XXVI. How Cobo Stood on His Head
 

All that day, or during most of it, at least, Rosa and O'Reilly sat hand in hand, oblivious of hunger and fatigue, impatient for the coming of night, keyed to the highest tension. Now they would rejoice hysterically, assuring each other of their good fortune, again they would grow sick with the fear of disappointment. Time after time they stepped out of the hut and stared apprehensively up the slopes of La Cumbre to assure themselves that this was not all a part of some fantastic illusion; over and over, in minutest detail, Johnnie described what he had seen at the bottom of the well. He tried more than once during the afternoon to sleep, but he could not, for the moment he closed his eyes he found himself back there in that pit upon the ridge's crest, straining at those stubborn rocks and slippery timbers. This inaction was maddening, his fatigue rendered him feverish and irritable.

Jacket, too, felt the strain, and after several fruitless attempts to sleep he rose and went out into the sunshine, where he fell to whetting his knife. He finished putting a double edge upon the blade, fitted a handle to it, and then a cord with which to suspend it round his neck. He showed it to O'Reilly, and after receiving a word of praise he crept out-doors again and tried to forget how sick he was. Black spots were dancing before Jacket's eyes; he experienced spells of dizziness and nausea during which he dared not attempt to walk. He knew this must be the result of starvation, and yet, strangely enough, the thought of food was distasteful to him. He devoutly wished it were not necessary to climb that hill again, for he feared he would not have the strength to descend it.

Luckily for the sake of the secret, Evangelina spent most of the day searching for food, while Asensio lay babbling upon his bed, too ill to notice the peculiar actions of his companions.

It was with a strange, nightmare feeling of unreality that the trio dragged themselves upward to the ruined quinta when darkness finally came. They no longer talked, for conversation was a drain upon their powers, and the reaction from the day's excitement had set in. O'Reilly lurched as he walked, his limbs were heavy, and his liveliest sensation was one of dread at the hard work in store for him. The forcing of that door assumed the proportions of a Herculean task.

But once he was at the bottom of the well and beheld the handiwork of Sebastian, the slave, just as he had left it, his sense of reality returned and with it a certain measure of determination. Inasmuch as he had made no visible impression upon the bulkhead by his direct attack, he changed his tactics now and undertook to loosen one of the jambs where it was wedged into the rock at top and bottom. After a desperate struggle he succeeded in loosening the entire structure so that he could pry it out far enough to squeeze his body through.

"I have it!" he cried to Rosa. Seizing the candle, he thrust it into the opening. He beheld what he had expected to find, a small cavern or grotto which had evidently been pierced during the digging of the well. He could appreciate now how simple had been the task of sealing it up so as to baffle discovery. Rosa, poised above him, scarcely breathed until he straightened himself and turned his face upward once more.

He tried to speak, but voiced nothing more than a hoarse croak; the candle in his hand described erratic figures.

"What do you see?" the girl cried in an agony of suspense.

"I--It's here! B-boxes, chests, casks--everything!"

"God be praised! My father's fortune at last!"

Rosa forgot her surroundings; she beat her hands together, calling upon O'Reilly to make haste and determine beyond all question that the missing hoard was indeed theirs. She drew perilously close to the well and knelt over it like some priestess at her devotions; her eyes were brimming with tears and there was a roaring in her ears. It was not strange that she failed to see or to hear the approach of a great blurred figure which materialized out of the night and took station scarcely an arm's-length behind her.

"He intended it for his children," she sobbed, "and Providence saved it from our wicked enemies. It was the hand of God that led us here, O'Reilly. Tell me, what do you see now?"

Johnnie had wormed his way into the damp chamber and a slim rectangle of light was projected against the opposite side of the well. Rosa could hear him talking and moving about.

Don Esteban Varona's subterranean hiding-place was large enough to store a treasure far greater than his; it was perhaps ten feet in length, with a roof high enough to accommodate a tall man. At the farther end were ranged several small wooden chests bound with iron and fitted with hasps and staples, along one side was a row of diminutive casks, the sort used to contain choice wines or liquors; over all was a thick covering of slime and mold. The iron was deeply rusted and the place itself smelled abominably stale.

O'Reilly surveyed this Aladdin's cave in a daze. He set his candle down, for his fingers were numb and unsteady. Cautiously, as if fearful of breaking some spell, he stooped and tried to move one of the casks, but found that it resisted him as if cemented to the rock. He noted that its head was bulged upward, as if by the dampness, so he took his iron bar and aimed a sharp blow at the chine. A hoop gave way; another blow enabled him to pry out the head of the cask. He stood blinking at the sight exposed, for the little barrel was full of coins--yellow coins, large and small. O'Reilly seized a handful and held them close to the candle-flame; among the number he noted a Spanish doubloon, such as young Esteban had found.

He tested the weight of the other casks and found them equally heavy. Knowing little about gold, he did not attempt to estimate the value of their contents, but he judged they must represent a fortune. With throbbing pulses he next lifted the lid of the nearest chest. Within, he discovered several compartments, each stored with neatly wrapped and labeled packages of varying shapes and sizes. The writing upon the tags was almost illegible, but the first article which O'Reilly unwrapped proved to be a goblet of most beautiful workmanship. Time had long since blackened it to the appearance of pewter or some base metal, but he saw that it was of solid silver. Evidently he had uncovered a store of old Spanish plate.

In one corner of the chest he saw a metal box of the sort in which valuable papers are kept, and after some effort he managed to break it open. Turning back the lid, he found first a bundle of documents bearing imposing scrolls and heavy seals. Despite the dampness, they were in fairly good condition, and there was enough left of the writing to identify them beyond all question as the missing deeds of patent to the Varona lands--those crown grants for which Dona Isabel had searched so fruitlessly. But this was not all that the smaller box contained. Beneath the papers there were numerous leather bags. These had rotted; they came apart easily in O'Reilly's fingers, displaying a miscellaneous assortment of unset gems--some of them at first sight looked like drops of blood, others like drops of purest water. They were the rubies and the diamonds which had brought Isabel to her death.

O'Reilly waited to see no more. Candle in hand, he crept out into the well to apprise Rosa of the truth.

"We've got it! There's gold by the barrel and the deeds to your land. Yes, and the jewels, too--a quart of them, I guess. I--I can't believe my eyes." He showed her a handful of coins. "Look at that! Doubloons, eagles! There appear to be thousands of them. Why, you're the richest girl in Cuba. Rubies, diamonds--yes, and pearls, too, I dare say--" He choked and began to laugh weakly, hysterically.

"I've heard about those pearls," Rosa cried, shrilly. "Pearls from the Caribbean, as large as plums. Isabel used to babble about them in her sleep."

"I found those deeds the first thing. The plantations are yours now, beyond any question."

Rosa drew back from her precarious position, for she had grown limp from weakness and her head was whirling. As she rose to her feet she brushed something, somebody, some flesh-and-blood form which was standing almost over her. Involuntarily she recoiled, toppling upon the very brink of the pit, whereupon a heavy hand reached forth and seized her. She found herself staring upward into a face she had grown to know in her nightmares, a face the mere memory of which was enough to freeze her blood. It was a hideous visage, thick-lipped, fiat-featured, black; it was disfigured by a scar from lip to temple and out of it gleamed a pair of eyes distended and ringed with white, like the eyes of a man insane.

For an instant Rosa made no sound and no effort to escape. The apparition robbed her of breath, it paralyzed her in both mind and body. Her first thought was that she had gone stark mad, but she had felt Cobo's hands upon her once before and after her first frozen moment of amazement she realized that she was in her fullest senses. A shriek sprang to her lips, she tried to fight the man off, but her weak struggle was like the fluttering of a bird. Cobo crushed her down, strangling the half-uttered cry.

Terror may be so intense, so appalling as to be unendurable. In Rosa's case a merciful oblivion overtook her. She felt the world grow black, fall away; felt herself swing dizzily through space.

O'Reilly looked upward, inquiring, sharply, "What's the matter?" He heard a scuffling of feet above him, but received no answer. "Rosa! What frightened you? Rosa?" There was a moment of sickening suspense, then he put his shoulder to the timbers he had displaced and, with a violent shove, succeeded in swinging them back into place. Laying hold of the rope, he began to hoist himself upward. He had gone but a little way, however, when, without warning, his support gave way and he fell backward; the rope came pouring down upon him. "Rosa!" he called again in a voice thick from fright. Followed an instant of silence; then he flattened himself against the side of the well and the breath stuck in his throat.

Into the dim circle of radiance above a head was thrust--a head, a pair of wide shoulders, and then two arms. The figure bent closer, and O'Reilly recognized the swarthy features of that man he had seen at the Matanzas railroad station. There could be no doubt of it--it was Cobo.

The men stared at each other silently, and of the two Cobo appeared to be the more intensely agitated. After a moment his gaze fixed itself upon the opening into the treasure-chamber and remained there. As if to make entirely sure of what he had overheard, he stretched his body farther, supporting it by his out-flung arms, then moved his head from side to side for a better view. He seemed to rock over the mouth of the well like a huge, fat, black spider. He was the first to speak.

"Am I dreaming? Or--have you really discovered that treasure?" he queried.

O'Reilly's upturned face was ghastly. He wet his lips. He managed to whisper Rosa's name.

"The riches of the Varonas! Christ! What a find!" Cobo's teeth shone white in the grin of avarice. "Yes, I see now--a cavern in the rock. Well, well! And you are the spirit of Sebastian, chained in the bowels of La Cumbre. Ha! These are the ghosts--" He began to chuckle, but the sound of his malevolent merriment was like the hiccoughing of a drunken man.

"Rosa! What have you done--"

Cobo ran on unheeding: "It must be a great treasure, indeed, from all accounts--the ransom of a dozen kings. That's what Cueto said, 'The ransom of a dozen kings!' Those were his very words."

The fellow continued to sway himself back and forth, peering as if his eyes were about to leave his head. For a long moment or two he utterly disregarded O'Reilly, but finally as he gained more self- control his gaze shifted and his expression altered. He changed his weight to his left arm and with his right hand he drew his revolver.

"What are you doing?" O'Reilly cried, hoarsely.

The colonel seemed vaguely surprised at this question. "Fool! Do you expect me to share it with you?" he inquired. "Wait! There's enough--for all of us," O'Reilly feebly protested; then, as he heard the click of the cocked weapon: "Let me out. I'll pay you well--make you rich." In desperation he raised his shaking hand to dash out the candle, but even as he did so the colonel spoke, at the same time carefully lowering the revolver hammer.

"You are right. What am I thinking about? There must be no noise. Caramba! A pretty business that would be, wouldn't it? With my men running up here to see what it was all about. No, no! No gunshots, no disturbance of any kind. You understand what I mean, eh?"

His face twisted into a grin as he tossed the revolver aside, then undertook to detach a stone from the crumbling curb. "No noise!" he chuckled. "No noise whatever."

O'Reilly, stupefied by the sudden appearance of this monstrous creature, stunned by the certainty of a catastrophe to Rosa, awoke to the fact that this man intended to brain him where he stood. In a panic he cast his eyes about him, thinking to take shelter in the treasure-cave, but that retreat was closed to him, for he had wedged the wooden timbers together at the first alarm. He was like a rat in a pit, utterly at the mercy of this maniac. And Cobo was a maniac at the moment; he had so far lost control of himself as to allow the stone to slip out of his grasp. It fell with a thud at O'Reilly's feet, causing the assassin to laugh once more.

"Ho, ho!" he hiccoughed. "My fingers are clumsy, eh? But there is no need for haste." He stretched out his arm again, laid hold of another missile, and strained to loosen it from its bed. "Jewels! Pearls the size of plums! And I a poor man! I can't believe it yet." He could not detach the stone, so he fumbled farther along the curbing. "Pearls, indeed! I would send a dozen men to hell for one--"

O'Reilly had been standing petrified, his body forced tightly against the rough surface behind him, following with strained fascination the deliberate movements of the man above him; now he saw Cobo, without the least apparent reason, twist and shudder, saw him stiffen rigidly as if seized with a sudden cramp, saw his eyes dilate and heard him heave a deep, whistling sigh. O'Reilly could not imagine what ailed the fellow. For an eternity, so it seemed, Cobo remained leaning upon his outspread arms, fixed in that same attitude of paralysis--it looked almost as if he had been startled by some sound close by. But manifestly that was not the cause of his hesitation, for his face became convulsed and an expression of blank and utter astonishment was stamped upon it. The men stared fixedly at each other, O'Reilly with his head thrown back, Cobo with his body propped rigidly upon wooden arms and that peculiar shocked inquiry in his glaring eyes. But slowly this expression changed; the colonel bent as if beneath a great weight, his head rose and turned back upon his neck, he filled his lungs with another wheezing sigh. "Christ! O Christ--" he whispered.

His teeth ground together, his head began to wag upon his shoulders; it dropped lower and lower; one hand slipped from its hold and he lurched forward. An instant he hung suspended from the waist; then he appeared to let go limply as all resistance went out of his big body. There came a warning rattle of dirt and mortar and pebbles; the next instant he slipped into the well and plunged headlong down upon O'Reilly, an avalanche of lifeless flesh.

Johnnie shielded himself with his up-flung arms, but he was driven to his knees, and when he scrambled to his feet, half stunned, it was to find himself in utter darkness. There was a heavy weight against his legs. With a strength born of horror and revulsion he freed himself; then hearing no sound and feeling no movement, he fumbled for the candle and with clumsy fingers managed to relight it. Even after the flame had leaped out and he saw what shared the pit with him he could barely credit his senses. The nature of his deliverance was uncanny, supernatural--it left him dazed. He had beheld death stamped upon Cobo's writhing face even while the fellow braced himself to keep from falling, but what force had effected the phenomenon, what unseen hand had stricken him, Johnnie was at a loss to comprehend. It seemed a miracle, indeed, until he looked closer. Then he understood. Cobo lay in a formless, boneless heap; he seemed to be all arms and legs; his face was hidden, but between his shoulders there protruded the crude wooden handle of a home-made knife to which a loop of cord was tied.

O'Reilly stared stupidly at the weapon; then he raised his eyes. Peering down at him out of the night was another face, an impertinent, beardless, youthful face.

He uttered Jacket's name, and the boy answered with a smile. "Bring my knife with you when you come," the latter directed.

"You!" The American's voice was weak and shaky. "I thought--" He set the candle down and covered his eyes momentarily.

"That's a good knife, all right, and sharp, too. The fellow died in a hurry, eh? Who does he happen to be?"

"Don't you know? It--it's Cobo."

"Cobo! Coby, the baby-killer!" Jacket breathed an oath. "Oh, that blessed knife!" The boy craned his small body forward until he was in danger of following his victim. "Now this is good luck indeed! And to think that he died just like any other man."

"Rosa! Where is she?" O'Reilly inquired in a new agony of apprehension.

"Oh, she is here," Jacket assured him, carelessly. "I think she has fainted. Caramba! Isn't that like a woman--to miss all the fun? But, compadre--that was a blow for Cuba Libre; what? People will talk about me when I'm as dead as that pig. 'Narciso Villar, the slayer of Cobo'--that's what they'll call me." Jacket giggled hysterically. "I--I thought he would jump up and run after me, so I fled, but he tried to bury himself, didn't he? His flesh was like butter, O'Reilly."

"Help me out, quick! Here, catch this rope." Johnnie managed to fling the coil within reach of his little friend and a moment later he had hoisted himself from that pit of tragedy.