XV. Filibusters
 

Leslie Branch was asleep when O'Reilly returned to their room, but he awoke sufficiently to listen to the latter's breathless account of the dinner-party.

"I'm rattled," Johnnie confessed. "Why, that girl just bounced right into the middle of everything, and--and I can't bounce her out again."

"You say she's young, and pretty, and--rich?" Leslie was incredulous.

"Y-yes! All of that."

"Um-m! Doctor Alvarado must mix a good cocktail."

"Why?"

"Because you're drunk and delirious. They don't come that way, my boy. When they're rich they're old and ugly."

"I tell you this girl is young and--stunning."

"Of course she is," Branch agreed, soothingly. "Now go to sleep and don't think any more about her, there's a good boy! Everything will be all right in the morning. Perhaps it never happened; perhaps you didn't meet any woman at all." The speaker yawned and turned over.

"Don't be an ass," Johnnie cried, impatiently. "What are we going to do with a woman on our hands?"

"We? Don't divide her with me. What are you going to do? The truth is plain, this Miss Evans is in love with you and you don't know it. She sees in you her soul mate. Well, if you don't want her, I want her. I'll eat her medicine. I'll even--marry the poor old soul, if she's rich."

O'Reilly arose early the next morning and hurried down to the office of the Junta, hoping that he could convince Mr. Enriquez of the folly of allowing Norine Evans to have her way. By the light of day Miss Evans's project seemed more hare-brained than ever, and he suspected that Enriquez had acquiesced in it only because of a natural inability to refuse anything to a pretty woman--that was typically Cuban. But his respect for Miss Evans's energy and initiative deepened when, on arriving at 56 New Street, he discovered that she had forestalled him and was even then closeted with the man he had come to see. Johnnie waited uneasily; he was dismayed when the girl finally appeared, with Enriquez in tow, for the man's face was radiant.

"It's all settled," she announced, at sight of O'Reilly. "I've speeded them up."

"You're an early riser," the latter remarked. "I hardly expected-- "

Enriquez broke in. "Such enthusiasm! Such ardor! She whirls a person off his feet."

"It seems that the Junta lacks money for another expedition, so I've made up the deficit. We'll be off in a week."

"Really? Then you're actually--going?"

"Of course."

"It was like a gift from Heaven," Enriquez cried. "Our last embarrassment is removed, and--"

But Johnnie interrupted him. "You're crazy, both of you," he declared, irritably. "Cuba is no place for an American girl. I'm not thinking so much about the danger of capture on the way down as the hardship after she gets there and the fact that she will be thrown among all sorts of men."

The elder man lifted his head. "Every Cuban will know who Miss Evans is, and what she has done for our cause. You do not seem to have a high regard for our chivalry, sir."

"There!" Norine was triumphant.

"There is bound to be some danger, of course," Enriquez continued, "for the coast is well patrolled; but once the expedition is landed, Miss Evans will be among friends. She will be as safe in our camps as if she were in her own home."

"Don't be hateful, and argumentative, or I'll begin to think you're a born chaperon," Miss Evans exclaimed. "Come! Make up your mind to endure me. And now you're going to help me buy my tropical outfit."

With a smile and a nod at Enriquez she took O'Reilly's arm and bore him away.

In spite of his panic-struck protestations that he knew less than nothing about woman's requirements, she led him up-town. And she kept him at her side all that morning while she made her purchases; then when she had loaded him down with parcels she invited him to take her to lunch. The girl was so keenly alive and so delighted with the prospect of adventure that Johnnie could not long remain displeased with her. She had an irresistible way about her, and he soon found himself sharing her good spirits. She had a healthy appetite, too; when O'Reilly set out for his lodgings after escorting her home he walked in order to save car fare. Clams, consomme, chicken salad, French pastry, and other extravagances had reduced his capital to zero.

The days of idle waiting that followed were trying, even to one of O'Reilly's philosophic habit of mind. He could learn nothing about the Junta's plans, and, owing to his complete uncertainty, he was unable to get work. Leslie Branch, too, failed to find steady employment, though he managed, by the sale of an occasional column, to keep them both from actual suffering. His cough, meanwhile, grew worse day by day, for the spring was late and raw. As a result his spirits rose, and he became the best of all possible good companions. Johnnie, who was becoming constantly more fond of him, felt his anxiety increase in proportion to this improvement in mood; it seemed to him that Branch was on the very verge of a collapse.

At last there came a message which brought them great joy. Enriquez directed them to be in readiness to leave Jersey City at seven o'clock the following morning. Neither man slept much that night.

As they waited in the huge, barn-like station Enriquez appeared with Norine Evans upon his arm. The girl's color was high; she was tremulous with excitement. Leslie Branch, who saw her for the first time, emitted a low whistle of surprise.

"Glory be! That goddess!" he cried. "And I called her a 'poor old soul'!"

When Norine took his bony, bloodless hand in her warm grasp and flashed him her frank, friendly smile, he capitulated instantly. In hyperbolical terms he strove to voice his pleasure at the meeting; but he lost the thread of his thought and floundered so hopelessly among his words that Norine said, laughingly:

"Now, Mr. Branch, bold buccaneers don't make pretty speeches. Hitch up your belt and say, 'Hello, Norine!' I'll call you Leslie."

"Don't call me 'Leslie,'" he begged. "Call me often."

Then he beamed upon the others, as if this medieval pun were both startling and original. It was plain that he wholly and inanely approved of Norine Evans.

Enriquez was introducing a new-comer now, one Major Ramos, a square-jawed, forceful Cuban, who, it seemed, was to be in command of the expedition.

"My duties end here," Enriquez explained. "Major Ramos will take charge of you, and you must do exactly as he directs. Ask no questions, for he won't answer them. Do you think you can follow instructions?"

"Certainly not. I sha'n't even try," Norine told him. "I'm fairly bursting with curiosity at this moment."

"Remember, Ramos, not a word."

"I promise," smiled the major.

"Good-by and good luck." Enriquez shook hands all around; then he bowed and kissed Miss Evans's fingers. "I shall pray that you escape all danger, senorita, and I shall see that Cuba remembers her debt to you."

When he had gone the three Americans followed their new guide through the iron gates.

Major Ramos proved that he knew how to obey orders even though the other members of his party did not. He remained utterly deaf to Miss Evans's entreaties that he let her know something about the plans of the expedition; he would not even tell her where he was taking her, where the other filibusters had assembled, or from what port their ship would sail. He did go so far, however, as to explain that an inkling of the Junta's plans had leaked out, and that determined efforts to upset them were being made, efforts which necessitated the greatest care on his part. This, of course, whetted the girl's curiosity; but to her most artful queries he opposed a baffling silence. When Philadelphia, Washington, then Baltimore, and finally Richmond were left behind, Miss Evans was, in truth, ready to explode, and her two companions were in a similar frame of mind.

Major Ramos was not naturally a silent man; he had all the loquacity of the Latin, and all the Latin's appreciation of a pretty woman; he made no secret of the fact that his orders irked him. Despite his official reserve he proved himself a pleasant traveling-companion, and he talked freely on all but one subject. He played a good game of cards, too, and he devoted himself with admirable courtesy to Norine's comfort. It was not until the train was approaching Charleston that he finally announced:

"Now then, my first command. This is the end of our journey; the other members of the expedition are here. But I must ask you not to talk with them or with any strangers, for our friends are being watched by detectives in the employ of the Spanish minister at Washington and by United States deputy-marshals. One little indiscretion might ruin everything."

"Spies! Oh, goody!" cried Miss Evans.

"The local authorities intend to seize any vessel we try to sail on. We must be careful."

The hotel to which Major Ramos led his guests appeared to be well filled; there were many Cubans in the lobby, and the air was heavy with the aroma of their strong, black cigarettes. As the major entered they turned interested and expectant faces toward him and they eyed his companions with frank curiosity. Miss Evans became the target for more than one warmly admiring glance.

As for O'Reilly, the familiar odor of those Cuban cigarettes, the snatches of Spanish conversation which he overheard, awoke in him a great excitement; he realized with an odd thrill that these eager, dark-visaged men were now his friends and comrades, and that those Americans loitering watchfully among them were his enemies--the spies of whom Ramos had spoken. There were at least a score of the latter, and all were plainly stamped with the distinctive marks of their calling. That they, too, were interested in the latest arrivals was soon made evident by their efforts to get acquainted.

To Norine Evans it was all immensely exciting. The attention she evoked delighted her vastly, and she was almost offended when O'Reilly threatened one particularly forward sleuth with a thrashing, thereby ending her fun.

It was a strangely restless gathering. The Cubans sat in groups or in pairs with their heads together, smoking furiously and whispering, pausing now and then to glare balefully at some detective who drew within ear-shot. Every hour increased the strain.

On the street it became known that a party of filibusters was in the city and curious townspeople came to investigate, while others journeyed to the water-front to stare at the big ocean-going tug which had slipped into the harbor on the evening previous. When they learned that she was none other than the Dauntless, that most famous of Cuban blockade-runners, and that "Dynamite Johnny" O'Brien himself was in command, interest grew. The exploits of that redoubtable mariner were familiar to the citizens of Charleston, and their sympathies were quite naturally with the cause he served; therefore they were disappointed to behold a revenue cutter at anchor close alongside the Dauntless. Her steam was up; she was ready for instant action; it seemed impossible for "Dynamite Johnny" to get his cargo and his passengers aboard under her very nose. Some imaginative person claimed to have a tip that the Dauntless intended to ram the revenue cutter, and a warning to that effect appeared in the evening paper, together with the rumor that a Spanish cruiser was waiting just outside the three-mile limit.

Charleston awoke with a start, and the Cuban patriots who found themselves the object of this sudden interest buzzed like flies. They muttered and whispered more mysteriously than ever, and consumed even greater quantities of tobacco. The detectives became painfully alert.

To O'Reilly and his two companions it seemed that the expedition had already failed. Through some blunder its plans had evidently become known, and all was ruined. That was the worst of these Cubans; they couldn't keep a secret. Branch stalked the hotel lobby like a restless wraith. O'Reilly was furious. Of the entire party Ramos alone maintained an unruffled pleasantry; he spent the evening in Miss Evans's company, quite oblivious to the general feeling of dismay.

On the next afternoon word was quietly passed to get ready, and the filibusters, carrying their scant hand-baggage, began to leave the hotel in groups, followed, of course, by the watchful spies.

As the three Americans prepared for departure Norine whispered: "Listen! Everything is all right. We're not going aboard the Dauntless at all; she's here as a blind."

"Are you sure?" O'Reilly shot her a quick glance.

"Major Ramos himself gave that story to the news-papers; it's all a part of his plan. I promised not to tell, but--I just can't help myself. Gee! I'm having a good time."

Leslie Branch shook his head mournfully. "You may enjoy it, but I don't," he grumbled. "We'll end by being pinched, and that will finish me. One week in a damp cell, with my lungs--"

O'Reilly, whose spirits had risen magically, clapped him heartily on the back, crying: "Congratulations! You're feeling better."

"I never felt worse!" the other complained.

"Nonsense! That's the first kick you've made since we hit cold weather. By the time we reach Cuba you'll be nice and melancholy and your cough will be all gone."

Ramos led his three charges to the railroad station and into the rear coach of a south-bound train, where the other members of the expedition had already found seats. As they climbed aboard, a Secret Service agent essayed to follow them, but he was stopped by a brakeman, who said:

"You can't ride in here; this is a special car. Some sort of a picnic party. They're 'wops' or Greeks or something."

Other detectives who attempted to invade the privacy of that rear coach after the train had gotten under way were also denied. Meanwhile, the filibusters cast restraint aside, and for the first time intermingled freely.

Evening came, then night, and still the party was jerked along at the tail of the train without a hint as to its destination. About midnight those who were not dozing noted that they had stopped at an obscure pine-woods junction, and that when the train got under way once more their own car did not move. The ruse was now apparent; owing to the lateness of the hour, it was doubtful if any one in the forward coaches was aware that the train was lighter by one car.

There was a brief delay; then a locomotive crept out from a siding, coupled up to the standing car, and drew it off upon another track. Soon the "excursion party" was being rushed swiftly toward the coast, some twenty miles away.

Major Ramos came down the aisle, laughing, and spoke to his American protege's.

"Well, what do you think of that, eh? Imagine the feelings of those good deputy-marshals when they wake up. I bet they'll rub their eyes."

Miss Evans bounced excitedly in her seat; she clapped her hands,

"You must have friends in high places," O'Reilly grinned, and the Cuban agreed.

"Yes, I purposely drew attention to us in Charleston, while our ship was loading. She's ready and waiting for us now; and by daylight we ought to be safely out to sea. Meanwhile the Dauntless has weighed anchor and is steaming north, followed, I hope, by all the revenue cutters hereabouts."

It was the darkest time of the night when the special train came to a stop at a bridge spanning one of the deep Southern rivers. In the stream below, dimly outlined in the gloom, lay the Fair Play, a small tramp steamer; her crew were up and awake. The new arrivals were hurried aboard, and within a half-hour she was feeling her way seaward.

With daylight, caution gave way to haste, and the rusty little tramp began to drive forward for all she was worth. She cleared the three-mile limit safely and then turned south. Not a craft was in sight; not a smudge of smoke discolored the sky-line.

It had been a trying night for the filibusters, and when the low coast-line was dropped astern they began to think of sleep. Breakfast of a sort was served on deck, after which those favored ones who had berths sought them, while their less fortunate companions stretched out wherever they could find a place.

Johnnie O'Reilly was not one of those who slept; he was too much elated. Already he could see the hills of Cuba dozing behind their purple veils; in fancy he felt the fierce white heat from close- walled streets, and scented the odors of "mangly" swamps. He heard the ceaseless sighing of royal palms. How he had hungered for it all; how he had raged at his delays! Cuba's spell was upon him; he knew now that he loved the island, and that he would never feel at rest on other soil.

It had seemed so small a matter to return; it had seemed so easy to seek out Rosa and to save her! Yet the days had grown into weeks; the weeks had aged into months. Well, he had done his best; he had never rested from the moment of Rosa's first appeal. Her enemies had foiled him once, but there would be no turning back this time--rather a firing-squad or a dungeon in Cabanas than that.

O'Reilly had taken his bitter medicine as becomes a man--he had maintained a calm, if not a cheerful, front; but now that every throb of the propeller bore him closer to his heart's desire he felt a growing jubilation, a mounting restlessness that was hard to master. His pulse was pounding; his breath swelled in his lungs. Sleep? That was for those who merely risked their lives for Cuba. Hunger? No food could satisfy a starving soul. Rest? He would never rest until he held Rosa Varona in his arms. This rusty, sluggish tub was standing still!

Into the midst of his preoccupation Norine Evans forced herself, announcing, breathlessly:

"Oh, but I'm excited! They're hoisting a cannon out of the hold and putting it together, so that we can fight if we have to."

"Now don't you wish you'd stayed at home?" O'Reilly smiled at her.

"Good heavens, no! I'm having the time of my life. I nearly died of curiosity at first--until I found Major Ramos's tongue."

"Hm-m! You found it, all right. He appears to be completely conquered."

"I-I'm afraid so," the girl acknowledged, with a little grimace. "You'd think he'd never seen a woman before. He's very--intense. Very!"

"You don't expect me, as your chaperon, to approve of your behavior? Why, you've been flirting outrageously."

"I had to flirt a little: I simply had to know what was going on. But--I fixed him."

"Indeed?"

"I couldn't let him spoil my fun, could I? Of course not. Well, I put a damper on him. I told him about you--about us."

O'Reilly was puzzled. "What do you mean?" he inquired.

"You won't be angry, will you? When he waxed romantic I told him he had come into my life too late. I confessed that I was in love with another man--with you." As her hearer drew back in dismay Miss Evans added, quickly, "Oh, don't be frightened; that isn't half--"

"Of course you're joking," Johnnie stammered.

"Indeed I'm not. I thought it would discourage him, but--it didn't. So I told him a whopper. I said we were engaged." The speaker tittered. She was delighted with herself.

"Engaged? To be married?"

"Certainly! People aren't engaged to--to go fishing, are they? I had to tell him something; he was getting positively feverish. If he'd kept it up I'd have told him we were secretly married."

"This may be funny," the young man said, stiffly, "but I don't see it."

"Oh, don't look so glum! I'm not going to hold you to it, you know. Why"--Miss Evans's bantering manner ceased, and she said, earnestly: "Doctor Alvarado told me your story, and I think it is splendid. I'm going to help you find that little Rosa, if you'll let me. You were thinking about her when I came up, weren't you?"

Johnnie nodded.

"You--might talk to me about her, if you care to."

O'Reilly's voice was husky and low as he said: "I daren't trust myself. I'm afraid. She's so young, so sweet, so beautiful--and these are war-times. I'm almost afraid to think--"

Norine saw her companion's cheeks blanch slowly, saw his laughing eyes grow grave, saw the muscular brown hand upon the rail tighten until the knuckles were white; impulsively she laid her palm over his.

"Don't let yourself worry," she said. "If money would buy her safety you could have all that I have. Just be brave and true and patient, and you'll find her. I'm sure you will. And in the mean time don't mind my frivolity; it's just my way. You see this is my first taste of life, and it has gone to my head."