Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

King Abul Hassan and the Alcaide of Gibraltar

Muley Abul Hassan, the warlike king of Granada, weary of having his lands raided and his towns taken, resolved to repay the Christians in kind. The Duke of Medina Sidonia had driven him from captured Alhama. He owed this mighty noble a grudge, and the opportunity to repay it seemed at hand. The duke had led his forces to the aid of King Ferdinand, who was making a foray into Moorish territory. He had left almost unguarded his far-spreading lands, wide pasture plains covered thickly with flocks and herds and offering a rare opportunity for a hasty foray.

"I will give this cavalier a lesson that will cure him of his love for campaigning," said the fierce old king.

Leaving his port of Malaga at the head of fifteen hundred horse and six thousand foot, the Moorish monarch followed the sea-shore route to the border of his dominions, entering Christian territory between Gibraltar and Castellar. There was only one man in this quarter of whom he had any fear. This was Pedro de Vargas, governor of Gibraltar, a shrewd and vigilant old soldier, whose daring Abul Hassan well knew, but knew also that his garrison was too small to serve for a successful sally.

The alert Moor, however, advanced with great caution, sending out parties to explore every pass where an ambush might await him, since, despite his secrecy, the news of his coming might have gone before. At length the broken country of Castellar was traversed and the plains were reached. Encamping on the banks of the Celemin, he sent four hundred lancers to the vicinity of Algeciras to keep a close watch upon Gibraltar across the bay, to attack Pedro if he sallied out, and to send word to the camp if any movement took place. This force was four times that said to be in Gibraltar. Remaining on the Celemin with his main body of troops, King Hassan sent two hundred horsemen to scour the plain of Tarifa, and as many more to the lands of Medina Sidonia, the whole district being a rich pasture land upon which thousands of animals grazed.

All went well. The parties of foragers came in, driving vast flocks and herds, enough to replace those which had been swept from the vega of Granada by the foragers of Spain. The troops on watch at Algeciras sent word that all was quiet at Gibraltar. Satisfied that for once Pedro de Vargas had been foiled, the old king called in his detachments and started back in triumph with his spoils.

He was mistaken. The vigilant governor had been advised of his movements, but was too weak in men to leave his post. Fortunately for him, a squadron of the armed galleys in the strait put into port, and, their commander agreeing to take charge of Gibraltar in his absence, Pedro sallied out at midnight with seventy of his men, bent upon giving the Moors what trouble he could.

Sending men to the mountain-tops, he had alarm fires kindled as a signal to the peasants that the Moors were out and their herds in peril. Couriers were also despatched at speed to rouse the country and bid all capable of bearing arms to rendezvous at Castellar, a stronghold which Abul Hassan would have to pass on his return. The Moorish king saw the fire signals and knew well what they meant. Striking his tents, he began as hasty a retreat as his slow-moving multitude of animals would permit. In advance rode two hundred and fifty of his bravest men. Then came the great drove of cattle. In the rear marched the main army, with Abul Hassan at its head. And thus they moved across the broken country towards Castellar.

Near that place De Vargas was on the watch, a thick and lofty cloud of dust revealing to him the position of the Moors. A half-league of hills and declivities separated the van and the rear of the raiding column, a long, dense forest rising between. De Vargas saw that they were in no position to aid each other quickly, and that something might come of a sudden and sharp attack. Selecting the best fifty of his small force, he made a circuit towards a place which he knew to be suitable for ambush. Here a narrow glen opened into a defile with high, steep sides. It was the only route open to the Moors, and he proposed to let the vanguard and the herds pass and fall upon the rear.

The Moors, however, were on the alert. While the Spaniards lay hidden, six mounted scouts entered the defile and rode into the mouth of the glen, keenly looking to right and left for a concealed enemy. They came so near that a minute or two more must reveal to them the ambush.

"Let us kill these men and retreat to Gibraltar," said one of the Spaniards; "the infidels are far too many for us."

"I have come for larger game than this," answered De Vargas, "and, by the aid of God and Santiago, I will not go back without making my mark. I know these Moors, and will show you how they stand a sudden charge."

The scouts were riding deeper into the glen. The ambush could no longer be concealed. At a quick order from De Vargas ten horsemen rushed so suddenly upon them that four of their number were in an instant hurled to the ground. The other two wheeled and rode back at full speed, hotly pursued by the ten men. Their dashing pace soon brought them in sight of the vanguard of the Moors, from which about eighty horsemen rode out to the aid of their friends. The Spaniards turned and clattered back, with this force in sharp pursuit. In a minute or two both parties came at a furious rush into the glen.

This was what De Vargas had foreseen. Bidding his trumpeter to sound, he dashed from his concealment at the head of his men, drawn up in close array. They were upon the Moors almost before they were seen, their weapons making havoc in the disordered ranks. The skirmish was short and sharp. The Moors, taken by surprise, and thrown into confusion, fell rapidly, their ranks being soon so thinned that scarce half of them turned in the retreat.

"After them!" cried De Vargas. "We will have a brush with the vanguard before the rear can come up."

Onward after the flying Moors rode the gallant fifty, coming with such force and fury on the advance-guard that many were overturned in the first shock. Those behind held their own with some firmness, but their leaders, the alcaides of Marabella and Casares, being slain, the line gave way and fled towards the rear-guard, passing through the droves of cattle, which they threw into utter confusion.

Nothing further could be done. The trampling cattle had filled the air with a blinding cloud of dust. De Vargas was badly wounded. A few minutes might bring up the Moorish king with an overwhelming force. Despoiling the slain, and taking with them some thirty horses, the victorious Spaniards rode in triumph back to Castellar.

The Moorish king, hearing the exaggerated report of the fugitives, feared that all Xeres was up and in arms.

"Our road is blocked," cried some of his officers. "We had better abandon the animals and seek another route for our return."

"Not so," cried the old king; "no true soldier gives up his booty without a blow. Follow me; we will have a brush with these dogs of Christians."

In hot haste he galloped onward, right through the centre of the herd, driving the cattle to right and left. On reaching the field of battle he found no Spaniard in sight, but dozens of his own men lay dead and despoiled, among them the two alcaides. The sight filled the warlike old king with rage. Confident that his foes had taken refuge in Castellar, he rode on to that place, set fire to two houses near its walls, and sent a shower of arrows into its streets. Pedro de Vargas was past taking to horse, but he ordered his men to make a sally, and a sharp skirmish took place under the walls. In the end the king drew off to the scene of the fight, buried the dead except the alcaides, whose bodies were laid on mules to be interred at Malaga, and, gathering the scattered herds, drove them past the walls of Castellar by way of taunting the Christian foe.

Yet the stern old Moorish warrior could thoroughly appreciate valor and daring even in an enemy.

"What are the revenues of the alcaide of Gibraltar?" he asked of two Christian captives he had taken.

"We know not," they replied, "except that he is entitled to one animal out of every drove of cattle that passes his bounds."

"Then Allah forbid that so brave a cavalier should be defrauded of his dues."

He gave orders to select twelve of the finest cattle from the twelve droves that formed the herd of spoil, and directed that they should be delivered to Pedro de Vargas.

"Tell him," said the king, "that I beg his pardon for not sending these cattle sooner, but have just learned they are his dues, and hasten to satisfy them in courtesy to so worthy a cavalier. Tell him, at the same time, that I did not know the alcaide of Gibraltar was so vigilant in collecting his tolls."

The soldierly pleasantry of the old king was much to the taste of the brave De Vargas, and called for a worthy return. He bade his men deliver a rich silken vest and a scarlet mantle to the messenger, to be presented to the Moorish king.

"Tell his majesty," he said, "that I kiss his hands for the honor he has done me, and regret that my scanty force was not fitted to give him a more signal reception. Had three hundred horsemen, whom I have been promised from Xeres, arrived in time, I might have served him up an entertainment more befitting his station. They may arrive during the night, in which case his majesty, the king, may look for a royal service in the morning."

"Allah preserve us," cried the king, on receiving this message, "from a brush with these hard riders of Xeres! A handful of troops familiar with these wild mountain-passes may destroy an army encumbered like ours with booty."

It was a relief to the king to find that De Vargas was too sorely wounded to take the field in person. A man like him at the head of an adequate force might have given no end of trouble. During the day the retreat was pushed with all speed, the herds being driven with such haste that they were frequently broken and scattered among the mountain defiles, the result being that more than five thousand cattle were lost, being gathered up again by the Christians. The king returned triumphantly to Malaga with the remainder, rejoicing in his triumph over the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and having taught King Ferdinand that the game of ravaging an enemy's country was one at which two could play.