The sun rose high in the sky, and Don Quixote jogged onward, full of joy and pride. He had overthrown the Knight of the Mirrors, and he was more persuaded than ever that he was the most valiant hero in the world. Neither enchanter nor enchantments could alarm him. He was not afraid of anything whether real or unreal.
"Now, come what will come," he cried, "here I am, and I challenge the most powerful foes to meet me in combat."
About the middle of the afternoon, he was surprised to see in the distance a large wagon coming down the road from the opposite direction. As it drew nearer he saw that it was drawn by two mules and that several little flags were fluttering above it.
"See, Sancho! Here is an adventure for us," he said joyfully.
But Sancho shook his head doubtfully.
"Those are the king's flags," he said, "and they are to show that the wagon is carrying something for the king. It is best to be careful."
The strange vehicle was now close at hand. Only two men were with it: the wagoner who was astride of one of the mules, and a middle-aged man who sat on the top of the wagon.
Don Quixote rode briskly forward to meet them.
"What wagon is this?" he cried. "Who are you? Where are you going? What do those flags mean?"
"The wagon is mine," answered the man on the mule. "We have two lions in it, which the governor of Oran is sending to the king."
"Are the lions large?" asked Don Quixote.
"Very large," answered the man on the wagon. "They are the biggest ever seen in Spain, and I am their keeper. The he-lion is in the foremost cage, and the she-lion is in another cage at the rear of the wagon."
"That is right," said Don Quixote. "I see that you know how to manage wild beasts."
"The lions are hungry now, for they have not been fed to-day," said the keeper. "So, my good friend, please ride out of the way; for we are going to stop under this tree and give them their dinner. They are apt to be cross while eating."
"What!" cried Don Quixote, going up closer. "Shall I ride out of the way for lions? And at this time of day? I'll show you that I'm not afraid of such puny beasts. Get down, honest fellow, and open their cages. I'll soon show the creatures who I am. For I am the most valorous of all knights. Don Quixote de la Mancha."
Sancho had now come up; and when he heard this boastful speech he was frightened almost out of his wits.
"Oh, my good sir!" he cried to the keeper, "for pity's sake, don't let my master fall upon those lions. We shall all be eaten up."
"Why," said the keeper, "is your master so mad that he will dare to meddle with these beasts?"
"Ah, sir!" answered Sancho, "he is not mad, but rash, very rash!"
By this time the wagon had stopped, and Don Quixote was growing impatient.
"You rascal!" he cried, turning again to the keeper. "Do you hear me? Open your cages at once, or I'll pin you to the wagon with my lance."
The wagoner, who had leaped to the ground, was by nature a coward; and he was now almost helpless with fright.
"For mercy's sake," he cried, "let me take my mules out first. Let me get them out of the way before you open the cage. They are all that I have in the world."
"Thou man of little faith," said Don Quixote, "unhitch the poor things and take them away as quickly as possible. You will soon see that I am fully able to take care of the lions."
The wagoner hastened to obey. He loosed his mules from the wagon and then drove them with such speed as he could to the top of a hillock a quarter of a mile away. There, feeling himself safe, he paused to see what would happen.
In the meanwhile, Don Quixote again addressed the keeper.
"Obey me instantly," he said, "or suffer the punishment you deserve."
The keeper felt the point of the lance against his breast. He was by no means a brave man, and he turned pale as he realized the danger he was in.
"I will do as you bid me," he said, "but know all men that I am forced to turn the lions loose against my will."
Then he went around to the foremost cage and began to unfasten the door. "Shift for yourselves, all of you," he cried. "The lions know me and won't hurt me; but I won't answer for the harm they may do to others."
Then he again tried to reason with Don Quixote. "Sir, you are tempting Heaven by putting yourself in such danger," he said.
"You rascal," answered the knight, "it is for you to obey and not to advise. Open the cage, I say."
Then Sancho spoke up. "Good master," he said, "this is no trick of enchantment; it's the real thing. I've just taken a peep at the cage, and I saw the lion's claw. It's a tremendous big thing. The beast that owns it must be fully as big as a mountain."
"Your fears will make it as big as the world," answered Don Quixote. "Now, friend Sancho, retire to a place of safety and leave this business to me. If I fall in the conflict, you know your duty: carry the news to Dulcinea—I say no more."
Poor Sancho's eyes were full of tears, for he felt sure that his master was lost. He put spurs to his donkey and so joined the wagoner on the hillock of safety.
The keeper was now standing with his hand upon the cage door; and Don Quixote paused, uncertain whether he ought to fight on horseback or on foot.
"Rozinante is not used to lions, and he might not behave well," he said to himself. "I think it will be better to fight on foot."
He therefore dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. Then he laid aside his lance, and drew his sword.
The keeper advanced and with great caution opened the cage door, while Don Quixote with wondrous courage went forward and stood before it.
"Come out, thou paltry beast!" he cried. "Come out, and I will show thee what the bravest knight in the universe can do."
The lion turned himself around in the cage. He stretched out one of his paws. He gaped, and thrust out his tongue, which seemed as long as a man's arm.
The knight stood up very straight and again addressed the beast. "I challenge thee to come out and engage in fair combat with one who has never yet been vanquished, even with the renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha."
The lion, with his two great eyes that were like live coals, gazed steadily at him through the dim light in the cage. It was a sight to strike terror into the heart of any man; but Don Quixote felt no fear.
"I am ready for thee," he cried.
The generous lion took no notice of his words, but yawned again, and then lay down as if to take a nap.
"Do you see that?" said the keeper. "Surely, you ought to be satisfied. You have challenged the lion. The beast is in such awe of you that he declines the combat."
"That is true," answered Don Quixote.
"Well, then, what more can you wish? You have shown your greatness by your courage. No knight is expected to do more than challenge his enemy and wait for him on the field."
"You are right, Sir Keeper. Shut the door, and then write a little note for me, stating what you have seen me do. Shut the door as I bid you, and I will call those back who ran away for safety. They must hear your account of my exploit."
The keeper gladly obeyed, and Don Quixote waved a handkerchief from the point of his lance.
Sancho was the first to see the signal. "There, there!" he cried to the wagoner. "I'll be switched, if my master has not overcome those lions."
They waited a few moments, and then seeing everything quiet about the wagon, they went cautiously back.
"Come on, friend," said Don Quixote to the wagoner. "Hitch up your mules again, and go your way. And Sancho, open your purse and give to each of these men two gold pieces to pay them for the time they have lost."
"I'll do that with all my heart," answered Sancho. "But where are the lions? Are they dead, or alive?"
Then the keeper gave a glowing account of the combat, and told how the lion, being overawed at the very sight of Don Quixote, was utterly unable to stir from the cage.
"What do you think of that, Sancho?" said the proud knight. "Courage is even greater than enchantment."
So the two gold pieces were paid to the men; the wagoner hitched his mules to the wagon; the lions were duly fed; and the keeper, well satisfied with the day's adventure, climbed up to his seat on the front part of the cage.
"Sir, good-by," he said, doffing his hat to Don Quixote. "I thank you, and I will tell the king about your wonderful prowess."
"Do so, my friend," answered our hero; "and if the king should ask who it was that challenged the beast, tell him it was the Knight of the Lions; for that is the name by which I wish the world to know me."
The wagoner cracked his whip and shouted; the mules strained at their traces; the wagon rumbled slowly away, down the long road; and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza resumed their journey.