XII. When the World Ran Backward
 

Esteban went about his plan of destroying Pancho Cueto with youthful energy and zest. First he secured, at some pains, a half- stick of dynamite, a cap and fuse, and a gallon or more of kerosene; then he assembled his followers and led them once again into the San Juan.

This time the ride to La Joya was longer than before, and since every member of the little band was proscribed, Esteban insisted upon the greatest caution. But there was little need of especial care, for the country was already depopulated, as a result of Weyler's proclamation. Fields were empty, houses silent; no living creatures stirred, except in the tree-tops, and the very birds seemed frightened, subdued. It struck young Varona queerly. It was as if the whole land was in mourning; he saw nothing but blackbirds, somber-hued vultures, dismal Judea-birds with their ebony plumage and yellow beaks. Far up the valley a funeral pall of smoke hung in the sky itself; that was where the Spaniards were burning the houses of those too slow in obeying the order of concentration.

La Joya, however, was still tenanted when early in the evening its rightful owner arrived; the house and some of its outbuildings showed lights. Esteban concealed his men. While the horses cropped and the negroes rested he fitted fuse and cap to his precious piece of dynamite. It was likely, he thought, that Cueto had provided himself with a body-guard, and knowing the plantation house as he did, he had no intention of battering weakly at its stout ironwood door while his quarry took fright and slipped away.

Now while Esteban was thus busied, Pancho Cueto was entertaining an unwelcome guest. In the late afternoon he had been surprised by the visit of a dozen or more Volunteers, and inasmuch as his relations with their colonel had been none of the friendliest since that ill-starred expedition into the Yumuri, he had felt a chill of apprehension on seeing the redoubtable Cobo himself at their head.

The colonel had explained that he was returning from a trip up the San Juan, taken for the purpose of rounding up those inhabitants who had been dilatory in obeying the new orders from Havana. That smoke to the southward was from fires of his kindling: he had burned a good many crops and houses and punished a good many people, and since this was exactly the sort of task he liked he was in no unpleasant mood. He had demanded of Cueto lodging for himself and his troop, announcing that a part of his command was somewhere behind and would rejoin him later in the night.

Cueto had welcomed his visitor in all humility; he put up the soldiers in the bate of the sugar-mill, and then installed Cobo in his best room, after which he ransacked the house for food and drink and tobacco.

Later he and the colonel sat long over their supper, for the latter's exultant humor continued. Cobo, it transpired, was delighted with the new captain-general, a man of blood and iron, a man after his own heart. This Weyler, he predicted, would put an end to the insurrection; there would be no more of Campos's weak, merciful methods, which were, in reality, nothing less than encouragement to revolt. Cueto, of course, agreed.

"We're sweeping the country as with a broom, and already Matanzas is bulging with refugees," the officer told him. "They call themselves pacificos, but they carry information and aid our enemies. We'll have no more of that."

"Will it not be a great expense to feed so many people?" Cueto ventured.

"Let them feed themselves. Is it our fault that they make such measures necessary? By no means. Once we have them safe, we shall exterminate all whom we encounter in the country." The speaker drank deeply of Cueto's good wine and smacked his lips. "It's the kind of work I like. Extermination! They have had their warning. From now on we shall spare neither man, woman, nor child. The men are traitors, the women breed, and the children grow up."

Cueto nodded his complete approval of this program. "Oh, decidedly," said he. "This spirit of violence must be stamped out or none of us will be safe. Let me tell you I myself live in constant dread of that young villain, Varona. I--hope you haven't forgotten him."

"Forgotten him?" Colonel Cobo fingered a lately healed scar which further disfigured his ugly face, then he cursed frightfully. "It's by God's mercy alone that I'm alive to-night. And I haven't forgotten the girl, either. She'll have to come in, along with the others. The boy may stay out, but she can't." He licked his lips. "Wait until I have finished with this valley. I'll drive the Yumuri next, as a hunter drives a thicket for his game, and nothing will slip through."

His thoughts once turned upon Rosa, the colonel could talk of little else, and Cueto realized that the girl had indeed made a deep impression upon him. The overseer was well pleased, and when Cobo finally took himself off to bed he followed in better spirits than he had enjoyed for some time. For one thing, it was agreeable to look forward to a night of undisturbed repose. Pancho's apprehensions had fattened upon themselves, and he had been living of late in a nightmare of terror.

But it seemed to him that he had barely closed his eyes when he was awakened by a tremendous vibration and found himself in the center of the floor, undecided whether he had been hurled from his bed or whether he had leaped thither. Still in a daze, he heard a shout from the direction of Cobo's room, then a din of other voices, followed by a rush of feet; the next instant his door was flung back and he saw, by the light of high-held torches, Esteban Varona and a ragged rabble of black men. Cueto knew that he faced death. He uttered a shrill scream of terror, and, seizing the revolver which was always close at his hand, he fired blindly. Then his foes were upon him. What happened thereafter took but an instant. He dodged a blow from Esteban's clubbed rifle only to behold the flash of a machete. Crying out again, he tried to guard himself from the descending blade, but too late; the sound of his hoarse terror died in his throat, half born.

"Quick! Soak the bed with oil and fire it," Esteban directed; then he ran out into the hall to investigate that other shouting. He found the chamber whence it issued and tried to smash the door; but at the second blow he heard a gun-shot from within and the wood splintered outward almost into his face. Simultaneously, from somewhere outside the house, arose the notes of a Spanish bugle- call.

Young Varona waited to hear no more. Nor did his men; realizing the peril into which they had been led, they bolted from the house as fast as they could go. There was no need for questions; from the direction of the sugar-mill came bellowed orders and the sound of men shouting to their horses. Evidently those were troops--and trained troops, too, for they took no time to saddle; they were up and mounted almost before the marauders had gained the backs of their own animals. There was no opportunity to choose a retreat across the fields; Esteban spurred down the driveway toward the main calzada, yelling to his men to follow him.

The approach to La Joya was by way of a notable avenue, perhaps a half-mile in length, and bordered by tall, even rows of royal palms. These stately trees shaded the avenue by day and lent it a cavern-like gloom by night. Near the public causeway the road was cut through a bit of rising ground, and was walled by steep banks overgrown with vines.

Into the black tunnel formed by the palms the fugitives plunged, with the clatter of hoofs close behind them. Those of the Volunteers who pressed them hardest began to shoot wildly, for this typically Cuban refusal to stand ground enraged them beyond measure.

Esteban's party would doubtless have made good their escape had it not been for that other guerrillero returning from its raid; but, as it happened, the two forces met in the sunken road. Nothing but the darkness and the head-long approach of the fleeing men saved them from immediate destruction, for the collision occurred between banks too steep for a horse to climb, and with that yelling pack too close behind to permit of retreat.

Instantly there began a blind battle in these desperately cramped quarters. After the first moment or two friend and foe were indistinguishable and the men of both parties began firing or thrusting at whatever loomed nearest out of the gloom. The narrow ravine quickly became a place of utter confusion, a volcano of blasphemies, a press of jostling, plunging, struggling bodies. Horses reared and bit at one another. Riders fought stirrup to stirrup with clubbed rifles and machetes; saddles were emptied and the terrified horses bolted. Some of them lunged up the banks, only to tumble down again, their threshing limbs and sharp-shod hoofs working more havoc than blows from old-time battle-hammers. Meanwhile those of Cobo's men who had ridden out from the sugar- mill naturally attributed this new uproar to a stand of their enemies, and began to rake the road with rifle fire; then, in obedience to the commands of their half-clad colonel, they charged. A moment and they were fighting hand to hand with their returning comrades. Spaniard clashed with Spaniard, and somewhere in the melee the six marauders battled for their lives.

Of course, after the first moment of conflict, Esteban had not been able to exert the least control over his men; in fact, he could not make himself heard. Nor could he spare the breath to shout; he was too desperately engaged. When the full truth of the situation dawned upon him he gave up hope for his life and at first merely strove to wreak such havoc as he could. Yet while some of his faculties were completely numbed in the stress of that white-hot moment, others remained singularly clear. The shock of his surprise, the imminence of his peril, rendered him dead to any emotion save dismay, and yet, strangely enough, he remembered Rosa's pressing need for him and, more for her sake than for his own, fought to extricate himself from the confusion. His rifle was empty, he had its hot barrel in his hands; he dimly distinguished Asensio wielding his machete. Then he found himself down and half stunned. He was running here and there to avoid lunging horses; he was tripping and falling, but meanwhile, as opportunity offered, he continued to use his clubbed weapon. Something smote him heavily, at last--whether a hoof or a gun-stock he could not tell- -and next he was on all-fours, trying to drag himself out of this rat-pit. But his limbs were queerly rebellious, and he was sick; he had never experienced anything quite like this and he thought he must be wounded. It greatly surprised him to find that he could struggle upward through the brambles, even though it was hard work. Men were fighting all around and below him, meanwhile, and he wondered vaguely what made them kill one another when he and his negroes were all dead or dying. It seemed very strange--of a piece with the general unreality of things--and it troubled him not a little.

At last he gained the top of the bank and managed to assume an upright position, clinging to the bole of a palm-tree. One of his arms was useless, he discovered, and he realized with a curious shock that it was broken. He was bleeding, too, from more than one wound, but he could walk, after a fashion.

He was inclined to stay and finish the fight, but he recollected that Rosa would be waiting for him and that he must go to her, and so he set out across the fields, staggering through the charred cane stubble. The night was not so black as it had been, and this puzzled him until he saw that the plantation house was ablaze. Flames were belching from its windows, casting abroad a lurid radiance; and remembering Pancho Cueto, Esteban laughed.

By and by, after he was well away, his numbness passed and he began to suffer excruciating pain. The pain had been there all the time, so it seemed; he was simply gaining the capacity to feel it. He was ready to die now, he was so ill; moreover, his left arm dangled and got in his way. Only that subconscious realization of the necessity to keep going for Rosa's sake sustained him.

After a while he found himself on a forest trail; then he came to other fields and labored across them. Fortune finally led his feet down into a creek-bed, and he drank greedily, sitting upon a stone and scooping the water up in his one useful hand. He was a long time in quenching his thirst, and a longer time in getting up, but he finally managed this, and he succeeded thereafter in keeping on his feet. Daylight came at last to show him his way. More than once he paused, alarmed, at voices in the woods, only to find that the sounds issued from his own throat.

It had grown very hot now, so hot that heat-waves obscured his vision and caused the most absurd forms to take shape. He began to hunt aimlessly for water, but there was none. Evidently this heat had parched the land, dried up the streams, and set the stones afire. It was incredible, but true.

Esteban reasoned that he must be near home by this time, for he had been traveling for days--for years. The country, indeed, was altogether unfamiliar; he could not recall ever having seen the path he trod, but for that matter everything was strange. In the first place he knew that he was going west, and yet the morning sun persisted in beating hotly into his face! That alone convinced him that things had gone awry with the world. He could remember a great convulsion of some sort, but just what it was he had no clear idea! Evidently, though, it had been sufficient to change the rotation of the earth. Yes, that was it; the earth was running backward upon its axis; he could actually feel it whirling under his feet. No wonder his journey seemed so long. He was laboring over a gigantic treadmill, balancing like an equilibrist upon a revolving sphere. Well, it was a simple matter to stop walking, sit down, and allow himself to be spun backward around to the place where Rosa was waiting. He pondered this idea for some time, until its absurdity became apparent. Undoubtedly he must be going out of his head; he saw that it was necessary to keep walking until the back-spin of that treadmill brought Rosa to him.

But the time came when he could walk no farther. He tried repeatedly and failed, and meanwhile the earth spun even more rapidly, threatening to whirl him off into space. It was a terrible sensation; he lay down and hugged the ground, clinging to roots and sobbing weakly. Rosa, he knew, was just around the next bend in the trail; he called to her, but she did not answer, and he dared not attempt to creep forward because his grip was failing. He could feel his fingers slipping--slipping. It was agony. He summoned his last atom of determination, but to no avail. He gave up finally, and felt himself propelled dizzily outward into immeasurable voids. His last thought, as he went whirling end over end through space, was of his sister. She would never know how hard he had tried to reach her.