, being scattered over a great extent of country, these bands occupied very large bodies of French troops, who would otherwise have been disposable for general operations in the field. The English commander-in-chief had, of course, no shadow of authority over the guerillas, or, indeed, over any of the Spanish troops, and his communication to them simply asked what arms and ammunition they required, and begged them to send him a list of the number of men they could each throw on the French communications and lines of retreat in case he should find himself in a position to make a general advance against them. He also recommended most strongly the bearers of the despatch to their care. It was to the chief known as Nunez that they were now bound. The mule train was nominally destined for Vittoria, to which town the leader had got a pass, specifying the number of mules and the nature of the goods they carried, from the French commandant at Alonqua, for no one was allowed to take the goods about the country without a pass, in order to prevent supplies being forwarded to the mountains. This pass, however, only mentioned twelve mules with four drivers, and this was the number which started from Alonqua. Another score of mules, however, joined them at a short distance from the town where a by-road turned off. Some of these had gone out from the town unloaded, as if taken out to graze, others had not entered the town, but had come direct from the sea-coast by by-paths with powder, and had been awaiting the departure of Garcias, the name of the leader of the party. They had eight men with them, all armed to the teeth.
"Is it all right, Garcias?"
"All right," the leader said; "they have sent out their squadrons on the other road, so I think we are safe for to-day."
"What boys have you got there with you?"
"They have business with Nunez; letter from the coast."
The cavalcade was now in motion again, and wound gradually up into the hills. Presently they came to a point where four roads met. A clump of trees grew hard by, and the boys gave a start of horror at seeing the bodies of six French soldiers swinging from them. "Ay, that's Nunez's work, I expect," Garcias said coolly. "There were three of his men swinging there last week, so as a lesson he has hung up six of the French. He is a rough boy to play with, is Nunez."
At sunset the party slept in a small farm, and at daybreak continued their journey. They were now in the heart of the mountains, and their path lay sometimes up deep ravines, sometimes along rocky ledges. At last, about midday, they entered a valley in which stood a small village. "That's Nunez's head-quarters to-day," Garcias said; "to-morrow he may be no one knows where."
"But does he have to sally out by the wretched road by which we have come?" Tom asked.
"No, no," Garcias replied; "he would not catch much prey that way. There are three other ways out of the valley. That winding path you see there leads up to Santona. That road on the other side leads out on to the plain, and thence to Vittoria; while the footpath over the brow opposite leads right down into the wide valley through which the main north road runs. So you see this is a handy spot. From that brow we can see the convoys going to and from France, and can pour down upon them if they are weak; while, if a column is sent in search of us, we can vanish away long before they can catch us. Nunez does not use the direct road over the brow for his attack, but follows the Santona or Vittoria road for a while, and then makes a swoop round. He does not want to bring the French up to this village, for his family and the families of many of the men live here."
As they approached the village, they found that there was a good deal of bustle going on. Armed men were coming out of the cottages, and gathering in a group round a rough stone cross, which stood in the center of a sort of green. "We are just in time," Garcias said; "Nunez is starting on some expedition or other."
When they reached the spot there were nearly two hundred men assembled. They greeted Garcias with shouts of welcome as he arrived. "Ah, ah! Garcias, just in time. Our last skin of wine was emptied last night; we will bring some more up to-morrow; but if you had not come we should have had to start thirsty, and that's unlucky besides being unpleasant."
"Where is Nunez!" Garcias asked.
"Here he comes," was the reply; and the boys turning saw a figure approaching, which by no means answered to the expectation of the celebrated guerilla chief. He was small and almost humpbodied, but very broad. His head seemed too large for his body, and a pair of fierce eyes gleamed out from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. His mustache was thin and bristly and his month wide, but with thin lips. The boys could understand the reputation for cruelty and mercilessness which attached to this sinister-looking figure, but there was none of the savage power which they had expected to see in so celebrated a leader.
"Any news, Garcias?" he asked shortly, as he came up.
"None, captain, except that these boys have brought some despatches for you from the English Lord."
Nunez looked sharply at them, and held out his hand without speaking. Tom gave him the little quill.
The guerilla opened it, read the contents, and, saying briefly, "An answer to-morrow," strode on to his men, and in a few minutes they were defiling out at the end of the valley.
"That hardly seems a strong enough body to attack a French convoy, Garcias," Tom remarked.
"No, it would not be, but there is only a part of his band here; the rest will join him at some place agreed on--perhaps ten miles from here. I believe he has about thousand men under his orders. Now come along; we shall be none the worse for dinner," and, leaving his men to unload the mules, he led the way into the little posada, or inn.
"Ah! Mother Morena," he said to an old woman who was crouching near a blazing wood fire, "warming yourself as usual; it's well you've a good fire, for you will be able to get us some dinner all the more quickly. Twelve of us altogether, and all as hungry as wolves."
"Ah!" exclaimed the old woman crossly; "it seems as if I were never to have an hour's quiet, just as all that roaring, greedy lot, with their Mother Morena here and Mother Morena there, and their grumbling at the olla, and their curses and their quarrels, are off, and I think I am going to have a quiet afternoon, then you come in with your twelve hungry wolves."
"Ah! mother, but wolves don't pay, and we do, you see."
The frugal supper over, the boys laid down on the benches, and were soon asleep. The next day passed slowly, for the band were not expected to return until late at night--perhaps not until the next morning, as the pass where the attack would be made was some fifteen miles off, and the convoy might not pass there until late in the afternoon. The boys soon made friends with some of the women and children of the place, to whom they told stories of the great cities of the plain, and of the great water which washed the shores of Spain. The greater portion of the Spanish peasantry are incredibly ignorant, and very few of the inhabitants of this village had ever gone beyond the mountains. Walking about in the village, but apparently mixing but very little in the games of the other children, were two little girls, whose gay dress of rich silk seemed strangely out of place in such a spot.
Tom asked one of the women who they were, and she replied, with a toss of the head, "They are the captain's children. The last time the band went out they found among the baggage and brought up here, the dresses of the children of some fine lady, and the captain kept them all as part of his share, just as if there were no children in the village whom it would become a great deal better than those stuck-up little things. Not," she said, softening a little, "that they were not nice enough before they got these things; but since they came their heads have been quite turned by the finery and they are almost too grand to speak to their old playfellows."
"Is their mother alive?"
"No, poor thing, she was killed by the French when the village she lived in was burned by them, because some of them were found hung in the neighborhood. The captain was away at the time and the children were out in the woods. When he came back he found them crying by the side of their mother's body, in the middle of the burning village. So then he took to the mountains, and he never spares a Frenchman who falls into his hands. He has suffered, of course, but he brought it upon himself, for he had a hand in hanging the French soldiers, and now he is a devil. It will be bad for us all; for some day, when the French are not busy with other things, they will rout us out here, and then who can blame them if they pay us for all the captain's deeds? Ah! me, they are terrible times, and Father Predo says he thinks the end of the world must be very near. I hope it will come before the French have time to hunt us down."
The boys had a hard struggle not to smile, but the woman spoke so earnestly and seriously, that they could only shake their heads in grave commiseration for her trouble; and then Tom asked, "Is the captain very fond of the children?"
"He worships them," the woman said; "he has no heart and no pity for others. He thinks no more of blood than I do of water; but he is as tender as a woman with them. One of them was ill the other day--a mere nothing, a little fever--and he sat by her bedside for eight days without ever lying down."
"I suppose," Tom said, "they never bring prisoners up here?"
"Yes, they do," the woman said; "not common soldiers; they kill them at once; but sometimes officers, if they want to exchange them for some of ours who may have been taken, or if they think they are likely to get a high ransom for them. But there, it always comes to the same thing; there, where you see that mound on the hillside, that's where they are. They blindfold them on their way up here, lest they might find their way back after all. Only one or two have ever gone down again. I wish they would finish with them all down below; they are devils and heretics these French; but I don't care about seeing them killed. Many of us do, though, and we have not many diversions up here, so I suppose it's all for the best."
"I wish that fellow had given us our answer before he went away," Tom said to Peter when they were alone. "I hope he won't bring any prisoners up here; these massacres are frightful, and one side seems as bad as the other. Well, in another month we shall have finished with all this work, and be making for the frontier again. Shan't I be glad when we catch sight of the first red-coats!"
In the middle of the night the boys were roused by a general bustle, and found that a messenger had just arrived, saying that the expedition had been successful, that a portion of the enemy had been cut off, their rear-guard destroyed, and that the whole band would be up soon after daylight. The village was astir early, but it was not until nine o'clock that the guerilla band arrived. The boys saw at a glance that they were stronger in numbers than when they started, and that with them were some twenty or thirty baggage animals.
The women flocked out to meet them with shrill cries of welcome. The booty taken was not of any great value in money, but was more valuable than gold to the guerillas.
Each one of the band carried, in addition to his own piece, a new French musket, while in the barrels on the mules were powder and ball; there were bales of cloth, and some cases of brandy and champagne, and a few boxes and portmanteaus of officers' baggage. In the rear of all, under a strong guard, were two French officers, both wounded, a lady and a child of some seven or eight years old.
After a boisterous greeting to their wives, the band broke up, and scattered over the village, three or four men remaining to guard the captives, who were told to sit down against a wall.
The whole band were soon engaged in feasting, but no one paid the least attention to the prisoners. The lady had sunk down exhausted, with the little girl nestled close to her, the officers faint and pale from loss of blood, leaned against the wall. One of them asked the guards for some water, but the men paid no attention to the request, answering only with a savage curse. Tom and Peter, who were standing by, immediately went to the inn, filled a jug with water, and, taking a drinking horn and some bread, went back. One of the guards angrily ordered them back as they approached.
"I am not going to free them," Tom said, soothingly; "there can be no reason why they should die of thirst, if they are enemies."
"I am thirsty myself," one of the guard said, "and it does us good to see them thirst."
"What, has no one brought you anything to drink?" Tom said, in a tone of surprise. "Here, Peter, you give this bread and water to these prisoners; I will run to Mother Morena's and bring some wine for the guard."
The guard would not allow Peter to approach the captives until Tom arrived with a large jug of wine, and a cold fowl, which he had obtained at the inn. These the Spaniards accepted, and allowed the boys to give the water to the prisoners. All drank eagerly, with every expression of thankfulness, the lady seizing Peter's hand and kissing it as he handed the horn to the child. The lady was a very bright, pretty woman, though now pale and worn with fatigue and emotion, and the child was a lovely little creature.
The boys, on leaving the prisoners, hurried to Garcias.
"What are they going to do with the prisoners, Garcias?"
"They have brought them up here to exchange for Nunez's lieutenant, who was taken last week. One of the men went off last night to Vittoria with a letter to offer to exchange. One of the officers is a colonel, and the young one a captain. The lady is, they say, the wife of General Reynier."
"Then they are safe," Tom said joyfully, "for, of course the French would exchange a guerilla against three such prisoners."
"Yes," Garcias said, "they are safe if Vagas has not been shot before the messenger gets to Vittoria. The messenger will hear directly he gets there, and if they have finished Vagas, he will come straight back, for his letter will be of no use then."
"But the French would pay a ransom for them."
"Yes; but the captain is never fond of ransoming, and if the news comes that Vagas is shot it is all up with them."
"But they will never murder a woman and child in cold blood!" Tom said, in tones of indignant horror.
"Women are killed on both sides," the muleteer said, placidly. "I don't hold to it myself, but I don't know, after all, why a woman's life is a bit more precious than a man's. Vagas's wife and children are here, too, and if the news comes of his death, she would stir the band up to kill the prisoners, even if the captain wanted to save them, which he certainly will not do."
"When is the messenger expected back?"
"If he goes to Vittoria and finds Vagas is alive, and arranges for the exchange, he won't be back till late to-night, perhaps not till to-morrow; but, if he hears, either on the way or directly he gets there, that he is dead, he may be back this afternoon." Soon after this conversation Garcias was sent for to the chief, and returned with a small note, which he handed to the boys as the answer to the despatch, and urged them to go at once. The boys said that they could not leave until they saw the end of this terrible drama which was passing before their eyes. It was early in the afternoon when a man was seen coming along the path from Vittoria. A hundred eager eyes examined him, and ere long it was declared as certain that it was the messenger. The boys' heart sank within them as they saw the fierce look cast by the Spaniards in the direction of the prisoners, for every one in the village was well aware of the meaning of this early return. The boys had arranged upon the course they would pursue, and they at once hurried to Garcias.
"Please come with us at once to Nunez. We want to see him before the messenger arrives."
"I will come with you," Garcias said; "but if you think that any talking of yours will persuade Nunez to move out of his way, you are mistaken. It is more likely to cost you your own lives, I can tell you; however, I gave you the promise I would do my best for you when you started with me, and I will go with you now, though what you want to interfere for here is more than I can make out. Pshaw! what matters two or three of these accursed French, more or less?"
As they neared the chief's house they saw him coming towards them. His brow was as black as thunder; he was evidently prepared for the news of his lieutenant's death.
"These messengers want to speak to you for a moment," Garcias said.
The chief stopped with an impatient gesture.
"Senor," Tom said, with a dignity which surprised the chief; "we are not what we seem. We are two English officers, and we have come to beg of you, to implore you, not to tarnish the cause for which you fight by shedding the blood of women and children."
The boys had agreed that it would be altogether hopeless to try to save the French officers.
"British officers, indeed," exclaimed Nunez, "a likely story. Do you know them as such, Garcias?"
"No," Garcias said bluntly, "I never guessed at it; but now they say so, I think it's likely enough, for they don't seem to see things in the same way as other people."
"I can give you proof of it," Tom said, calmly, pulling up the sleeve of his coat, and showing a cicatrix in his forearm. Taking a knife from his pocket, he cut into the skin, and drew forth a tiny silver tube. This he opened, and handed to Nunez a paper signed by Lord Wellington, declaring the bearers to be British officers, and requesting all loyal Spaniards to give them every assistance.
The captain read it through, and flung it down. "You may be officers," he said contemptuously; "but if you were Lord Wellington himself, I would not spare these accursed French. Listen!" and as he spoke a howl of rage ran from the other end of the village, and told too plainly the nature of the tidings the messenger had brought.
"I again protest," Tom said firmly. "I protest, as a British officer, and in the name of humanity, against this cold-blooded murder of a woman and child. It is a disgrace to Spain, a disgrace to the cause, it is a brutal and cowardly act."
The guerilla furiously drew a pistol; but Garcias placed himself between him and Tom. "I have promised him a safe conduct," he said, "and have given my word for his safety. He is only a boy, and a young fool; don't trouble with him."
Fortunately at this moment, for the guerilla was still irresolutely handling his pistol, a crowd was seen coming towards them, headed by a woman who seemed frantic with rage and grief. All were shouting, "Death to the assassins! death to the French!" The chief at once moved forward to meet them.
Tom and Peter gave a significant glance towards each other, and then Tom turned to go back towards the house which Nunez inhabited, while Peter hurried towards the spot where the prisoners were kept. Already a crowd was assembling who were talking threateningly at the French officers. Peter made his way through them until he stood by the lady, who, with her child clinging to her neck, looked in terror at the angry crowd, whose attention, however, was directed to the officers, who stood looking calmly indifferent to their threats and insults.
"Do you speak Spanish, madam?" Peter asked, leaning over her.
She shook her head.
"Do you speak English?" he asked, in that tongue.
"Yes, yes, a little." the lady said, eagerly; "who are you? What is this fierce crowd about?"
"Hush!" Peter said. "I am a friend. Listen. In a few minutes they are going to shoot you all." The lady gave a stifled cry, and pressed her child close to her. "Remember, when they come to you, ask for a priest; gain a few minutes, and I hope to save you and the child."
So saying, he slipped away into the crowd again. He had scarcely done so when Nunez arrived, accompanied by many of his men. The crowd fell back, and he strode up to the French officers. "French dogs," he said, "you are to die. I spared you to exchange, but your compatriots have murdered my lieutenant, and so now it's your turn. You may think yourselves lucky that I shoot you, instead of hanging you. Take them to that wall," he said, pointing to one some twenty yards off.
The Frenchmen understood enough Spanish to know that their fate was sealed. Without a word they took each other's hands, and marched proudly to the spot pointed out. Here, turning round, they looked with calm courage at the Spaniards, who formed up with leveled muskets at a few paces distance. "Vive la France! Tirez," said the elder, in a firm, voice, and in a moment they fell back dead, pierced with a dozen balls.
Peter had turned away when Nunez appeared on the scene, to avoid seeing the murder, and with his eyes fixed in the direction in which Tom had gone, he listened almost breathlessly to what should come. The French lady had sat immovable, cowering over her child, while her countrymen were taken away and murdered. As Nunez passed where she crouched, he said to two of his men, "Put your muskets to their heads, and finish them!" As the men approached, she lifted up her face, pale as death, and said,--
"Un pretre, uno padre!"
"She wants a priest," the men said, drawing back; "she has a right to absolution."
There was a murmur of assent from those around, and two or three started to the priest's house, situated only a few yards away, being one of the end houses of the village. The priest soon appeared, came up to the spot, and received orders to shrive the Frenchwoman. He attempted a remonstrance, but was silenced by a threat from Nunez, and knowing from experience of such scenes that his influence went for nothing with Nunez and his fierce band, he bent over her, and the crowd drew back, to let them speak unheard. At this moment, to Peter's intense relief, he saw Tom approaching with the captain's two children walking beside him. Absorbed in what was passing before them, no one else looked round, and Peter slipped away and joined his brother. They came within twenty yards of the crowd, and then paused.
"Wait a minute," Tom said to the children, "your father is busy."
In another minute Nunez shouted roughly, "There that will do; finish with it and have done! I want to be off to my dinner."
Tom and Peter simultaneously drew out a large Spanish knife, and each took one of the children firmly by the shoulder.
"Stop! Senor Nunez!" Tom shouted in a loud, clear tone. "Stop! or by heaven there will be four victims instead of two! Let one of you lift a finger against these captives--let one of you come one step nearer to us--and, by the Holy Virgin, we will drive our knives into these children's hearts!"
A cry of astonishment broke from the crowd, and one of agony and rage from Nunez, who tottered against a wall in horror at the danger in which his daughters were placed.
"Listen! all of you," Tom said, "we are English officers, we have shown our papers to Nunez, and he knows it is so. We will not suffer this murder of a mother and her child. If they are to die, we will die with them; but these two children shall die too! Now, what is it to be?"
A dozen of the guerillas leveled their guns at the two daring boys.
"No! no!" Nunez shrieked; "lower your guns. Don't hurt the children, senors. The captives shall not be hurt; I swear it! They shall go free. Give me my children."
"Not if I know it," Tom said; "Do you think I could trust the word of a man who would murder women and children in cold blood? No; these girls shall go with us as hostages, till we are safe under French guard."
"They will tell them the way up here," said one of the woman in the group, "and then we shall be all killed."
"No," Tom said; "the lady shall swear not to tell the way up here. She shall swear on your priest's crucifix. We will give you our words as British officers."
"But how are the children to get back here again?" another asked, for Nunez was so paralyzed that he could only gaze on the children, who were crying bitterly, and implore them to stand quiet, and not try to get away. After more parleying the arrangements were completed. The crowd fell back on either side, so as to leave a large space round the French lady. Tom and Peter then went up to them with the little girls. The lady was sobbing with joy and excitement at this unexpected relief.
"Can you walk?" Tom asked her in English.
"Yes," she said, getting up hastily, but almost falling again.
"Garcias will go first, as guide. The priest will give you his arm," Tom went on, "these two young women will go with you and carry your child if necessary. You will walk on, twenty yards ahead of us. We follow with these girls. No one is to follow us, or accompany us. We are to go on like that till we come upon your outposts, and then the priest and the two women will bring back Nunez's children."
"You will send them safe back, you swear?" asked Nunez, in tremulous tones.
"Psha!" Tom said contemptuously, "you don't suppose we are child-murderers, like yourself."
"Remember!" the guerilla said, in a sudden burst of passion, "if you ever cross my path again, I will--"
"Do terrible things no doubt," Tom said scornfully; "and do you beware, too. It is wild beasts like yourself who have brought disgrace and ruin on Spain. No defeat could dishonor and disgrace her as much as your fiendish cruelty. It is in revenge for the deeds that you and those like you do, that the French carry the sword and fire to your villages. We may drive the French out, but never will a country which fights by murder and treachery become a great nation. Are you ready, Garcias!"
"I am ready," the muleteer said, stepping forward from the silent and scowling throng.
"We can trust you," Tom said heartily; "take us the short way straight down into the valley; we may have the luck to come upon a passing French troop in an hour. Think of that, madam," he said to the French lady, "let that give you strength and courage."
So saying, the procession set out in the order Tom had indicated, amidst the curses of the guerillas, who were furious at seeing themselves thus bearded. At the brow of the hill Tom looked back, and saw that the guerillas were still standing in a group, in front of which he could distinguish the figure of Nunez. Taking off his hat, he waved an ironical farewell, and then followed the party down the hillside into the broad valley below. They could see the road stretching like a thread along it, but to their disappointment, not a figure was visible upon it. Now that there was no longer danger of treachery, the party closed up together.
"How far is it to Vittoria, Garcias?"
"Twenty good miles, senor."
"But we shall never get there," Tom said in dismay. "I am sure the lady could not walk another five miles; she is quite exhausted now."
"You will not have to go five miles, senor. There is a body of four or five hundred French in that large village you see there; it is not more than three miles at most."
It was a weary journey, for the French lady, exhausted by fatigue and excitement, was often obliged to stop and sit down to rest, and, indeed, could not have got on at all had not Garcias on one side and the padre on the other helped her on. At last, just as the sun was setting, they approached the village, and could see the French sentries at its entrance. When within a hundred yards they paused.
"We are safe now," Tom said; "it is not necessary for you to go farther. Good-by, little ones; I am sorry we have given you such a fright, but it was not our fault. Good-by, padre; I know that you will not grudge your walk, for the sake of its saving the lives of these unfortunates. Good-by, Garcias; thanks for your kindness and fidelity. I will report them when I return, and will, if I get a chance, send you a remembrance of our journey together."
"Good-by, senors," Garcias said, shaking them by the hand; "you English are different to us, and I am not surprised now at your General holding Portugal against all the French armies." Then he lowered his voice, so that the Spanish women standing by could not hear him. "Be on your guard, senors; don't move on from the village without a strong convoy is going on; change your disguise, if possible; distrust every one you come across, and, in heaven's name, get back to your lines as soon as possible, for you may be assured that your steps will be dogged, and that you will be safe nowhere in Spain from Nunez's vengeance. The guerillas communicate with each other, and you are doomed if you fall into the hands of any, except, perhaps, one or two of the greater chiefs. Be always on your guard; sleep with your eyes open. Remember, except in the middle of a French regiment, you will never be really safe."
"Thanks, Garcias!" the boys said earnestly, "we will do our best to keep our throats safe. At any rate, if we go down, it shall not be for want of watchfulness!"
Another shake of the hands, and the party separated. The Spanish woman who was carrying the sleeping French child handed her over to Tom, who took her without waking her while Peter lent his arm to the French lady.
"Madam," Tom said in English, "you will soon be among your friends. I know that you will keep your promise not to divulge the situation of the village you have left. I must ask you, also, to promise me not to say that we speak English, or to say anything which may create a suspicion that we are not what we seem. You will, of course, relate your adventures, and speak of us merely as Spanish boys, who acted as they did being moved by pity for you. We must accompany you for some time, for Nunez will move heaven and earth to get us assassinated, and all we want is that you shall obtain permission for us to sleep in the guard-room, so as to be under shelter of French bayonets until we can decide upon our course of action."
The lady assented with a gesture, for she was too exhausted to speak, and as they reached the French sentries she tottered and sank down on the ground insensible.