XXVII. Morin, the Fisherman
 

When Rosa Varona regained consciousness sufficiently to understand what had happened she proved herself a person of no little self- control. She went to pieces for a moment, as was only natural, but O'Reilly soon succeeded in calming her. Nor did he have to remind her twice that this was no time for weakness or hysteria; it was she, in fact, who first voiced the fear that Cobo dead was scarcely less of a menace than Cobo alive.

"What are we going to do with him?" she inquired.

Jacket, too, appreciated the dangers of the situation. "We must get rid of him quickly," said he, "for his men are close by; he will be missed and there will be a search." "I don't intend to make him a present of that treasure," O'Reilly said, grimly. "It is our only salvation."

"But how are we going to hide him?" Jacket inquired. "One might as well try to conceal a church; oxen couldn't hoist him out of that hole."

"Precisely! He has made our work easy for us. We can't take more than a small part of the money with us, anyhow; the rest will have to lie here until the war is over. Well! We shall leave Cobo on guard over what remains!"

Jacket was immensely pleased with this idea, once he had grasped it. "What could be better?" he cried. "The man's spirit is evil enough to frighten people away and we will drop stones upon him, so that he can learn the taste of his own medicine. It suits me exactly to think of Colonel Cobo standing on his head in a hole in the ground for the rest of eternity!"

O'Reilly was by this time suffering the full reaction from the events of the past half-hour and he was nearer exhaustion than he dreamed, but, conquering his repugnance for his unescapable task, he lowered himself once more into the well. His arms were weak, however, and his fingers numb, so he fell rather than slid the length of the rope. He managed to open the door of the treasure- chamber, then entered and loaded his pockets with gold. He sent up the jewel-box at the end of the rope, dragged the body of Cobo into the cave, then wedged the barricade back into place. It required the combined strength of Rosa and Jacket to help him the last few feet of his climb.

"Now fetch stones, rubbish, anything--and throw it in there," he gasped.

The boy and the girl fell to with a will, and after a time Johnnie joined them. Slowly, laboriously, the three of them carried debris from the edge of the quarry and bricks from the ruined house; they scraped up armfuls of leaves and trash--anything, in fact, which would serve to raise the bottom of the shaft and conceal the entrance to their enemy's resting-place. It was slavish work, but O'Reilly kept them at it until they were ready to drop. Daylight overtook them at their task.

They were weak, sick, deadly tired; they could barely shuffle a few yards at a time when they finally reached Asensio's hut; nevertheless there was hope in their hearts, for O'Reilly's ragged clothes sagged with the weight of gold pieces and the little metal box he carried was heavy. Nor were they greatly concerned about the safety of the treasure they had left behind, for the entrance to the cavern lay deeply buried, and Cobo, the guerrilla, stood guard over the chests of plate and the casks of coin.

Evangelina, vastly bewildered at the sight of the coin which was forced into her palm, went for food and spent most of the day in cooking it. The treasure-hunters alternately slept and ate. It was not until well along toward evening that Rosa and O'Reilly felt any desire to take stock of the contents of that jewel-box, but finally, with heads together and with backs to the door of the bohio, they made a furtive examination. It was a task that held them spellbound, for there were loose gems of many varieties, some well, some badly cut; there were pieces of antique Spanish jewelry, valuable mainly by virtue of their antiquity, clumsy settings of silver and gold containing dead, uninteresting stones; others of the finest and most delicate workmanship. Some of the pieces were like glittering cobwebs enmeshing sparks of fire and drops of blood. They found emeralds and sapphires the value of which they did not attempt to estimate; and, besides these, a miscellaneous assortment of semiprecious stones. There was a fine collection of opals of every size and color, among which were a number of huge flat black ones, indescribably gorgeous with their ever-changing peacock hues. But finest of all the lot were the pearls. Where old Don Esteban had secured these latter was a mystery, for he had not been a widely traveled man. They were splendid, unrivaled in size and luster. Some had the iridescence of soap-bubbles, others ranged from pink to deepest chocolate in color. To touch them was like sacrilege.

O'Reilly realized vaguely that he held in his lap a fortune greater than his wildest dreams had ever compassed. These were the jewels of a rajah. It seemed incredible that this ragged girl beside him was a regal heiress, the possessor of a treasure such as kings might envy. After a time he realized that the mere possession of these gems constituted a new and overwhelming menace.

All that evening he and Rosa cowered in the darkness, whispering furtively, their nerves on edge, their senses strained. It seemed to them that new and unsuspected perils stalked abroad through the night.

Morning found all hands more nearly rational and feeling the first gnawings of a healthy hunger. Even Asensio confessed to a quite miraculous improvement. While Evangelina prepared breakfast the lovers agreed upon a story to explain the origin of that mysterious gold piece, and later Johnnie warned Jacket for a second time to keep his tongue between his teeth.

"We will have to be doubly careful now," he told the boy. "An unguarded word or an incautious move would be the end of us."

Jacket nodded his complete comprehension. "Sure! All Spaniards are robbers and they'd kill us for a peso. Yes, and the pacificos are no better. I tell you we need to get out of this place."

"I intend to arrange it at once, but--the sight of those jewels has frightened me. If we are searched--if we are even suspected--"

"Oh, Rosa wouldn't have any more use for her pretty trinkets. She'd be in heaven before you could scratch your nose."

O'Reilly frowned. "She isn't at all strong yet. I'm wondering if she can endure the hardships we'll encounter when, or if, we get away."

"Exactly what I was thinking. I've been considering another plan."

"Indeed?" O'Reilly scanned the face of his young friend with interest. He was beginning to have a high regard for Jacket's capabilities, and the boy's exploit of the night before certainly entitled him to be heard upon any subject.

"I told you about my friend at the market," the latter continued. "Well, he is a miserable Spaniard, but he has a son in the manigua."

"One of us?" Johnnie was surprised.

"Yes. The old fellow owns a volandra in which he brings charcoal from the eastward twice a month."

There was a moment of silence; then O'Reilly said, slowly, as if hesitating even to voice such a suggestion, "You mean--he might take us out of here--on his schooner?"

"Who knows? He's not a bad old fellow and he likes me. But there would be no place for women."

"How well does he like you?"

"Oh, we are like two thieves."

After another period of thought O'Reilly said, "Take me to him, and remember I'm your brother Juan."

The Matanzas market did not present a scene of great activity when the two friends slunk into it. It was midday, and what food had earlier been offered for sale had for the most part long since disappeared. All but a few of the stalls were empty, and a number of emaciated reconcentrados were searching listlessly among them for neglected scraps, or imploring aid from such marketmen as still lingered about. Like most Spanish markets, the building was far from clean and housed odors unpleasant even to starving people. In the smelliest section, at one of the fish-stalls, Jacket accosted a villainous old brigand in a rough Gallego cap, baggy blouse and trousers, and straw sandals.

"Good day, my Captain," he cried, cheerily.

The Spaniard raised his head, scowled ferociously, then waved a long, thin-bladed knife in menacing fashion.

"Aha! So there you are, robber! Be off now before I slit your greedy little belly!" He spoke in an angry, husky voice. When Jacket stood his ground he reached for him with a hand upon which blood and fish-scales had dried. "Didn't I promise to give you to the soldiers if you came back to bother me?"

Jacket was unabashed by this hostile reception. He grinned broadly and with an impudent eye he scanned the empty premises. "Where is my little fish?" he demanded. "As I live, I believe you have sold it! God! What a miser! For the sake of another centavo you would see me starve? There's a heart for you!"

"Your little fish!" roared the brigand, clashing his blade on the filthy counter. "No shark ever stole so many fish as you. Come, I shall make an end of you, and have some peace. Starve? You? Bah! Your body is like a gourd."

"Yes, and quite as hollow. I starve because you possess a heart of stone. One little fish, no longer than your finger. Just one?"

"Not so much as a fin!" cried the man. "Can I feed all the rebels in Matanzas?"

"One little fish," Jacket wheedled, "for the sake of Miguelito, who is bravely fighting in the manigua, to the shame of his miserly old father, fattening on the groans of good patriots like me! Must I remind you again that Miguelito was my brother? That I have robbed my own belly in order to give him food?"

"Liar!"

"It is true."

"You never saw him."

"Miguel Morin? With a scar on his neck? The bravest boy in all the Orient? Ask him about Narciso Villar. Come, give me my fish! Or must I lie down and die before your very eyes to prove my hunger?"

"What a nuisance!" grumbled the marketman. He reached into a basket and flung a mackerel upon the table. "There! I saved it for you, and sent the good women of Matanzas away empty-handed. But it is the very last. Annoy me again and I shall open you with my knife and put salt on you."

"Ah! You are my good captain!" Jacket cried in triumph, possessing himself of the prize. "Where would I have been but for you?" Turning to O'Reilly, who had looked on from a distance at this artificial quarrel, he said, "Captain Morin, this is that brother Juan of whom I have told you."

Morin smiled at Johnnie and extended his dirty palm. "The little fellow can speak the truth when he wishes, it seems. I began to doubt that he had a brother. What a boy, eh?" Leaning closer, he whispered, hoarsely: "It is cheaper to give him a fish than to have him steal a whole basketful. But he is a great liar. Even yet I'm not sure that he knows my Miguelito."

"You have a son with the Insurrectos?"

"Yes." The fisherman cast a furtive glance over his shoulder. "He is a traitor of the worst sort, and I don't approve of him, but he's a brave boy and he loves fighting. Sometimes I get hungry to see him."

"Why don't you go and fight by his side?" Jacket demanded.

"God forbid!" Morin flung up his hands. "I'm a loyal subject."

"Well, we are going back to fight. We are going to escape and join Gomez once more!" Jacket made the announcement calmly.

"'S-sh! What talk!" Morin was in a nervous panic lest they be overheard. "As if anybody could escape from Matanzas! What made you come here if you are so eager to fight?"

"I'll tell you." O'Reilly assumed direction of the conversation. "There are three of us brothers, we two and Esteban, a pretty little fellow. He was captured by Cobo's men and driven in, and we came to find him."

"You came here--here to Matanzas?" Old Morin was incredulous. He muttered an oath. "That was a very nice thing to do. And did you find him?"

"Oh yes! That was easy enough, for the lad is deformed."

"Tse! Tse! What a pity!"

"But he is sick--dying--"

"Of course. They're all dying--the poor people! It is terrible."

"We--" O'Reilly faltered slightly, so much hung upon the manner in which Morin would take what he was about to say. "We want to get him out of here--we must do so, or we'll lose him."

Sensing some hidden significance, some obscure purpose behind this confession, the Spaniard looked sharply at the speaker. His leathery countenance darkened.

"Why are you telling me this?" he inquired. "What makes you think I won't betray you?"

"Something tells me you won't. You have a good heart, and you have kept Narciso from starving, for the sake of your own boy."

"Well?"

"Will you help us?"

"I? In Heaven's name, how?"

"By taking us away in your charcoal-schooner."

"You're mad!" Morin cast another apprehensive look over his shoulder. "I'm a poor man. All I have is my two boats, the vivero, which brings fish, and the volandra, which sails with charcoal. Do you think I'd forfeit them and my life for strangers?"

"There wouldn't be much risk."

"Indeed? Perhaps I know something about that."

O'Reilly leaned closer. "You say you're a poor man, I will pay you well."

Morin eyed the ragged speaker scornfully; it was plain that he put no faith in such a promise, and so O'Reilly took a piece of gold from his pocket, at sight of which the fisherman started.

"What kind of pacificos are you?" Morin queried. His mouth had fallen open, his eyes protruded.

"I, too, am a poor man, but I'm willing to buy freedom for my little brothers and myself."

"How many coins like that have you?"

"Um--m--more than one; enough to pay you for several cargoes of coal."

"And I have given you fish to eat!" Morin rolled his eyes at Jacket. He pondered the marvel of what he had seen, he muttered something to himself.

"For the sake of Miguelito," Jacket urged. "Caramba! What a hard- hearted father begot that boy!"

"Hush!" The fisherman was scowling. To O'Reilly he said, "You do wrong to tempt a poor man."

"My brother Esteban is sick. He is a frail little lad with a crooked back. God will reward you."

"Perhaps! But how much will you pay?"

"Ten Spanish sovereigns like this--all that I have."

"No! It is not enough."

O'Reilly took Jacket's hand and turned away. "I'm sorry," said he. "I wish I might offer you more." He had taken several steps before Morin hailed him.

"Come back to-morrow," the fisherman cried, crossly. "We will try to talk like sensible people."

The brothers Villar were back at Morin's fish-stand on the following afternoon and they returned daily thereafter until they at last prevailed over the Spaniard's fears and won his promise of assistance. That much accomplished, they made several cautious purchases, a coat here, a shirt there, a pair of trousers in another place, until they had assembled a complete boy's outfit of clothing.

At first Rosa refused absolutely to desert her two faithful negro friends, and O'Reilly won her consent to consider his plan of escape only after he had put the matter squarely up to Asensio and his wife and after both had refused to enter into it. Asensio declared that he was too sick to be moved, and asserted that he would infinitely prefer to remain where he was, provided he was supplied with sufficient money to cover his needs. Evangelina agreed with him.

Then, and not until then, did Rosa begin her preparations. First she made Evangelina cut her hair, a sacrilege that wrung sighs and tears and loud lamentations from the black woman, after which she altered the suit of boy's clothing to fit her figure, or rather to conceal it.

When at last she put it on for O'Reilly's approval she was very shy, very self-conscious, and so altogether unboylike that he shook his head positively.

"My dear, you'll never do," he told her. "You are altogether too pretty."

"But wait until I put that hideous hump upon my back and stain my face, then you will see how ugly I can look."

"Perhaps," he said, doubtfully. A moment, then his frown lightened. "You give me a thought," said he. "You shall wear the jewels."

"Wear them? How?"

"On your back, in that very hump. It will be the safest possible way to conceal them."

Rosa clapped her hands in delight. "Why, of course! It is the very thing. Wait until I show you."

Profiting by her first moment alone--Evangelina and her husband being still in ignorance of the contents of the treasure-box--Rosa made a bundle out of the jewels and trinkets and fastened it securely inside her coat. After a few experiments she adjusted it to her liking, then called O'Reilly once more. This time he was better satisfied; he was, in truth, surprised at the effect of the disfigurement, and, after putting Rosa through several rehearsals in masculine deportment, he pronounced the disguise as nearly perfect as could be hoped for. An application of Evangelina's stain to darken her face, a few tatters and a liberal application of dirt to the suit, and he declared that Rosa would pass anywhere as a boy.

There came a night when the three of them bade good-by to their black companions and slipped away across the city to that section known as Pueblo Nuevo, then followed the road along the water- front until they found shelter within the shadows of a rickety structure which had once served as a bath-house. The building stood partially upon piles and under it they crept, knee-deep in the lapping waves. To their left was the illumination of Matanzas; to their right, the lights of the Penas Alias fort; ahead of them, empty and dark save for the riding-lights of a few small coasting- vessels, lay the harbor.

The refugees waited a long time; they were beginning 'to fear that old Morin's nerve had weakened at the eleventh hour, when they beheld a skiff approaching the shore. It glided closer, entered the shade of the bathhouse, then a voice cried:

"Pset! You are there?" It was Morin himself.

Hastily the three piled aboard. Morin bent to his oars and the skiff shot out. "You were not observed?" he inquired.

"No."

Morin rowed in silence for a time, then confessed: "This business is not to my liking. There is too much risk. Think of me putting my neck in peril--"

"Ho!" Jacket chuckled. "It is just the sort of thing that I enjoy. If Miguelito was captain of his father's boat we'd been in Cardenas by daybreak."

"When do you sail?" O'Reilly asked.

"At dawn, God permitting. You will have to remain hidden and you mustn't even breathe. I have told my men that you are members of my wife's family--good Spaniards, but I doubt if they will believe it."

"Then you are to be my uncle?" Jacket inquired from his seat in the bow. "Caramba! That's more than I can stand! To be considered a Spaniard is bad enough, but to be known as the nephew of an old miser who smells of fish! It is too much!"

Badinage of this sort did not displease the fisherman. "It is not often they board us nowadays," he said, more hopefully, "but of course one never can tell. Perhaps we will sail out under their very noses."

He brought the skiff alongside a battered old schooner and his passengers clambered aboard. There was a tiny cabin aft and on it, sheltered from the night dew by a loose fold of the mainsail, were two sleeping men. The new-comers followed Morin down into the evil little cabin, where he warned them in a stertorous whisper:

"Not a sound, mind you. If any one comes aboard, you must shift for yourselves. Creep into the hold and hide. Of course, if we are searched--" He muttered something, then groped his way out on deck, and closed the hatch behind him.

It was inky dark in the cabin; the occupants dared not move about for fear of waking the sailors overhead. Time passed slowly. After a while Jacket yawned and sighed and grumbled under his breath. Finally he stretched himself out upon a narrow board bench and fell asleep. O'Reilly drew Rosa to him and she snuggled comfortably into his embrace, resting her head upon his shoulder. It was their first real moment alone.

Now that they had actually embarked upon this enterprise and the girl had given herself entirely into his hands, now that an imminent peril encompassed them both, Johnnie felt that Rosa belonged to him more absolutely, more completely, than at any time heretofore, so he held her close. He caressed her gently, he voiced those tender, intimate, foolish thoughts which he had never dared express. This velvet darkness, this utter isolation, seemed to unite them; to feel the girl's heart beating against his own and her breath warm upon his cheek was intensely thrilling. An exquisite ardor inflamed him, and Rosa responded to it. They resisted briefly, prolonging the delights of this moment, then her arms crept about him, her lips met his in absolute surrender.

They began to whisper, cautiously, so as not to disturb the sleeping boy; they became unconscious of the flight of time. Rosa lay relaxed against her lover's shoulder and in halting murmurs, interrupted many times by caresses, she told O'Reilly of her need for him, and her utter happiness. It was the fullest hour of their lives.

Sometimes he thought she must be dozing, but he was never sure, for she answered to his lightest touch and awoke to the faintest pressure of his lips. The night wore swiftly on, and it was not long enough for either of them.

With daylight, Morin routed out his men. There was a sleepy muttering, the patter of bare feet upon the deck above, then the creak of blocks as the sails were raised. From forward came the sound of some one splitting wood to kindle the charcoal fire for breakfast. Other sailing-craft seemed to be getting under way, and a fishing-boat, loaded with the night's catch, came to anchor alongside.

The three brothers Villar felt the schooner heel slightly and knew that she was stealing toward the Spanish gunboat which was supposed to be on guard against precisely such undertakings as this. A few moments, then there came a hail which brought their hearts into their throats. Morin himself answered the call.

"Good morning, countryman! Have you caught any of those accursed filibusters since I saw you last? So? Cayo Romano, eh? Well, they come in the night and they go in the night. If I were the pilot of your ship I'd guarantee to put you where they'd fall into your arms, for I know these waters. What have I aboard?" Morin laughed loudly. "You know very well--cannon and shot for the rebels, of course. Will you look? ... No? ... Then a cup of coffee perhaps?"

O'Reilly peeped through a dirt-stained cabin window and saw that the volandra was slipping past the stern of the ironclad, so he withdrew his head quickly.

In spite of his hospitable invitation, Captain Morin made no move to come about, but instead held his schooner on its course, meanwhile exchanging shouts with the unseen speaker. It seemed incredible that Spanish discipline could be so lax, that the schooner would be allowed to depart, even for a coastwise run, without some formalities of clearance; but so it seemed. Evidently the Spaniards had tired of examining these small craft. It was typical of their carelessness.

Of course this was but one danger past and there were many more ahead, for Morin's schooner was liable to be stopped by any of the numerous patrol-boats on duty to the eastward. Nevertheless, when an anxious hour had gone by and she was well out toward the harbor mouth, the refugees told one another they were safe.

Morin shoved back the companionway hatch and thrust a grinning face into view. "Ho, there! my lazy little cousins!" he cried. "Wake up, for I smell Pancho's coffee boiling."