DAY after day, the two travelers jogged slowly along, rambling hither and thither wherever their fancy chose to wander. At length they came into the rugged highway which leads through the Black Mountains, or, as they are called in Spain, the Sierra Morena.
"Now we shall have our fill of adventures," said Don Quixote.
It was to be even so; for at the top of the first hill they saw twelve strange men trudging along the highway and slowly approaching them. The men were all in a row, one behind another, like beads on a string; for they were linked to a long chain by means of iron collars around their necks.
In front of this procession rode two horsemen with guns; and the rear was brought up by two foot guards with swords and clubs.
"See there, master," said Sancho. "See those poor fellows who are being taken away to serve the king in the galleys."
"Why are they being treated in that ugly fashion?" asked Don Quixote, reining in his steed.
"Well, they are rogues," was the answer. "They have broken the law and been caught at it. They are now on their way to the king's galleys to be punished."
"If that is the case," said Don Quixote, "they shall have my help. For I am sworn to hinder violence and oppression."
"But these wicked wretches are not oppressed," said Sancho. "They are only getting what they deserve."
Don Quixote was not satisfied. "At any rate, they are in trouble," he answered.
Soon the chain of prisoners had come up.
"Pray, sir," said Don Quixote to one of the mounted men who was captain of the guards, "why are these people led along in that manner?"
"They are criminals," answered the captain. "They have been condemned to serve the king in his galleys. I have no more to say to you."
"Well, I should like to know what each one has done," said Don Quixote.
"I can't talk with you," said the captain. "But while they rest here at the top of the hill, you may ask the rogues themselves, if you wish. They are so honest and truthful that they will not be ashamed to tell you."
Don Quixote was much pleased. He rode up to the chain and began to question the men.
"Why were you condemned to the galleys, my good fellow?" he asked of the leader.
"Oh, only for being in love," was the careless answer.
"Indeed!" cried Don Quixote. "If all who are in love must be sent to the galleys, what will become of us?"
"True enough!" said the prisoner. "But my love was not of the common kind. I was so in love with a basket of clothes that I took it in my arms and carried it home. I was accused of stealing it, and here I am."
Don Quixote then turned to another. "And what have you done, my honest man?" he asked. "Why are you in this sad case?"
"I will tell you,'' answered the man. "I am here for the lack of two gold pieces to pay an honest debt."
"Well, well, that is too bad," said the knight. "I will give you four gold pieces and set you free."
"Thank you, sir," said the prisoner. "But you might as well give money to a starving man at sea where there is nothing to buy. If I had had the gold pieces before my trial, I might now be in a different place."
Thus Don Quixote went from one prisoner to another, asking each to tell his history.
The last man in the chain was a clever, well-built fellow about thirty years old. He squinted with one eye, and had a wickeder look than any of the others.
Don Quixote noticed that this man was strangely loaded with irons. He had two collars around his neck, and his wrists were so fastened to an iron bar that he could not lift his hands to his mouth.
The knight turned to one of the foot guards. "Why is this man so hampered with irons?" he asked.
"Because he is the worst of the lot," was the answer. "He is so bold and cunning that no jail nor fetters will hold him. You see how heavily ironed he is, and yet we are never sure that we have him."
"But what has he done?" asked Don Quixote.
"Done!" said the guard. "What has he not done? Why, sir, he is the famous thief and robber, Gines de Passamonte."
Then the prisoner himself spoke up quickly. "Sir, if you have anything to give us, give it quickly and ride on. I won't answer any of your questions."
"My friend," said Don Quixote, "you appear to be a man of consequence, and I should like to know your history."
"It is all written down in black and white," answered Gines. "You may buy it and read it."
"He tells you the truth," said the guard. "He has written his whole history in a book."
"What is the title of the book?" asked Don Quixote. "I must have it."
"It is called the Life of Gines de Passamonte, and every word of it is true," answered the prisoner. "There is no fanciful tale that compares with it for tricks and adventures."
"You are an extraordinary man," said Don Quixote.
By this time the guards had given the command and the human chain was again toiling slowly along over the hill. But Don Quixote was not yet satisfied. He followed, making a long speech first to the prisoners and then to the guards. At length he raised himself in his stirrups, and cried out:—
"Gentlemen of the guard, I am the renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. I command you to release these poor men. If you refuse, then know that this lance, this sword, and this invincible arm will force you to yield."
"That's a good joke," said the captain of the guard. "Now set your basin right on top of your empty head, and go about your business. Don't meddle any more with us, for those who play with cats are likely to be scratched."
This made Don Quixote very angry. "You're a cat and a rat, and a coward to boot!" he cried. And he charged upon him so suddenly and furiously that the captain had no time to defend himself, but was tumbled headlong and helpless into the mud.
The other guards hurried to the rescue. They attacked Don Quixote with their swords and clubs, and he, wheeling Rozinante around, defended himself with his heavy lance. He would have fared very badly had not the prisoners made a great hurly-burly and begun to break their chain.
Seeing the confusion and wishing to give aid to his master, Sancho leaped from his donkey, and, running up to Gines de Passamonte, began to unfasten his irons. The conflict which now followed was dreadful. The guards had enough to do to defend themselves from the wild thrusts of Don Quixote's lance. They seemed to lose their senses, so great was the uproar.
The prisoners soon freed themselves from their irons and were masters of the field. The guards were routed. They fled with all speed down the highway, followed by a shower of stones from the prisoners. It was a mile to the nearest village, and thither they hastened for help.
Sancho Panza remounted his donkey and drew up to his master's side. "Hearken," he whispered. "The king's officers will soon be after us. Let us hurry into the forest and hide ourselves."
"Hush," said Don Quixote, impatiently. "I know what I have to do."
Then he called the prisoners around him and made a little speech:—
"Gentlemen, you understand what a great service I have rendered you. For this I desire no recompense. But I shall require each one of you to go straightway to the city of Toboso and present himself before that fairest of all ladies, the matchless Lady Dulcinea. Give her an exact account of this famous achievement, and receive her permission to seek your various fortunes in such ways and places as you most desire."
The prisoners grinned insolently, and Gines de Passamonte made answer:—
"Most noble deliverers, that which you require of us is impossible. We must part right quickly. Some of us must skulk one way, some another. We must lie hidden in holes and among the rocks. The man hounds will soon be on our tracks, and we dare not show ourselves. As to going to Toboso to see that Lady Dulcinea, it's all nonsense."
These words put Don Quixote into a great rage. He shook his lance at the robber, and cried out:—
"Now you, Sir Gines, or whatever be your name, hear me! You, yourself, shall go alone to Toboso, like a dog with a scalded tail. You shall go with the whole chain wrapped about your shoulders, and shall deliver the message as I have commanded."
Gines smiled at this bold threat, and made no answer. But his companions with one accord fell upon the knight, dragged him from his steed, and threw him upon the ground.
They stripped him of his coat and even robbed him of his long black stockings. One of them snatched the basin from his head and knocked it against a rock until it was dinted and scarred most shamefully. And one broke his long lance in two and threw it into a thicket of thorns.
As for Sancho, he fared but little better. They took his coat, but left him his vest. They would have taken his shoes had they been worth the trouble.
Having thus amused themselves for a few hasty minutes, the rascals departed. They scattered in different directions, each one to shift for himself. They were much more anxious to escape the officers of the law than to present themselves before the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso.
Thus the dappled donkey, Rozinante, Sancho Panza, and Don Quixote were left the sole masters of the field. But they were sorry masters, every one of them.
"Friend Sancho," said Don Quixote, rising from the muddy road, "there is a proverb which I desire thee to remember. It is this: One might as well throw water into the sea as do a kindness to clowns."
He sought in the thicket for his broken lance, and, having recovered the half of it, he made shift to climb upon Rozinante's back. The day was far gone, and he rode silently and thoughtfully onward into the heart of the Black Mountains. And Sancho Panza, on his dappled donkey, followed him.