XVI. The City Among the Leaves
 

The night was moonless and warm. An impalpable haze dimmed the star-glow, only the diffused illumination of the open sea enabled the passengers of the Fair Play to identify that blacker darkness on the horizon ahead of them as land. The ship herself was no more than a formless blot stealing through the gloom, and save for the phosphorescence at bow and stern no light betrayed her presence, not even so much as the flare of a match or the coal from a cigar or cigarette. Orders of the strictest had been issued and the expedicionarios, gathered along the rails, were not inclined to disregard them, for only two nights before the Fair Play, in spite of every precaution, had shoved her nose fairly into a hornets' nest and had managed to escape only by virtue of the darkness and the speed of her engines.

She had approached within a mile or two of the pre-arranged landing-place when over the mangroves had flared the blinding white light of a Spanish patrol-boat; like a thief surprised at his work the tramp had turned tail and fled, never pausing until she lay safe among the Bahama Banks.

Now she was feeling her way back, some distance to the westward. Major Ramos was on the bridge with the captain. Two men were taking soundings in a blind search for that steep wall which forms the side of the old Bahama Channel. When the lead finally gave them warning, the Fair Play lost her headway and came to a stop, rolling lazily; in the silence that ensued Leslie Branch's recurrent cough barked loudly.

"They're afraid to go closer, on account of the reef," O'Reilly explained to his companions.

"That must be it that I hear," Norine ventured. "Or maybe it's just the roaring in my ears."

"Probably the latter," said Branch. "I'm scared stiff. I don't like reefs. Are there any sharks in these waters?"

"Plenty."

"Well, I'm glad I'm thin," the sick man murmured.

Major Ramos spoke in a low tone from the darkness above, calling for a volunteer boat's crew to reconnoiter and to look for an opening through the reef. Before the words were out of his mouth O'Reilly had offered himself.

Ten minutes later he found himself at the steering-oar of one of the ship's life-boats, heading shoreward. A hundred yards, and the Fair Play was lost to view; but, keeping his face set toward that inky horizon, O'Reilly guided his boat perhaps a half-mile nearer before ordering his crew to cease rowing. Now through the stillness came a low, slow, pulsating whisper, the voice of the barrier reef.

The trade-winds had died with the sun, and only the gentlest ground-swell was running; nevertheless, when the boat drew farther in the sound increased alarmingly, and soon a white breaker streak showed dimly where the coral teeth of the reef bit through.

There was a long night's work ahead; time pressed, and so O'Reilly altered his course and cruised along outside the white water, urging his crew to lustier strokes. It was haphazard work, this search for an opening, and every hour of delay increased the danger of discovery.

A mile--two miles--it seemed like ten to the taut oars-men, and then a black hiatus of still water showed in the phosphorescent foam. O'Reilly explored it briefly; then he turned back toward the ship. When he had gone as far as he dared, he lit a lantern and, shielding its rays from the shore with, his coat, flashed it seaward. After a short interval a dim red eye winked once out of the blackness. O'Reilly steered for it.

Soon he and his crew were aboard and the ship was groping her way toward the break in the reef. Meanwhile, her deck became a scene of feverish activity; out from her hold came cases of ammunition and medical supplies; the field-piece on the bow was hurriedly dismounted; the small boats, of which there were an extra number, were swung out, with the result that when the Fair Play had manoeuvered as close as she dared everything was in readiness.

Many of these expedicionarios were professional men, clerks, cigar-makers, and the like; few of them had ever done hard manual labor; yet they fell to their tasks willingly enough. While they worked a close watch with night glasses was maintained from the bridge.

O'Reilly took the first load through the reef, and discharged it upon a sandy beach. No one seemed to know positively whether this was the mainland or some key; and there was no time for exploration; in either event, there was no choice of action. Every man tumbled overboard and waded ashore with a packing-case; he dropped this in the sand above high-tide mark, and then ran back for another. It was swift, hot work. From the darkness on each side came the sounds of other boat crews similarly engaged.

Johnnie was back alongside the ship and ready for a second cargo before the last tender had set out upon its first trip, and then for several hours this slavish activity continued. Some crews lost themselves in the gloom, fetched up on the reef, and were forced to dump their freight into the foam, trusting to salvage it when daylight came. Every one was wet to the skin; bodies steamed in the heat; men who had pulled at oars until their hands were raw and bleeding cursed and groaned at their own fatigue. But there was little shirking; those whose strength completely failed them dropped in the sand and rested until they could resume their labors.

Daylight was coming when the last boat cast off and the Fair Play, with a hoarse triumphant blast of her whistle, faded into the north, her part in the expedition at an end.

O'Reilly bore Norine Evans ashore in his arms, and when he placed her feet upon Cuban soil she hugged him, crying:

"We fooled them, Johnnie! But if it hadn't been for you we'd have turned back. The captain was afraid of the reef."

"I don't mind telling you I was afraid, too," he sighed, wearily. "Now then, about all we have to fear are Spanish coast-guards."

Dawn showed the voyagers that they were indeed fortunate, for they were upon the mainland of Cuba, and as far as they could see, both east and west, the reef was unbroken. There was still some uncertainty as to their precise position, for the jungle at their backs shut off their view of the interior; but that gave them little concern. Men were lolling about, exhausted, but Major Ramos allowed them no time for rest; he roused them, and kept them on the go until the priceless supplies had been collected within the shelter of the brush. Then he broke open certain packages, and distributed arms among his followers.

Even while this was going on there came an alarm; over the low promontory that cut off the eastern coastline a streamer of smoke was seen. There was a scurry for cover; the little band lay low and watched while a Spanish cruiser stole past not more than a mile outside the line of froth.

The three Americans, who were munching a tasteless breakfast of pilot-bread, were joined by Major Ramos. He was no longer the immaculate personage he had been: he was barefooted; his clothes were torn; his trousers were rolled up to the knee and whitened by sea-water, while the revolver at his hip and the bandolier of cartridges over his shoulder lent him an incongruously ferocious appearance. Ever since Norine had so rudely shattered his romantic fancies the major had treated both her and O'Reilly with a stiff and distant formality. He began now by saying:

"I am despatching a message to General Gomez's headquarters, asking him to send a pack-train and an escort for these supplies. There is danger here; perhaps you would like to go on with the couriers."

O'Reilly accepted eagerly; then thinking of the girl, he said, doubtfully:

"I'm afraid Miss Evans isn't equal to the trip."

"Nonsense! I'm equal to anything," Norine declared. And indeed she looked capable enough as she stood there in her short walking-suit and stout boots.

Branch alone declined the invitation, vowing that he was too weak to budge. If there was the faintest prospect of riding to the interior he infinitely preferred to await the opportunity, he said, even at the risk of an attack by Spanish soldiers in the mean time.

It took O'Reilly but a short time to collect the few articles necessary for the trip; indeed, his bundle was so small that Norine was dismayed.

"Can't I take any clothes?" she inquired in a panic. "I can't live without a change."

"It is something you'll have to learn," he told her. "An Insurrecto with two shirts is wealthy. Some of them haven't any."

"Isn't it likely to rain on us?"

"It's almost sure to."

Miss Evans pondered this prospect; then she laughed. "It must feel funny," she said.

There were three other members of the traveling-party, men who knew something of the country round about; they were good fighters, doubtless, but in spite of their shiny new weapons they resembled soldiers even less than did their major. All were dressed as they had been when they left New York; one even wore a derby hat and pointed patent-leather shoes. Nevertheless, Norine Evans thought the little cavalcade presented quite a martial appearance as it filed away into the jungle.

The first few miles were trying, for the coast was swampy and thickly grown up to underbrush; but in time the jungle gave place to higher timber and to open savannas deep in guinea-grass. Soon after noon the travelers came to a farm, the owner of which was known to one of the guides, and here a stop was made in order to secure horses and food.

It was a charming little rancho. The palm-thatched house was set in a grove of mamey and mango trees, all heavily burdened with fruit; there was a vianda-patch, and, wonder of wonders, there were a half-dozen cows dozing in the shade. Spying these animals, Norine promptly demanded a glass of milk, and O'Reilly translated her request to the farmer.

The man was obliging until he learned that the American lady purposed drinking the milk fresh and warm; then he refused positively. Fresh milk was full of fever, he explained: it was alive with germs. He would bring her, instead, some which had been boiled and salted in the usual Cuban manner. This he did, but after one bitter mouthful Norine insisted upon her original request. With a dubious shake of his head and a further warning the farmer directed his son to oblige the pretty lady by milking one of the cows; he made it plain, however, that he disclaimed all responsibility for the result.

Johnnie, who was badly fagged from the previous night's work, found a shady spot and stretched himself out for a nap. He inquired idly if there were any Spaniards in the vicinity, and learned that there were, but that they seldom came this way.

"We'd never see them here, if it were not for these sin verguenzas--may a bad lightning split them!--who take money to show them the bridle-paths," the country-man explained. "I'd like to guide them once. I'd lead them into a swamp and leave them to sink in the mud, then I'd go back and cut off their heads. Ha! That would be a satisfaction, now, wouldn't it?"

O'Reilly agreed sleepily that it would doubtless be a very great satisfaction indeed.

"I'm as good a patriot as God ever made," the fellow ran on. "You can see that, eh? But what do you think? I have a brother, a very blood brother, who would sell himself for a peseta. He passed here the other day at the head of a whole Spanish guerrillero." The speaker bared his teeth and spat viciously. "Christ! How I would like to cut his throat!"

The shade was grateful. O'Reilly dozed. He was awakened by being roughly shaken, and he found the man with the derby hat bending over him. The fellow was excited; his eyes were ringed with white; his expression bespoke the liveliest alarm. Loud voices came from the rear of the bohio.

"What's the matter? Spaniards?" Johnnie was on his feet in an instant.

"No, no! Your senorita!" the man gasped, "For the love of God come quickly." He set off at a run, and Johnnie followed, a prey to sudden sick misgivings.

Around the house they dashed, and into a group the center of which was Norine herself, a gourdful of milk in one hand, a partially devoured mango in the other. At first glance there seemed to be nothing amiss; but the owner of the farm was dancing; he was trying to seize first the mango, then the drinking-vessel. His wife was wringing her hands and crying, shrilly:

"God have mercy! So young--so beautiful! What a pity!"

The two filibusters and the farmer's eldest son, all visibly perturbed, likewise joined in the commotion, while the smaller children looked on from the background and whimpered.

"What's happened?" O'Reilly demanded, breathlessly.

Norine turned a puzzled face to him, meanwhile warding off the farmer's attack. "I can't quite make out," she said. "They all talk at once. Please ask them what I've done." Mechanically she raised the ripe mango to her lips, whereupon the ranchero, with a yell, leaped upon her and violently wrenched it out of her fingers.

Facing O'Reilly, the man panted: "There! You saw her! She wouldn't listen to my wife--"

"Oh, I warned her!" wailed the woman. "But it was too late."

"You must tell her what she has done," said the fellow. in the stiff hat.

"Well, what has she done?" Johnnie managed to inquire, whereupon every one began a separate explanation:

"She will never become your wife. ... Look! That's not her first mango. ... Enough to destroy an army. ... You can see for yourself. ... Wait! Ask her how many she ate. Ask her, senor, I implore you!"

There was a silence while Johnnie translated the question and repeated the answer:

"She says she doesn't remember, they are so nice and ripe--"

"'So nice and ripe'!" shouted the owner of the farm, tearing his hair.

"'So nice and ripe'!" echoed his wife.

'"So nice and ripe'!" groaned the man who had awakened O'Reilly. "Major Ramos told me to guard her with my life because she is the guest of Cuba. Well, I shall kill myself."

The country woman laid a trembling hand upon Norine's arm, inquiring, gently: "How are you feeling, my beautiful dove? Sick, eh?"

"What on earth ails these people?" inquired the object of all this solicitude. "I haven't made away with a baby. Maybe they're afraid I won't pay for my food?"

Light came to O'Reilly. "I remember now," said he. "Mangoes and milk are supposed to be poisonous. The woman wants to know how you feel."

"Poisonous! Nonsense! They taste splendid. Tell her I'm still half starved."

It proved now that one of the three members of the landing-party possessed an unsuspected knowledge of English, which modesty alone had prevented him from revealing. Under the stress of his emotion he broke out:

"Oh, missy! Those fruit is skill you."

"I don't believe it," Miss Evans declared.

"It skill you, all right. Maybe you got a headache here, eh?" The speaker laid a hand upon his abdomen and leaned forward expectantly.

"Nothing but an aching void."

This confession, or a garbled translation of it, was enough for the others; it confirmed their worst fears. The farmer volunteered to ride for the nearest priest, but hesitated, declaring it a waste of time, inasmuch as the lady would be dead in half an hour. His wife ran to the house for her crucifix and rosary, which latter she insisted upon hanging around Norine's neck. After that she directed the men to carry the sufferer indoors, her intention being to make her guest's last moments as comfortable as possible. When Norine refused to be carried she was warned that the least exertion would but hasten the end, which was, alas! all too near.

O'Reilly was impressed, in spite of himself, by this weight of conviction, especially when the Cubans ridiculed his suggestion that the combination of milk and mango might not prove altogether fatal to an American. Nothing, they assured him, could possibly be deadlier than this abominable mixture.

The victim herself, however, remained skeptical; she alone treated the matter lightly, and although she did finally consent to lie down, it was merely to please the others and because she was tired.

"They have set their minds on seeing me expire, and they're such nice people I'm almost ashamed to disappoint them," she confided to O'Reilly. "But really I'm too hungry to die. Now don't forget to call me when dinner is ready."

"Honestly, do you feel all right?" he asked of her.

"Never better."

The meal was slow in coming, for not only were the cooking arrangements primitive, but the apprehensive housewife could not long remain away from the sick-room. She made frequent visits thereto, and after each she reported in a whisper the condition of the patient. The lady looked very white. ... Her breathing was becoming slower. ... She was unconscious. ... All would soon be over. ... It was better to let her pass painlessly to paradise than to torture her with useless remedies. Realizing that the poison had at last begun to work, the men tip-toed to the door and peered in compassionately, whereupon the sufferer roused herself sufficiently to call them "a lot of rubber-necks" and bid them begone.

"Her mind wanders," explained the man of the house; and then to cheer O'Reilly he added, "She is young and strong; she may linger until evening."

The meal was set at last, however; the men were stealthily attacking it. Suddenly the sick woman swept out from her retreat and sat down among them.

"Senorita! This is suicide!" they implored.

Then, as she ignored them and helped herself liberally to the food, their own appetites vanished and they pushed themselves away from the table.

With a twinkle in his eye O'Reilly said, gravely, "Dying people have strange fancies. Pray don't thwart her."

Indifference so callous on the part of a lover shocked the Cubans. They rebuked O'Reilly silently; it was plain that they considered Americans a barbarously cold-blooded race. Meanwhile they apprehensively watched Norine's every mouthful.

When, after a time, no ill effects having appeared, she suggested departing, they whispered together. They agreed at last that it was perhaps the course of wisdom to humor her. She was the guest of their Government; it would not do to displease her. Inasmuch as her end was inevitable, it could matter little whether she died here or elsewhere. Accordingly they saddled their borrowed horses and set out.

All that afternoon Norine was an object of the tenderest solicitude on the part of her three Cuban guides. They momentarily expected to see her stricken. Then when she gave no sign of distress they marveled, and expressed great admiration at her fortitude in enduring pain.

That night was spent at another farm-house. When on the next morning Norine not only was seen to be alive and well, but insisted upon making her breakfast of mangoes and milk, the fellow in the derby hat flung his hands on high and told O'Reilly:

"It is no less than a miracle, but now she courts the wrath of God, senor! As for me, I shall never again associate with eccentric persons who delight to fly in the face of Providence. It is my opinion that all Americans are crazy."

The party had penetrated to the foot-hills of the Sierra de Cubitas now, and as they ascended, the scenery changed. Rarely is the Cuban landscape anything but pleasing. For the most part green pastures sown with stately palm-trees and laid out as if for a picnic alternate with low rolling hills, and in but few places are the altitudes at all impressive. It is a smiling island. It has been said, too, that everything in it is friendly to man: the people are amiable, warm-hearted; the very animals and insects are harmless. Cuban cattle are shy, but trusting; Cuban horses are patient and affectionate; the serpents have no poison, and although the spiders and the scorpions grow large and forbidding, their sting is ineffective. But here in the Cubitas range all was different. The land was stern and forbidding: canons deep and damp raised dripping walls to the sky; bridle-paths skirted ledges that were bold and fearsome, or lost themselves in gloomy jungles as noisome as Spanish dungeons. Hidden away in these fastnesses, the rebel Government had established its capital. Here, safe from surprise, the soldiers of Gomez and Maceo and Garcia rested between attacks, nursing their wounded and recruiting their strength for further sallies.

It was a strange seat of government--no nation ever had a stranger--for the state buildings were huts of bark and leaves, the army was uniformed in rags. Cook-fires smoldered in the open glades; cavalry horses grazed in the grassy streets, and wood- smoke drifted over them.

The second evening brought O'Reilly and Miss Evans safely through, and at news of the expedition's success a pack-train was made ready to go to its assistance. Norine's letter from the New York Junta was read, and the young woman was warmly welcomed. One of the better huts was vacated for her use, and the officers of the provisional Government called to pay their respects.