Rainbow's End by Rex Ellingwood Beach
XIX. That Sick Man from San Antonio
Certain histories of the Cuban War for Independence speak of "The Battle of San Antonio de los Banos." They relate how one thousand patriots captured the village after a gallant and sanguinary resistance by its Spanish garrison; how they released the prisoners in the local jail, replenished their own supplies, and then retired in the face of enemy reinforcements. It is quite a stirring story to read and it has but one fault, a fault, by the way, not uncommon in histories--it is mainly untrue.
In the first place, the engagement was in no sense a battle, but merely a raid. The number of troops engaged was, perhaps, one- fifth of the generous total ascribed by the historians, and as a military manoeuver it served no purpose whatsoever. That the Cubans delivered a spirited attack there is no denying. As a matter of fact, the engagement was characterized by an abandon, by a lack of caution, truly sensational, the reason being that the Insurrectos were half starved and stormed the town much as hungry hoboes attack a lunch-counter. Nevertheless, since the affair had a direct bearing upon the fortunes of several people connected with this story, it is, perhaps, worth relating.
The Baths of St. Anthony consisted of a sulphur spring which for many years had been held in high regard by gouty and rheumatic Camagueyans; around this spring a village had arisen which boasted rather better shops than the ordinary country town. It was this fact which had induced the gallant and obliging Colonel Lopez to attack it, for, as he explained to his American friends, if any place outside of Habana was likely to contain pickles, jam, sardines, candy, tooth-powder, and such other delicacies as appeared necessary to the contentment of a visiting American lady, San Antonio de los Banos was the one. Colonel Lopez did not believe in half measures: once he had determined to prove his devotion to Norine Evans, he would have sacrificed himself and the flower of his command; he would have wasted his last precious three-pound shell in breaching the walls of San Antonio de los Banos rather than fail. But as a matter of fact the village had no walls and it was defended only by a couple of blockhouses. Therefore the colonel left his artillery behind.
Perhaps its name was the most impressive thing about San Antonio de los Banos. Its streets were narrow and steep and stony, and its flinty little plaza was flanked by stores of the customary sort, the fronts of which were open so that mounted customers from the country might ride in to make their purchases. Crowning two commanding eminences just outside the village limits were the loopholed fortinas, where for months past the Spanish garrison had been dozing.
Lopez and his troop approached the town in the early morning. As they deployed for the attack the colonel issued private instructions to certain members of his command.
"O'Reilly, you and Senor Branch will enter one grocery-store after another. You will purchase that jam, those sardines, and whatever else you think Miss Evans would like. Captain Judson, you and Major Ramos will go to the apothecary-shop--I understand there is a very good one--and look for tooth-powder and candy and the like, I shall see that the streets are cleared, then I shall endeavor to discover some pickles; but as God is my judge, I doubt if there is such a thing this side of Habana."
Leslie Branch, whose temper had not improved with the long night ride, inquired, caustically: "Do you expect us to buy the groceries? Well, I'm broke, and so is O'Reilly."
"Have you no money?" asked the colonel, vastly surprised.
"I haven't tipped my hat to a dollar since I quit newspaper work. What's more, I want to do a little shopping for myself."
O'Reilly agreed: "If you don't give us some change, Colonel, we'll have to open a charge account in your name."
"Carmaba!" muttered Lopez. "I intended to borrow from you gentlemen. Well, never mind--we'll commandeer what we wish in the name of the Republic."
Lopez's attack proved a complete surprise, both to the citizens and to the garrison of the town. The rebel bugle gave the first warning of what was afoot, and before the Castilian troops who were loitering off duty could regain their quarters, before the citizens could take cover or the shopkeepers close and bar their heavy wooden shutters, two hundred ragged horsemen were yelling down the streets.
There followed a typical Cuban engagement--ten shouts to one shot. There was a mad charge on the heels of the scurrying populace, a scattering pop-pop of rifles, cheers, cries, shrieks of defiance and far-flung insults directed at the fortinas.
Bugles blew on the hilltops; the defenders armed themselves and began to fire into the village. But since the Insurrectos were now well sheltered by the houses and only a portion of certain streets could be raked from the forts, the Spanish bullets did no harm. Obedient to orders, a number of Lopez's men dismounted and took positions whence they could guard against a sally, thus leaving the rest of the command free to raid the stores. In the outskirts of the town Mausers spoke, the dust leaped, and leaden messengers whined through the air.
As locusts settle upon a standing crop, so did the army of liberators descend upon the shops of San Antonio de los Banos. It was great fun, great excitement, while it lasted, for the town was distracted and its citizens had neither time nor inclination to resist. Some of the shop-keepers, indeed, to prove their loyalty, openly welcomed the invaders. Others, however, lacking time to close up, fled incontinently, leaving their goods unguarded.
O'Reilly, with Branch and Jacket close at his heels, whirled his horse into the first bodega he came to. The store was stocked with general merchandise, but its owner, evidently a Spaniard, did not tarry to set a price upon any of it. As the three horsemen came clattering in at the front he went flying out at the rear, and, although O'Reilly called reassuringly after him, his only answer was the slamming of a back door, followed by swiftly diminishing cries of fright. Plainly, that rush of ragged men, those shots, those ferocious shouts from the plaza, were too much for the peaceful shopkeeper and his family, and they had taken refuge in some neighbor's garden.
There was no time to waste. Johnnie dismounted and, walking to the shelves where some imported canned goods were displayed, he began to select those delicacies for which he had been sent. The devoted Jacket was at his side. The little Cuban exercised no restraint; he seized whatever was most handy, meanwhile cursing ferociously, as befitted a bloodthirsty bandit. Boys are natural robbers, and at this opportunity for loot Jacket's soul flamed savagely and he swept the shelves bare as he went.
"Hey, Leslie! Get something to carry this stuff in," O'Reilly directed over his shoulder. Receiving only a muttered reply, he turned to find that his fellow-countryman had cut down a string of perhaps two dozen large straw sombreros and was attempting to select one that fitted his head.
"Oh, look!" Branch murmured. "Forty dollars' worth of lids, but-- all too small. They must have been made on the head of a cane."
"Take the whole string, but get us something to wrap up this grub in. Hurry!"
Spurred by O'Reilly's tone and by a lively rattle of rifle-shots outside, Leslie disappeared into the living-quarters at the back of the store. A moment later he emerged with a huge armful of bedclothes, evidently snatched at random. Trailing behind him, like a bridal veil, was a mosquito-net, which in his haste he had torn from its fastenings.
"I guess this is poor!" he exulted. "Bedding! Pillows! Mosquito- net! I'll sleep comfortable after this."
From somewhere came the faint smothered wailing of a baby-- eloquent testimony of the precipitate haste with which the terrified storekeeper and his wife had fled. Dumping his burden of sheets, blankets, and brilliantly colored cotton quilts upon the floor, Branch selected two of the stoutest and began to knot the corners together.
He had scarcely finished when Judson reined in at the door and called to O'Reilly: "We've cleaned out the drugstore. Better get a move on you, for we may have to run any minute. I've just heard about some Cuban prisoners in the calaboose. Gimme a hand and we'll let 'em out."
"Sure!" O'Reilly quickly remounted, meanwhile directing Jacket to load the canned goods upon his horse and ride for the open country. He looked back a few moments later, to see his asistente emerge from the bodega perched between two queer-looking improvised saddlebags bulging with plunder. The pony was overloaded, but in obedience to the frantic urgings of its barelegged rider it managed to break into a shambling trot. Branch reappeared, too, looping the eight-foot string of straw hats to his saddle-horn, and balancing before him the remainder of the bedding, done up in a gaudy quilt.
Sharing in the general consternation at the attack, the jail guards had disappeared, leaving Lopez's men free to break into the prison. When O'Reilly joined them the work was well under way. The municipal building of San Antonio was a thick-walled structure with iron-barred windows and stout doors; but the latter soon gave way, and the attackers poured in. Seizing whatever implements they could find, Judson and O'Reilly went from cell to cell, battering, prying, smashing, leaving their comrades to rescue the inmates. This jail was a poor affair. It could scarcely be dignified by the name of a prison; nevertheless, true prison conditions prevailed in it and it was evidently conducted in typically Spanish fashion. The corridors were dark and odorous, the cells unspeakably foul; O'Reilly and Judson saw, heard, smelled enough to convince them that no matter how guilty the prisoners might be they had been amply punished for their crimes.
This, too, was swift work. The building echoed to rushing, yelling men, while outside a fitful accompaniment of gun-shots urged the rescuers to greater haste. While the Americans smashed lock after lock, their comrades dragged the astonished inmates from their kennels, hustled them into the street, and took them up behind their saddles.
The raid was over, "retreat" was sounding, when Judson and O'Reilly ran out of the prison, remounted, and joined their comrades, who were streaming back toward the plaza.
"Whew!" Judson wiped the sweat out of his eyes. "No chance to ask these fellows what they were in for."
"No need to ask them," said Johnnie. "A month in there would be too much for a murderer."
"The druggist said most of 'em are just patriots, and every holiday the Spaniards shoot one or two. There's no cock-fighting, so it's the only Sunday amusement they have. Did you notice that sick guy?"
"He looked to me like he was plain starved. Our fellows had to carry him."
Colonel Lopez galloped up to inquire, anxiously, "Did you find those eatables, eh?"
"Yes, sir, and a lot more."
"Good! But I failed. Pickles? Caramba! Nobody here ever heard of one!"
"Did we lose any men?" Judson asked.
"Not one. But Ramos was badly cut."
"So? Then he got to close quarters with some Spaniard?"
"Oh no!" The colonel grinned. "He was in too great a hurry and broke open a show-case with his fist."
The retreating Cubans still maintained their uproar, discharging their rifles into the air, shrieking defiance at their invisible foes, and voicing insulting invitations to combat. This ferocity, however, served only to terrify further the civil population and to close the shutters of San Antonio the tighter. Meanwhile, the loyal troops remained safely in their blockhouses, pouring a steady fire into the town. And despite this admirable display of courage the visitors showed a deep respect for their enemies' markmanship, taking advantage of whatever shelter there was.
Leslie Branch, of course, proved the solitary exception; as usual, he exposed himself recklessly and rode the middle of the streets, regardless of those sudden explosions of dust beneath his horse's feet or those unexpected showers of plaster from above.
He had spent his time assiduously ransacking the deserted shops, and in addition to his huge bundle of bedding and his long string of straw hats he now possessed a miscellaneous assortment of plunder, in which were a bolt of calico, a pair of shoes, a collection of cooking-utensils, an umbrella, and--strangest of all--a large gilt-framed mirror. The safety of these articles seemed to concern him far more than his own. Spying O'Reilly, he shouted:
"Say! What's the Spanish word for 'clothing-store'? I need a new suit."
"Don't be an idiot!" Johnnie yelled at him. "Keep under cover."
But Branch only shook his head. "They couldn't hit anything," he cried.
The next instant, as if to punctuate his remark, a spent bullet smashed the mirror and sprinkled the speaker with particles of glass. It was only by a miracle that he escaped injury. Branch reined in his horse, examined the wreck, then with a petulant exclamation cast the useless frame away.
"Come on, Johnnie," Judson growled. "The damn fool wants to get shot."
The sick man's bravado roused in O'Reilly a feeling of mingled resentment and apprehension, but further warning would obviously be a waste of breath. Nevertheless, being a little too tender- hearted to follow Judson's nonchalant example and ride on, O'Reilly held in his horse, meanwhile keeping an anxious eye upon his friend.
The latter was in no hurry; he jogged along leisurely, evidently on the lookout for an opportunity to replenish his wardrobe. Truth to say, this needed replenishing--Leslie resembled a scarecrow clad in a suit of soiled pajamas. But by this time most of the shops had their shutters up. When the last one had been left behind O'Reilly spurred his horse into a gallop, relieved to know that the worst was over.
The raiders had approached San Antonio de los Banos across the fields at the rear, but Colonel Lopez led their retreat by way of the camino real which followed the riverbank. This road for a short distance was exposed to the fire from one fort; then it was sheltered by a bit of rising ground.
O'Reilly, among the last to cross the zone of fire, was just congratulating himself upon the fortunate outcome of the skirmish when he saw Colonel Lopez ride to the crest of a knoll, rise in his stirrups and, lifting his cupped hands to his lips, direct a loud shout back toward the town. Lopez was followed by several of his men, who likewise began to yell and to wave their arms excitedly.
Johnnie turned to discover that Leslie Branch had lagged far behind, and now, as if to cap his fantastic performances, had dismounted and was descending the river-bank to a place where a large washing had been spread upon the stones to dry. He was quite exposed, and a spiteful crackle from the nearest blockhouse showed that the Spaniards were determined to bring him down. Mauser bullets ricocheted among the rocks--even from this distance their sharp explosions were audible--others broke the surface of the stream into little geysers, as if a school of fish were leaping.
While Johnnie looked on in breathless apprehension Branch appropriated several suits that promised to fit him; then he climbed up the bank, remounted his horse, and ambled slowly out of range.
Now this was precisely the sort of harebrained exploit which delights a Cuban audience. When Leslie rejoined his comrades, therefore, he was greeted with shouts and cheers.
"Caramba! He would risk his life for a clean shirt. ... There's a fellow for you! He enjoys the hum of these Spanish bees! ... Bravo! Tell us what the bullets said to you," they cried, crowding around him in an admiring circle.
O'Reilly, unable to contain himself, burst forth in a rage: "You infernal fool! Do you want to be shot robbing a clothes-line?"
"Rats!" ejaculated Leslie, sourly. "I told you I had to have some clothes."
"Lopez ought to court-martial you. What are you going to do with that junk, now that you have it? You can't take it with you on the march."
"You wait and see," said the other. "I'm going to be comfortable, if--" He paused, with a peculiar, startled expression on his face. "Did you hear anything?" he queried after a moment. "No. What?"
"Oh, nothing." The two men rode on in silence for a time, then Leslie said: "Queer thing happened back there while those Romeos were popping at me. I heard a baby crying."
"Sure. I suppose it was the washerwoman's kid. When we flushed her she probably vamped out and left it in the grass. Anyhow, it let up an awful holler."
Jacket and the other loot-laden soldiers had been sent on ahead, together with those troopers who were sharing mounts with the rescued prisoners; they were now waiting perhaps two miles from town for their companions to overtake them. As the column came up and halted, O'Reilly addressed a remark to Leslie Branch, but in the middle of it the faint, unmistakable complaint of a child came to his ears.
"Listen!" he exclaimed. "What on earth--"
"I've been hearing it right along," Branch said. "I--I thought I had the willies."
The nearest riders abruptly ceased their chatter; they questioned one another mutely, doubting their own ears. Again came that thin, muffled wail, whereupon O'Reilly cried in astonishment:
"Leslie! Why, it--it's in your bundle!" He pointed to the formless roll of bedding which hung from his friend's saddle-horn.
"G'wan! You're crazy!" Branch slipped to the ground, seized the bundle in his arms, and bore it to the roadside. With shaking hands he tugged at the knotted corners of the comforter. "Pure imagination!" he muttered, testily. "There's nothing in here but bedclothes. I just grabbed an armful--" The last word ended in a yell. Leslie sprang into the air as if his exploring fingers had encountered a coiled serpent. "Oh, my God!" He poised as if upon the point of flight. "Johnnie! Look! It's alive!"
"What's alive? What is it?"
With a sudden desperate courage Branch bent forward and spread out the bedding. There, exposed to the bulging eyes of the onlookers, was a very tiny, very brown baby. It was a young baby; it was quite naked. Its eyes, exposed to the sudden glare of the morning sun, closed tightly; one small hand all but lost itself in the wide, toothless cavity that served as a mouth. Its ten ridiculous toes curled and uncurled in a most amazing fashion.
"Oh, my God!" Branch repeated, aghast. "It's just b-born! Its eyes aren't open."
The Cubans, who had momentarily been stricken dumb with amazement, suddenly broke into voluble speech. The clamor served to attract Colonel Lopez, who was riding past.
"What's the matter here?" he demanded, forcing his horse through the ring which had formed about El Demonio and his bundle. One startled look and the colonel flung himself out of his saddle. "Whose baby is that?" he demanded.
"I--I--Why, it's mine. I mean, I--" Branch's eyes were glued upon the child in horrified fascination. He choked and stammered and waved his hands impotently.
"Come, come! Speak up! What does this mean?" Lopez's voice grew stern.
"She must have be-been asleep. I just grabbed--You know. I--" Branch's face became suddenly stricken. "Look out!" he shouted, hoarsely. "She's going to cry, or something."
He was right; the baby showed every sign of a firm determination to voice her indignation at the outrage she had suffered. Her hand stole out of her mouth, her fists closed, her face puckered ominously. Lopez stooped, wrapped her in a sheet, then took her awkwardly in his arms. He bent a blazing glance upon the kidnapper, but he had no chance to speak before the storm of wailings broke.
News of Leslie's exploit was spreading. Men were shouting and gesticulating to their comrades to come and see El Demonio's spoils. There was a great chattering and crowding and no little smothered laughter. Meanwhile, Colonel Lopez was using every desperate device to soothe the infant, but without success. At last he strode up to Leslie and extended his burden.
"Here," he said, harshly, "she's yours. I surrender her."
Leslie drew back. "No, you don't! I wouldn't touch her for a thousand dollars!" he cried.
But Lopez was firm. He spoke in a tone of command: "Do as I tell you. Take her. A fine outrage, to steal a baby! What are we going to do with her? We can't send her back--the town is crazy. I've no doubt I shall hear from this."
In spite of Leslie's choking protests, in spite of his feeble resistance, Lopez pressed the noisy stranger into his arms, then turned to his men and directed them to be off.
Branch remained motionless. He was stupefied; he held the baby gingerly, not daring to put it down, dreading to keep it; his eyes were rolling, he began to perspire freely. Stretching a timid, detaining hand toward Lopez, he inquired, huskily, "What shall I do with her?"
"God knows. I don't," snapped the officer. "I shall have to think, but meanwhile I hold you responsible for her. Come now, we must be going."
Leslie swallowed hard; his face became overspread with a sicklier pallor. "What'll I do--when she gets hungry?"
Lopez could not restrain a smile. 'You should have thought about that, compadre. Well, I know where there is a milk cow not three leagues from here. I'll send a man to borrow it from the owner and drive it to our camp. Or perhaps"--his handsome face hardened again--"perhaps you would prefer to take this child back where you found it?"
"No--I--Oh, they'd tear me limb from limb!"
Branch turned his head from side to side in desperation. He wet his lips. "It's the youngest one I ever had anything to do with. Maybe it isn't used to cow's milk," he ventured.
"Unfortunately that is the only kind I can offer it. Take care of it until I find some way of notifying its people."
O'Reilly had looked on at his friend's embarrassment with malicious enjoyment, but, realizing that Branch would undoubtedly try to foist upon him the responsibility of caring for the baby, he slipped away and rode over to where Captain Judson was engaged in making a litter upon which to carry the sick prisoner they had rescued from the jail. When he had apprised the artilleryman of what Branch had found in his roll of purloined bedding the latter smiled broadly.
"Serves him right," Judson chuckled. "We'll make him sit up nights with it. Maybe it'll improve his disposition." More seriously he explained: "This chap here is all in. I'm afraid we aren't going to get him through."
Following Judson's glance, O'Reilly beheld an emaciated figure lying in the shade of a near-by guava-bush. The man was clad in filthy rags, his face was dirty and overgrown with a month's beard; a pair of restless eyes stared unblinkingly at the brazen sky. His lips were moving; from them issued a steady patter of words, but otherwise he showed no sign of life.
"You said he was starving." Johnnie dismounted and lent Judson a hand with his task.
"That's what I thought at first, but he's sick. I suppose it's that damned dungeon fever."
"Then we'd better look after him ourselves. These Cubans are mighty careless, you know. We can swing him between our horses, and--"
Judson looked up to discover that Johnnie was poised rigidly, his mouth open, his hands halted in midair. The sick man's voice had risen, and O'Reilly, with a peculiar expression of amazement upon his face, was straining his ears to hear what he said.
"Eh? What's the matter?" Judson inquired.
For a moment O'Reilly remained frozen in his attitude, then without a word he strode to the sufferer. He bent forward, staring into the vacant, upturned face. A cry burst from his throat, a cry that was like a sob, and, kneeling, he gathered the frail, filthy figure into his arms.
"Esteban!" he cried. "Esteban! This is O'Reilly. O'Rail-ye! Don't you know me? O'Reilly, your friend, your brother! For God's sake, tell me what they've done to you! Look at me, Esteban! Look at me! Look at me! Oh, Esteban!"
Such eagerness, such thankfulness, such passionate pity were in his friend's hoarse voice that Judson drew closer. He noticed that the faintest flame of reason flickered for an instant in the sick man's hollow eyes; then they began to rove again, and the same rustling whisper recommenced. Judson had heard something of O'Reilly's story; he had heard mention of Esteban and Rosa Varona; he stood, therefore, in silent wonderment, listening to the incoherent words that poured from his friend's lips. O'Reilly held the boy tenderly in his arms; tears rolled down his cheeks as he implored Esteban to hear and to heed him.
"Try to hear me! Try!" There was fierce agony in the cry. "Where is Rosa? ... Rosa? ... You're safe now; you can tell me. ... You're safe with O'Reilly. ... I came back ... I came back for you and Rosa. ... Where is she? ... Is she--dead?"
Other men were assembling now. The column was ready to move, but Judson signaled to Colonel Lopez and made known the identity of the sick stranger. The colonel came forward swiftly and laid a hand upon O'Reilly's shoulder, saying:
"So! You were right, after all. Esteban Varona didn't die. God must have sent us to San Antonio to deliver him."
"He's sick, sick!" O'Reilly said, huskily. "Those Spaniards! Look what they've done to him." His voice changed. He cried, fiercely: "Well, I'm late again. I'm always just a little bit too late. He'll die before he can tell me--"
"Wait! Take hold of yourself. We'll do all that can be done to save him. Now come, we must be going, or all San Antonio will be upon us."
O'Reilly roused. "Put him in my arms," he ordered. "I'll carry him to camp myself."
But Lopez shook his head, saying, gently: "It's a long march, and the litter would be better for him. Thank Heaven we have an angel of mercy awaiting us, and she will know how to make him well."
When the troop resumed its retreat Esteban Varona lay suspended upon a swinging bed between O'Reilly's and Judson's horses. Although they carried him as carefully as they could throughout that long hot journey, he never ceased his babbling and never awoke to his surroundings.