(2/3) The Teeth of the Gale

Read (2/3) The Teeth of the Gale for Free Online

Book: Read (2/3) The Teeth of the Gale for Free Online
Authors: Joan Aiken
some of the highest mountains. Great gorges and precipices lay all about us, and we had to tilt our heads far back to look up at the high snowy peaks. The villages, scanty and far apart, were small and grim, built of slate, with great stones on the roofs to keep them from blowing off in mountain storms. Down from the crags tumbled white waterfalls, often dropping a hundred feet to the beds they had carved out for themselves far below. We were warned by our escorts to be on the watch for wolf or wild boar, as the mountainsides were often covered from peak to foot with dense forest. A few tiny fields, scattered here and there, hung almost vertical; on such steep slopes the crops must be dug and reaped by hand.
    Joy filled my heart, for I knew we must be near the border of Galicia; the language of the folk we met along the way (few enough) now had the rough Gallegan accent, rather than the smooth Castilian they speak farther south.
    Then a thought struck me: This road we traveled was the hard and terrible way taken by General Moore's armies when, eighteen years ago (just before my birth), the English troops were forced to retreat, through bitter winter weather, with Napoleons cavalry hard on their heels, sabering and shooting down any stragglers. All the way to La Corufia, more than 150 miles, the English retreated with General Soult close behind them; the Spanish baggage drivers forsook their mule carts, and the provisions had to be abandoned, since the draft animals did not understand English words of command. Bodies of dead men, mules, oxen were scattered all along the way. And at one point, farther along that grisly road, among the highest peaks, a great treasure in gold and silver dollars, worth 25,000 English pounds, had to be jettisoned, rolled down the mountainside in barrels, so that the pursuing French should not seize it.
    That treasure had never been recovered.
    This story I had heard many times, from country people on my grandfather's estate, and also from a renegade English soldier named Smith, whom I had met six years ago in strange circumstances on the mountains near Oviedo. Smith and some comrades of his had actually known where the treasure was to be found—or so he told me—and they had fought one another for the prize, two by two, until at last only the man Smith was left. I had been the accidental witness to the last of these duels. Smith, after killing his opponent, had planned to go and take the treasure for himself; but he died of the lung-rot before he could so do.
    Who had it now, I wondered? Perhaps it had been discovered long ago; but whoever came across it must have kept the news to himself. If you found 25,000 pounds' worth of gold and silver coins in a mountain gorge on the border between Galicia and Asturias, would you not keep a still tongue about it, lest the authorities descend like mountain ravens, and rob you of your prize?
    Everything in this region was wild, strange, terrifying, and beautiful; the track grew narrower and narrower as we climbed (going more slowly now) up and up to the very top of the highest pass. A thick mist, up there, enwrapped us—what in Galicia is known as a
bretima.
Luckily the ground at the top of the pass was level, a flat plain studded with thorn thickets, for now night fell, and we were obliged to make our way through a profound darkness, without moon or star. If Pedro and I had been on our own, crossing one of the loftiest peaks in Spain, carved by ravines and precipices, we would have sat down and waited for daylight; but the armed guard, well used to this road, merely lit flambeaux and continued, a little more warily, yet still making good speed.
    After more hours of travel, descending the northern slopes of the mountains, we came to the village of Los Nogales, where the escort was again exchanged for another set of soldiers. Nogales was a pleasant little place, half buried in chestnut woods, with a brawling river—but little of it could be seen, for the

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