XXII. The Trocha

Of all the military measures employed by the Spaniards in their wars against Cuban independence, perhaps the most unique was the trocha--trench or traverse. Martinez Campos during the Ten Years' War built the first trocha just west of the Cubitas Mountains where the waist of the island is narrowest. It was Campos's hope, by means of this artificial barrier, to confine the operations of the insurgents to the eastern end of Cuba, but in that he failed, as likewise he failed in the results gained by his efforts to concentrate the rural population in the cities. Not until Weyler's time were these two methods of pacification, the trocha and the concentration camp, developed to their fullest extent. Under the rule of the Butcher several trochas were constructed at selected points, and he carried to its logical conclusion the policy of concentration, with results sufficiently frightful to shock the world and to satisfy even Weyler's monstrous appetite for cruelty. Although his trochas hindered the free movement of Cuban troops and his prison camps decimated the peaceful population of several provinces, the Spanish cause gained little. Both trenches and prison camps became Spanish graveyards.

Weyler's intrenchments cost millions and were elaborately constructed, belted with barbed wire, bristling with blockhouses and forts. In both the digging and the manning, however, they cost uncounted lives. Spanish spades turned up fevers with the soil, and, so long as raw Spanish troops were compelled to toil in the steaming morasses or to lie inactive under the sun and the rain, those traitor generals--June, July, and August--continued to pile up the bodies in rotting heaps and to timber the trenches with their bones. So long as the cities were overcrowded with pacificos and their streets were putrid with disease, so long did the Spanish garrisons sicken and die, as flies perish upon poisoned carrion.

Out on the cool, clean hills and the windy savannas where the Insurrectos dwelt there was health. Poorly armed, ragged, gaunt, these Insurrectos were kept moving by hunger, always moving like cattle on a barren range. But they were healthy, for disease, which is soft-footed and tender-bellied, could not keep up.

At the time Johnnie O'Reilly set out for Matanzas the war--a war without battle, without victory, without defeat--had settled into a grim contest of endurance. In the east, where the Insurrectos were practically supreme, there was food of a sort, but beyond the Jucaro-Moron trocha--the old one of Campos's building--the country was sick. Immediately west of it, in that district which the Cubans called Las Villas, the land lay dying, while the entire provinces of Matanzas, Habana, and Pinar del Rio were practically dead. These three were skeletons, picked bare of flesh by Weyler's beak.

The Jucaro-Moron trocha had been greatly strengthened since Campos's day. It followed the line of the transinsular railway. Dotted at every quarter of a mile along the grade were little forts connected by telephone and telegraph lines. Between these fortinas were sentry stations of logs or railroad ties. The jungle on either side of the right-of-way had been cleared, and from the remaining stumps and posts and fallen tree-trunks hung a maze of barbed wire through which a man could scarcely crawl, even in daylight. Eyes were keen, rifles were ready, challenges were sharp, and countersigns were quickly given on the Jucaro-Moron trocha.

In O'Reilly's party there were three men besides himself--the ever-faithful Jacket, a wrinkled old Camagueyan who knew the bridle trails of his province as a fox knows the tracks to its lair, and a silent guajiro from farther west, detailed to accompany the expedition because of his wide acquaintance with the devastated districts. Both guides, having crossed the trocha more than once, affected to scorn its terrors, and their easy confidence reassured O'Reilly in spite of Esteban's parting admonition.

The American had not dreamed of taking Jacket along, but when he came to announce his departure the boy had flatly refused to be left behind. Jacket, in fact, had taken the matter entirely into his own hands and had appealed directly to General Gomez. To his general the boy had explained tearfully that patriotism was a rare and an admirable quality, but that his love of country was not half so strong or so sacred as his affection for Johnnie O'Reilly. Having attached himself to the American for better or for worse, no human power could serve to detach him, so he asserted. He threatened, moreover, that if he were compelled to suffer his benefactor to go alone into the west he would lay down his arms and permit General Gomez to free Cuba as best he could. Cuba could go to Hades, so far as Jacket was concerned--he would not lift a finger to save it. Strangely enough, Jacket's threat of defection had not appalled General Gomez. In fact, with a dyspeptic gruffness characteristic of him Gomez had ordered the boy off, under penalty of a sound spanking. But Jacket had a will of his own, likewise a temper. He greeted this unfeeling refusal with a noisy outburst of mingled rage, grief, and defiance. Stamping his bare feet, sobbing, and screaming, the boy finally flung himself upon the ground and smote it with his fists, while tears streamed from his eyes. Nor could he be silenced. He maintained such a hideous and surprising uproar, answering Gomez's stern commands to be silent with such maniacal howls, that the old soldier was finally glad to yield his consent, incidentally consigning the rebellious youth to that perdition with which he had threatened Cuba.

Having won his point, Jacket regained his composure with suspicious suddenness and raced away to triumph over his beloved O'Reilly.

Fifty miles of hard riding brought the party to the trocha; they neared it on the second morning after leaving Cubitas, and sought a secluded camping-spot. Later in the day Hilario, the old Camagueyan, slipped away to reconnoiter. He returned at twilight, but volunteered no report of what he had discovered. After an insistent cross-examination O'Reilly wrung from him the reluctant admission that everything seemed favorable for a crossing some time that night, and that he had selected a promising point. Beyond that the old man would say nothing. Johnnie asked himself uneasily if this reticence was not really due to apprehension rather than to sullenness. Whatever the cause, it was not particularly reassuring, and as evening came on Johnnie found himself growing decidedly nervous.

Supper, a simple meal, was quickly disposed of. Then followed a long, dispiriting wait, for a gibbous moon rode high in the sky and the guides refused to stir so long as it remained there. It was a still night; in the jungle no air was stirring, and darkness brought forth a torment of mosquitoes. As day died, the woods awoke to sounds of bird and insect life; strange, raucous calls pealed forth, some familiar, others strange and unaccustomed. There were thin whistlings, hoarse grunts and harsh cacklings, high-pitched elfin laughter. Moving bodies disturbed the leaves overhead; from all sides came the rustle and stir of unseen creatures; sudden disputations were followed by startled silences. Sitting there in the dark, bedeviled by a pest of insects, mocked at by these mysterious voices, and looking forward to a hazardous enterprise, O'Reilly began to curse his vivid imagination and to envy the impassiveness of his companions. Even Jacket, he noted, endured the strain better; the boy was cheerful, philosophical, quite unimpressed by his surroundings. When the mosquitoes became unbearable he put on his trousers, with some reluctance and much ceremony.

It seemed to O'Reilly that the moon floated motionless in the sky, and more than once he was upon the point of ordering a start, but he reflected that its radiance out in the open must be far greater than it seemed here under the dense tropical foliage. After a time he began to wonder if his guides were as loyal as they should be, if Hilario's strange reticence was caused by sullenness, by apprehension, or by something altogether different. Both of the men were strangers to him; of their fidelity he had no guarantee. Now that his mind had become engaged with thoughts of treachery, a determined effort was necessary to keep himself in hand and O'Reilly fell back finally upon his elemental trust in the Cuban character--scant consolation under the circumstances.

Midnight brought a moist, warm breeze and a few formless clouds which served at times to dimly obscure the moon. Watching the clouds, O'Reilly hoped that they might prove to be the heralds of a storm. None came. When the moon had finally crept down into the tree-tops old Hilario stepped upon his cigarette, then began silently to saddle up. The others followed with alacrity, and fell in behind him as he led the way into the forest. They no longer ventured to speak aloud; nothing but the occasional sound of a hoof striking upon root or stone, the creak of leather, or the rustle of branches against passing bodies gave evidence that mounted men were en route.

When they had covered a couple of miles Hilario reined in and the others crowded close. Ahead, dimly discernible against the night sky, there appeared to be a thinning of the woods. After listening for a moment or two, Hilario dismounted and slipped away; the three riders sat their saddles with ears strained. Once more the myriad voices of the night became audible--the chirping of crickets, the strident call of tree-toads, the whining undertone of the mosquitoes.

Hilario returned with word that all was well, and each man dismounted to muffle the feet of his horse with rags and strips of gunny-sack provided for the purpose. Then, one by one, they moved forward to the edge of the clearing. The trocha lay before them.

After the cavernous obscurity of the jungle the night seemed suddenly to lighten and O'Reilly found himself looking out over a level waste of stumps and tree-trunks perhaps a quarter of a mile wide, extending right and left as far as he could see. Against the luminous western horizon opposite the inky forest stood like a wall. Midway of the clearing there was a railroad grade with a telephone-pole or two limned against the sky. The clearing was silent and to all appearances deserted; nothing stirred, no sign of life appeared anywhere. And yet, as the American studied the place, he had a queer, uncomfortable sensation that it was thickly peopled and that eyes were peering out at him from the gloom. Blurred forms took shape, phantom figures moved along the embankment, stumps stirred.

O'Reilly felt a pair of reins thrust into his hand and found Hilario examining a large pair of tinner's shears.

"Do you wish me to go with you?" he inquired of the guide.

The latter shook his head. "Antonio will go; he will keep watch while I clear a path. If you hear or see anything--"

Jacket interrupted with a sibilant: "Psst! Look! Yonder!"

A lantern-like illumination had leaped out of the blackness and now approached swiftly down the railroad grade.

O'Reilly laid a heavy hand upon the old Camagueyan and inquired in sharp suspicion, "What does that mean--an alarm?"

There was a breathless moment during which the four men followed the erratic course of the spark. Then Antonio chuckled. "Alabaos! A light-bug," said he. "Don't you know a cucullo when you see one?" He cautiously tested the ejector of his carbine and tightened the cord that served as his belt.

O'Reilly drew a deep breath of relief. He had never become wholly accustomed to the giant light-beetles of the tropics, although he had carried one often on sentry duty to see the face of his watch, and not infrequently had seen Cuban women wearing them in their hair as ornaments.

"Jove!" he muttered. "It gave me a fright."

Hilario resumed his instructions: "If anything goes wrong, wait here. Don't ride away until we have time--"

"Never fear. I won't desert you," the American reassured him.

The two white-clad figures slipped away, became indistinct, and then disappeared. The night was hot, the mosquitoes hummed dismally and settled in clouds upon the waiting pair, maddening them with their poison. After a time a horse snorted and Jacket cursed nervously.

"I'd like to see where we are," the boy muttered.

"Do you know these men?" O'Reilly asked him.

"No. God deliver me from such unpleasant fellows."

"I hope they're honest."

"Humph! I trust nobody." There was a pause. "Never mind," Jacket assured his companion. "I will make short work of them if they prove to be traitors."

A half-hour passed, then the two ghostly figures materialized once more.

"Dios!" grumbled Hilario. "There are many strings to this Spanish guitar. What a row when they discover that I have played a Cuban danzon upon it." The old man seemed less surly than before, and O'Reilly felt ashamed of his recent suspicions.

"Is the way clear?" he inquired.

"As far as the railroad, yes. We heard voices there, and came back. We will have to cut our way forward after we cross the track. Now then, follow me without a sound."

Leading his horse by the bit ring, Hilario moved out into the clearing, followed once more by his three companions. Concealment was out of the question now, for their only covering was the darkness. O'Reilly had the uncomfortable feeling that the cavalcade bulked monstrous big and must be visible at a great distance; he experienced much the sensations of a man crossing a sheet of thin ice with nerves painfully strained, awaiting the first menacing crack. In spite of all precautions the animals made a tremendous racket, or so it seemed, and, despite Hilario's twistings and turnings, it was impossible to avoid an occasional loop of barbed wire, therefore flesh and clothing suffered grievously. But at length the party brought up under the railroad embankment and paused. Out of the voids to their right came a faint murmur of voices. As carefully as might be the four men ascended the slope, crossed the rails, and descended into the ditch on the other side. Another moment and they encountered a taut strand of barbed wire. The metallic snip of Hilario's shears sounded like a pistol-shot to O'Reilly. Into the maze of strands they penetrated, yard by yard, clipping and carefully laying back the wire as they went. Progress was slow; they had to feel their way; the sharp barbs brought blood and muttered profanity at every step.

None of the four ever knew what gave the alarm. Their first intimation of discovery came with a startling "Quien vive?" hurled at them from somewhere at their backs.

An instant and the challenge was followed by a Mauser shot. Other reports rang out as the sentry emptied his rifle in their direction.

"So! They are shooting-bats," Hilario grunted.

Antonio swung about and cocked his Remington, but the other spoke sharply. "Fool! If you shoot they will see the fire and riddle us. A curse on the spider that spun this web!"

It was a test of courage to crouch among the charred stumps, enmeshed in that cruel tangle of wire, while the night was stabbed by daggers of fire and while the trocha awoke to the wild alarm. From somewhere in the distance came a shouted command and the sound of running feet, suddenly putting an end to further inaction. Antonio began to hack viciously with his machete, in an effort to aid Hilario's labors. The sound of his sturdy blows betrayed the party's whereabouts so clearly that finally the older man could restrain himself no longer.

"Give it to them, compadres; it is a game that we can play."

O'Reilly had been gripping his rifle tensely, his heart in his throat, his pulses pounding. As near a panic as he had ever been, he found, oddly enough, that the mere act of throwing his weapon to his shoulder and firing it calmed him. The kick of the gun subdued his excitement and cleared his brain. He surprised himself by directing Jacket in a cool, authoritative voice, to shoot low. When he had emptied the magazine he led two of the horses forward. Then, grasping his own machete, he joined in clearing a pathway.

It seemed an interminable time ere they extricated themselves from the trap, but finally they succeeded and gained the welcome shelter of the woods, pausing inside its shelter to cut the muffles from their horses' feet. By this time the defenders of the trocha were pouring volley after volley at random into the night.

Hilario sucked the cuts in his horny palms and spat forth the blood.

"If Gomez had the ammunition these fools are wasting he would free Cuba in no time."

Now that the skirmish was over, Jacket began to boast of his part in it.

"Ha! Perhaps they'll know better than to show themselves the next time I come this way," said he. "You saw me, didn't you? Well, I made a few Spanish widows to-night."

"Not many, I'm afraid," O'Reilly laughed.

"Oh, believe me, I'm an old hand at this sort of thing. I shoot just as well at night as I do in the daytime." This was literally true, and when no one disputed his assertion Jacket proceeded further in praise of himself, only to break off with a wordless cry of dismay.

"What's the matter?" Johnnie inquired.

"Look! Behold me!" wailed the hero. "I have left the half of my beautiful trousers on that barbed wire!"

Antonio swung a leg over his saddle, saying: "Come along, amigos; we have fifty leagues ahead of us. The war will be over while we stand here gossiping."