XX. El Demonio's Child
 

During the next few days O'Reilly had reason to bless the happy chance which had brought Norine Evans to Cuba. During the return journey from San Antonio de los Banos he had discovered how really ill Esteban Varona was, how weak his hold upon life. The young man showed the marks of wasting illness and of cruel abuse; starvation, neglect, and disease had all but done for him. After listening to his ravings, O'Reilly began to fear that the poor fellow's mind was permanently affected. It was an appalling possibility, one to which he could not reconcile himself. To think that somewhere in that fevered brain was perhaps locked the truth about Rosa's fate, if not the secret of her whereabouts, and yet to be unable to wring an intelligent answer to a single question, was intolerable. The hours of that ride were among the longest O'Reilly had ever passed.

But Norine Evans gave him new heart. She took complete charge of the sick man upon his arrival in camp; then in her brisk, matter- of-fact way she directed O'Reilly to go and get some much-needed rest. Esteban was ill, very ill, she admitted; there was no competent doctor near, and her own facilities for nursing were primitive indeed; nevertheless, she expressed confidence that she could cure him, and reminded O'Reilly that nature has a blessed way of building up a resistance to environment. As a result of her good cheer O'Reilly managed to enjoy a night's sleep.

Leslie Branch was later than the others in arriving, for the baby proved to be a trial and a handicap. His comrades had refused him any assistance on the homeward journey. They expressed a deep, hoarse condemnation of his conduct, and pretended to consider that he had sacrificed all claims to their friendship and regard.

Branch took this seriously, and he was in a state bordering upon desperation when he reached camp. In the hope of unloading his unwelcome burden upon Norine Evans he hurried directly to her tent. But Norine had heard the story; Lopez had warned her; therefore she waved him away.

"Don't ask me to mother your stolen child," she said.

"Oh, but you've got to," he declared in a panic. "You've just got to."

"Well, I won't. In the first place, I have a sick man in my tent."

"But look! Listen! This baby dislikes me. I've nearly dropped it a dozen times. I--I'm going to leave it, anyhow."

But Norine remained firm in her refusal. "You sha'n't leave your foundling at my door. If you intend to steal babies you should make up your mind to take care of them." She was itching to seize the hungry little mite, but she restrained the impulse. "Go ahead and keep it amused until the cow arrives," she told him.

"Keep it amused! Amuse a starving brat!" tragically cried the man. "In Heaven's name, how?"

"Why, play with it, cuddle it, give it your watch--anything! But don't allow it to cry--it may injure itself."

Branch glared resentfully; then he changed his tactics and began to plead. "Oh, Norine!" he implored. "I--just can't do it. I'm all fagged out now, and, besides, I've got the only watch in camp that keeps time. I didn't sleep any last night, and it'll keep me awake all to-night. It's a nice baby, really. It needs a woman---"

Norine parted the flaps of her tent and pointed inside, where Esteban Varona lay upon her cot. His eyes were staring; his lips were moving. "Mrs. Ruiz and I will have our hands full with that poor chap. For all we know, he may have some contagious disease."

Branch was utterly shameless, utterly selfish and uncompassionate. "I'm sick, too--sicker than he is. Have a heart! Remember, I risked my life to get you something nice to eat---"

"Yes! The most ridiculous procedure I ever heard of. What ever made you do such a crazy thing?" Norine was honestly indignant now.

"I did it for you. It seems to me that the least you can do in return---"

"The least, and the most, I can do is to try and save this poor man's life," she firmly reasserted. "Now run along. I'd take the baby if I could, but I simply can't."

"It'll die on me," Branch protested.

"Nonsense! It's the healthiest little thing I ever saw. Wait until it has its supper. You'll see." She disappeared into her tent and Branch reluctantly turned away.

Next he bore the infant to Judson and O'Reilly in turn; but both gruffly refused to assume the least responsibility for it. In the matter of advice concerning its welfare, however, they were more obliging. They were willing to discuss the theory of child-rearing with him as long as he would listen, but their advice merely caused him to glare balefully and to curse them. Nor did he regard it as a mark of friendship on their part when they collected an audience that evening to watch him milk the cow--a procedure, by the way, not devoid of excitement and hazard, inasmuch as Branch's knowledge of cows was even more theoretical than his knowledge of babies.

Leslie had begun by this time to realize that there existed a general conspiracy against him; he met it with sullen resentment. He deeply regretted his ignorance of the Spanish language, however, for a thousand epithets and insults clamored for translation.

Now there are cows which an amateur can milk, and there are other kinds. This particular cow was shy, apprehensive, peevish; Branch's unpractised fumbling irritated her. Being herself a nomad of the savannas, she was accustomed to firm, masterful men, therefore when Leslie attempted courteously, apologetically, to separate her from her milk she turned and hooked him.

El Demonio's audience, who had been looking on with rapt attention, applauded this show of spirit. Branch was unwontedly meek. He acknowledged his total inexperience, and begged his friends, almost politely, to call for a substitute.

Judson explained, gravely, "These Cubans don't know any more about cows than you do."

O'Reilly agreed, "They're good bull-fighters, but they can't milk."

Leslie eyed the speakers, white with rage; he was trembling. "You think you're damned funny, don't you? You're having a jubilee with me. Well, I'm game. I'll go through with it. If you'll hold her, I'll milk her. I'll milk her till she hollers."

Obligingly, O'Reilly took the animal by the horns and Judson laid hold of her tail.

"Stretch her tight," Leslie commanded. "Don't give her an inch of slack, or I'll quit." When his friends had braced themselves he moved toward the cow once more, but this time from the opposite quarter. Noting the direction of his approach, the onlookers gave vent to a low murmur of expectancy. They drew closer. Strangely enough, the animal stood quiet for a time--lost in amazement, perhaps--and Leslie managed to cover the bottom of his big tin cup with milk. But at last the outrage proved too much for her; she slowly lifted one hind foot and poised it jerkily. She seemed to consider the next move for a moment; then she kicked forward and sent Branch flying.

"Can you beat that?" O'Reilly exclaimed in apparent wonderment. "Why, she walloped you with the back of her hand."

Judson, too, affected great amazement. "Most cows are left- handed," he declared. "Try her on the other side."

Branch dried the milk from his face, then in a shaking voice cried: "Have a good time with me. It's your last chance."

It seemed for a while that the enterprise was doomed to failure; but at last a pint or more of milk was secured, and this Leslie proceeded to dilute with warm water from a near-by camp-fire. Even then, however, his difficulties were not over. He had supposed that any baby knew enough to drink. It took him half an hour to discover his mistake. Having long since given up the hope of any active assistance from his audience, he doggedly set to work to fashion a nursing-bottle. He succeeded in due time, after making use of a flask, the stem of an unused cigarette-holder, and a handkerchief.

When he finally took seat and began awkwardly coaxing the fretful child to drink, the Cubans voiced their appreciation of the picture. They were courteous, they did not laugh; nevertheless, the sight of their eccentric, irascible, rebellious El Demonio tamely nursing a child in the fire-light filled them with luxurious, soul-satisfying enjoyment.

O'Reilly was up at daylight to offer his services in caring for Esteban Varona, but Norine declined them.

"His fever is down a little and he has taken some nourishment," she reported. "That food you boys risked your silly lives for may come in handy, after all."

"I dare say he won't be able to talk to me to-day?" O'Reilly ventured.

"Not to-day, nor for many days, I'm afraid."

"If you don't mind, then, I'll hang around and listen to what he says," he told her, wistfully. "He might drop a word about Rosa."

"To be sure. So far he's scarcely mentioned her. I can't understand much that he says, of course, but Mrs. Ruiz tells me it's all jumbled and quite unintelligible. How is Leslie's baby this morning?"

"Oh, it passed a good night. It was awake and had ordered breakfast when I got up. Leslie was making a fire to scald out its bottle. He says he didn't close his eyes all night."

"Poor fellow! I'm going to help him," Norine declared.

"Please don't. Lopez wants to teach him a lesson, and this is the best thing that could possibly have happened. We have told him that there's no chance of returning the baby, and he thinks he's elected to keep it indefinitely. As a matter of fact, Jacket is going to take a letter to the comandante at San Antonio this morning, advising him that the child is safe, and asking him to send for it at once."

"Isn't that risky?" Norine inquired. "Won't the comandante attack us if he learns where we are?"

"Lopez doesn't think so. Those Spaniards are usually pretty scrupulous on points of honor. There was some difficulty in getting a messenger, but Jacket volunteered. He volunteers for anything, that boy. They wouldn't be likely to hurt a kid like him. If they should, why, we have the baby, you see."

Although Norine had pretended to wash her hands of all responsibility for Branch's little charge, she was by no means so inhuman as she appeared. During the day she kept a jealous eye upon it, and especially upon its diet.

Fortunately for all concerned, it was a good-natured child; so long as its stomach was full it was contented. It slept a good deal, and what time it was awake it sucked its fist and suffered itself to be variously entertained by the men. There were, of course, a number of fellows who could see no humor at all in El Demonio's plight, nor any reason for adding to his embarrassments. These came to his aid in numerous ways.

It was an idle day; there was nothing to do except play with the baby; before night came the child had established itself as a general favorite. Even Branch himself had become interested in it.

"Say, I've learned a lot about kids from this one," he confided to O'Reilly at dinner-time. "I always thought young babies were just damp, sour-smelling little animals, but this one has character. She knows me already, and I'm getting so I can pick her up without feeling that I'm going to puncture her. She's full of dimples, too. Got 'em everywhere. What do you think we'd better name her?"

"She probably has a name. Do you expect to keep her permanently?"

Branch considered. "I wouldn't have thought of such a thing yesterday, but how are we going to get rid of her? That's the question. We can't just leave her with the first family we come to. These country people have more kids than they know what to do with."

"Thinking about taking her on the march with us?" O'Reilly looked up, much amused.

"I don't see why it couldn't be done. The men wouldn't mind and she'd make a dandy mascot."

O'Reilly shook his head. "This isn't a baseball team. What about the baby's mother?"

"Bullets! Fine mother she was, to desert her child. I'll bet she's glad to get rid of it. People like that don't have any more affection than--cattle. They don't deserve to have children. What's more, they don't know how to care for them. I'd like to raise this kid according to my own ideas." Branch's face lightened suddenly. "Say! I've just thought of a name for her!"

"What?"

"Bullets!"

"Are you swearing or naming her?"

"Wouldn't that be a good name? It's new, and it means something. Raid, battle, rain of bullets! See? Bullets Branch--that doesn't sound bad."

With deliberate malice O'Reilly said, gravely: "Of course, if you adopt her, you can name her what you choose--but she's a mighty brown baby! I have my suspicions that--she's a mulatto." Branch was shocked, indignant. "That child's as white as you are," he sputtered. Then noting the twinkle in O'Reilly's eyes he turned away, muttering angrily.

Strangely enough, Leslie's fantastic suggestion found echo in more than one quarter, and many of his camp-mates began to argue that El Demonio's baby would certainly bring the troop good luck, if it could keep her. Adoption of some sort was gravely discussed that evening around more than one camp-fire.

After breakfast on the following morning the baby was bathed. This was an event, and it had been advertised as such. An interested and admiring group of swarthy cigarette-smokers looked on while Branch officiated, Norine's offer to perform the service less publicly having been refused. Leslie was just drying off the chubby form when he was unexpectedly interrupted.

Jacket had made his round trip in safety, but instead of bringing a squad of the enemy's soldiers with him he had brought the child's parents, which was a much more sensible thing to do.

The storekeeper and his wife arrived unheralded; they gave no warning of their coming, and they exchanged no amenities with the ravagers of their home. Hearing the shrill, petulant voice of their beloved, they made directly for it, as eagles swoop from the sky at threat to their nest.

Branch looked up at the sound of some swift approach. He beheld an entirely strange woman bearing down upon him. Her face was white, frantic, terrible; her arms were outstretched; she gave utterance to a peculiar, distressing cry. Snatching the baby from his lap without so much as "by your leave," she clutched it to a billowing brown bosom.

Leslie rose, protesting, just in time to receive the full onslaught of the child's distracted father. He went down in a swirl of arms and legs; he felt himself kicked, pounded, trampled, beaten, scratched, until his friends came to the rescue and dragged him to his feet. He rose to behold a small, fat, disheveled Spaniard who had turned from assaulting him and now appeared to be engaged in biting mouthfuls from such portions of the baby's anatomy as were not hidden in its mother's embrace.

A clamor of voices breaking the Sabbath calm of the morning brought Norine Evans running from her tent. One look, and its cause was plain. Fifty men were talking loudly; fifty pairs of arms were waving. In consequence of the torrent of words that beat upon their ears it was some time before the merchant and his wife could be made to fully understand the peculiar circumstances of the kidnapping, and that no harm had been intended to their darling. Slowly, bit by bit, they learned the truth, but even then the mother could not look upon Leslie Branch without a menacing dilation of the eyes and a peculiar expression of restrained ferocity.

The father was more reasonable, however; once he was assured of his daughter's safety, his thankfulness sought outlet. He began by embracing every one within his reach. He kissed Norine, he kissed O'Reilly, he kissed Judson, he made a rush at Leslie himself; but the latter, suspicious of his intent, fled. Unmindful of the fact that these were the men who had relieved him of a considerable stock of goods and profaned his holy of holies, he recklessly distributed among them what money he had upon his person and then gave away the remaining contents of his pockets. He swore his undying love for them all. Smiting his breast excitedly, he urged them as a personal favor and a mark of his overflowing gratitude to return to San Antonio de los Banos, make themselves masters of all his worldly possessions, and then burn his store.

While this was going on, Jacket was proudly advertising his share of the enterprise, not failing to give himself full credit.

"By----! I made a big hit with that comandante," he told his American friends. "Those people in San Antonio say I'm the bravest boy they ever seen, and they give me more'n a thousand cigars. When I rode away I saluted the comandante; then I yelled, 'Vive Cuba Libre!' and everybody laughed like hell. I guess those people never seen nobody like me before."

That afternoon, when it came time for the merchant and his little family to set out for home, a crowd of regretful Insurrectos assembled to bid them farewell and to look for the last time upon the baby. By now the mother's apprehensions had given way to pride and she could bring herself to smile at the compliments showered upon her offspring and to answer in kind those which were aimed at herself. She even permitted El Demonio to kiss the child good-by. Her husband, since his arrival in camp, had heard much about the eccentric American, and now, after apologizing abjectly for his unwarranted attack, he invited Branch to visit his store when this hideous war was over and Cuba was free. Finally, in spite of Leslie's frantic struggles, he embraced him and planted a moist kiss upon either cheek.

Amid loud and repeated good wishes and a cheer for the baby the visitors rode away.

Lopez linked his arm within O'Reilly's as they turned back into the palm-grove. With a smile he said:

"Well, I hope this has taught your friend to steal no more babies."

"I'm afraid he'll steal the very next one he sees. He fell in love with that one and wanted to keep it."

"Oh, he wasn't alone in that. It's queer how sentimental soldiers become. I've often noticed it. When I was in the Rubi Hills some of my fellows adopted a goat. We had to eat it finally, but those men wouldn't touch a piece of the flesh--and they were starving. By the way, how is Varona doing?"

"About the same."

Lopez frowned. "I shall have to send him to Cubitas to-morrow, for we must be under way."

"If he has to be moved, let me do it. I'd like to be with him when he comes out of his fever, and learn what he knows about his sister." O'Reilly's appeal was earnest.

The colonel readily yielded. "Go, by all means. Report to General Gomez, and he no doubt will let you stay until the boy can talk. He may have news from Matanzas by that time."

O'Reilly pressed his colonel's hand gratefully. "You're mighty good," said he. "There's one thing more. Will you look out for Branch while I'm gone, and--hold him down?"

Lopez laughed lightly. "Oh, he'll soon get over his recklessness. This life agrees with him. Why, he's a different man already! When he gets well and has something to live for he will want to live. You'll see."