XXVIII. Three Travelers Come Home
 

Esteban Varona made slow progress toward recovery. In the weeks following O'Reilly's departure from Cubitas his gain was steady, but beyond a certain point he seemed unable to go. Then he began to lose strength. Norine was the first to realize the truth, but it was some time before she would acknowledge it, even to herself. At last, however, she had to face the fact that Esteban's months of prison fare, the abuse, the neglect he had suffered in Spanish hands, had left him little more than a living corpse. It seemed as if fever had burned him out, or else some dregs of disease still lingered in his system and had all but quenched that elusive spark which for want of a better name we call vitality.

Esteban, too, awoke to the fact that he was losing ground, and his dismay was keen, for a wonderful thing had come into his life and he spent much of his time in delicious contemplative day dreams concerning it, waiting for the hour when he would dare translate those dreams into realities. It seemed to him that he had always loved Norine; certainly she had enshrined herself in his heart long before his mind had regained its clarity, for he had come out of his delirious wanderings with his love full grown. There had been no conscious beginning to it; he had emerged from darkness into dazzling glory, all in an instant. Not until he found himself slipping backward did he attempt to set a guard upon himself, for up to that hour he had never questioned his right to love. He found his new task heavy, almost too much for him to bear. That he attempted it spoke well for the fellow's strength of character.

The time came finally when he could no longer permit the girl to deceive herself or him with her brave assumption of cheerfulness. Norine had just told him that he was doing famously, but he smiled and shook his weary head.

"Let's be honest," he said. "You know and I know that I can't get well."

Norine was engaged in straightening up the interior of the bark hut in which her patient was installed; she ceased her labors to inquire with lifted brows:

"Tut! Tut! Pray what do you mean by that?"

"There's something desperately wrong with me and I realized it long ago. So did you, but your good heart wouldn't let you--"

Norine crossed quickly to the hammock and laid her cool hand upon the sick man's forehead.

"You mustn't be discouraged," she told him, earnestly. "Remember this is a trying climate and we have nothing to do with. Even the food is wretched."

Esteban's smile became wistful. "That isn't why my fever lasts. If there were any life, any health left in me you would rekindle it. No, there's something desperately wrong, and--we're wasting time."

"You simply mustn't talk like this," she cried. Then at the look in his eyes she faltered for the briefest instant. "You'll--undo all that we've done. Oh, if I had you where I could take proper care of you! If we were anywhere but here you'd see."

"I--believe you. But unfortunately we are not elsewhere."

"I'm going to take you away," she exclaimed, forcefully.

Esteban stroked her hand softly. "You can't do that, Miss Evans. You have been wonderful to me and I can't begin to express my gratitude--" Norine stirred, but he retained his grasp of her fingers, gaining courage from the contact to proceed. "I have been trying for a long time to tell you something. Will you listen?"

Norine possessed a dominant personality; she had a knack of tactfully controlling and directing situations, but of a sudden she experienced a panic-stricken nutter and she lost her air of easy confidence.

"Not now," she exclaimed, with a visible lessening of color. "Don't bother to tell me now."

"I've waited too long; I must speak."

Norine was amazed at her own confusion, which was nothing less than girlish; she had actually gone to pieces at threat of something she had long expected to hear.

"I know how tired of this work you have become," the man was saying. "I know you're eager to get back to your own work and your own life."

"Well?"

"You have stayed on here just to nurse me. Isn't that true?"

She nodded somewhat doubtfully.

"Now then, you must stop thinking about me and--make your arrangements to go home."

Norine eyed the speaker queerly. "Is that what you have been trying so long to tell me?" she inquired.

"Yes."

"Is that--all?"

There was a moment of silence. "Yes. You see, I know how tired you are of this misery, this poverty, this hopeless struggle. You're not a Cuban and our cause isn't yours. Expeditions come from the United States every now and then and the Government will see that you are put safely aboard the first ship that returns. I'll manage to get well somehow."

Norine's color had returned. She stood over the hammock, looking down mistily. "Don't you need me, want me any more?" she inquired.

Esteban turned his tired eyes away, fearing to betray in them his utter wretchedness. "You have done all there is to do. I want you to go back into your own world and forget--"

A sudden impulse seized the girl. She stopped and gathered the sick man into her young, strong arms. "Don't be silly," she cried. "My world is your world, Esteban dear. I'll never, never leave you."

"Miss Evans! Norine!" Varona tried feebly to free himself. "You mustn't--"

Norine was laughing through her tears. "If you won't speak, I suppose I must, but it is very embarrassing. Don't you suppose I know exactly how much you love me? "Why, you've told me a thousand times--"

"Please! Please!" he cried in a shaking voice. "This is wrong. I won't let you--you, a girl with everything--"

"Hush!" She drew him closer. "You're going to tell me that you have nothing, can offer me nothing. You're going to do the generous, noble thing. Well! I hate generous people. I'm selfish, utterly selfish and spoiled, and I don't propose to be robbed of anything I want, least of all my happiness. You do love me, don't you?"

Esteban's cry was eloquent; he clasped his arms about her and she held him fiercely to her breast.

"Well, then, why don't you tell me so? I--I can't keep on proposing. It isn't ladylike."

"We're quite mad, quite insane," he told her after a while. "This only makes it harder to give you up."

"You're not going to give me up and you're not going to die. I sha'n't let you. Think what you have to live for."

"I--did wrong to surrender."

"It was I who surrendered. Come! Must I say it all? Aren't you going to ask me--"

"What?"

"Why, to marry you, of course."

Esteban gasped; he looked deeply into Norine's eyes, then he closed his own. He shook his head. "Not that," he whispered. "Oh, not that!"

"We're going to be married, and I'm going to take you out of this miserable place."

"What happiness!" he murmured. "If I were well--But I won't let you marry a dying man."

Norine rose, her face aglow with new strength, new determination. She dried her eyes and readjusted her hair with deft, unconscious touch, smiling down, meanwhile, at the man. "I brought you back when you were all but gone. I saved you after the others had given you up, and now you are mine to do with as I please. You belong to me and I sha'n't consult you--" She turned, for a figure had darkened the door; it was one of her English-speaking convalescents who was acting as a sort of orderly.

"Senorita," the man said, with a flash of white teeth, "we have another sick man, and you'd never guess who. It is that American, El Demonio--"

"Mr. Branch?"

"Si! The very same. He has just come from the front."

"Is he sick or wounded?" Esteban inquired.

"Shot, by a Spanish bullet. He asked at once for our senorita."

"Of course. I'll come in an instant." When the messenger had gone Norine bent and pressed her lips to Esteban's. "Remember, you're mine to do with as I please," she said; then she fled down the grassy street.

Branch was waiting at Norine's quarters, a soiled figure of dejection. His left arm lay in a sling across his breast. He looked up at her approach, but she scarcely recognized him, so greatly changed was he.

Leslie had filled out. There was a healthy color beneath his deep tan, his flesh was firm, his eyes clear and bright.

"Hello, Norine!" he cried. "Well, they got me."

Norine paused in astonishment. "'Way, Leslie! I was so frightened! But--you can't be badly hurt."

"Bad enough so that Lopez sent me in. A fellow gets flyblown if he stays in the field, so I beat it."

"Has your arm been dressed?"

"No. I wouldn't let these rough-and-tumble doctors touch it. They'd amputate at the shoulder for a hang-nail. I don't trust 'em."

"Then I'll look at it."

But Leslie shrugged. "Oh, it's feeling fine, right now! I'd rather leave it alone. I just wanted to see you--"

"You mustn't neglect it; there's danger of--"

"Gee! You're looking great," he interrupted. "It's better than a banquet just to look at you."

"And you!" Norine scanned the invalid appraisingly. "Why, you're another man!"

"Sure! Listen to this." He thumped his chest. "Best pair of bellows in Cuba. The open air did it."

"What a pity you were hurt just at such a time. But you would take insane risks. Now then, let's have a look at your wound." She pushed him, protesting, into her cabin.

"It doesn't hurt, really," he declared. "It's only a scratch."

"Of course you'd say so. Sit down."

"Please don't bother. If you don't mind--"

"But I do mind. If you won't trust me I'll run for a doctor."

"I tell you I can't stand 'em. They'll probe around and give a fellow gangrene."

"Then behave yourself." Norine forced the patient into a chair and withdrew his arm from the sling. Then, despite his weak resistance, she deftly removed the bandage. From his expression she felt sure that she must be hurting him, but when the injury was exposed she looked up in wonderment.

"Leslie!" she exclaimed. "What in the world--"

"Well! You insisted on seeing it," he grumbled. "I told you it wasn't much." He tried to meet her eyes, but failed.

There was a moment's pause, then Norine inquired, curiously: "What is the trouble? You'd better 'fess up."

Branch struggled with himself, he swallowed hard, then said: "I'm- -going to. You can see now why I didn't go to a doctor: I did it--shot myself. You won't give me away?"

"Why--I don't understand."

"Oh, I'm in trouble. I simply had to get away, and this was all I could think of. I wanted to blow a real hole through myself and I tried three times. But I missed myself."

"Missed yourself? How? Why?"

Branch wiped the sweat from his face. "I flinched--shut my eyes and pulled the trigger."

Norine seated herself weakly; she stared in bewilderment at the unhappy speaker. "Afraid? You, El Demonio! Why, you aren't afraid of anything!"

"Say! You don't believe all that stuff, do you? I'm afraid of my shadow and always have been. I'm not brave and never was. They told me I was going to die and it scared me so that I tried to end things quickly. I couldn't bear to die slowly, to know that I was dying by inches. But, Lord! It scared me even worse to go into battle. I was blind with fright all the time and I never got over it. Why, the sight of a gun gives me a chill, and I jump every time one goes off. God! how I've suffered! I went crazy at our first engagement--crazy with fear. I didn't know where I was, or what happened, or anything. Afterward, when they hailed me as a hero, I thought they were kidding, that everybody must know how frightened I was. After a time I saw that I'd fooled them, and that shamed me. Then--I had to keep it up or become ridiculous. But it nearly killed me."

"If you're speaking the truth, I'm not sure you're such a coward as you make out," Norine said.

"Oh yes, I am. Wait! Before I knew it I had a reputation. Then I had to live up to it." The speaker groaned. "It wasn't so bad as long as I felt sure I was going to die, anyhow, but when I discovered I was getting well--" Branch raised a pair of tragic eyes, his tone changed. "I'll tell you what cured me. I scared myself well! Those bugs in my lungs died from suffocation, for I never breathed as long as there was a Spaniard in the same county with me. One day I found that I couldn't cough if I tried. I got strong. I slept well. And eat? Huh! I gobbled my share of food and whined for more. I stole what belonged to the others. I began to enjoy myself--to have fun. Life opened up nice and rosy. I fell in love with my new self and the joy of living. Then I didn't want to die--never had, you understand, except to cheat the bugs; it gave me the horrors to think of the chances I'd taken. To be strong, to be healthy and free from pain, to tear my food like a wild animal, and to enjoy hard work was all new and strange and wonderful. I was drunk with it. To think of being cut down, crippled, reduced to the useless, miserable thing I had been, was intolerable. I was twice as scared then as I'd ever been, for I had more to lose. You understand? I forced myself to do the insane things expected of me, when people were looking--natural pride, I suppose--but when they weren't looking, oh, how I dogged it! I crawled on my belly and hid in holes like a snake."

"How--funny!" Norine exclaimed.

"You've got a blamed queer idea of humor," Branch flashed, with a show of his former irritability.

"And so you shot yourself?"

"Yep! I tried to select a good spot where it wouldn't hurt or prove too inconvenient, but--there isn't a place to spare on a fellow's whole body. He needs every inch of himself every minute. I was going to shoot myself in the foot, but my feet are full of bones and I saw myself on crutches the rest of my life."

"Why didn't you resign from the service? You didn't regularly enlist and you've surely earned your discharge."

Branch nodded. "I thought of that, but I've gained a reputation that I don't deserve and, strangely enough, I'm madly jealous of it. I thought if I were really shot by a regular bullet I'd be mourned as a hero and have a chance to walk out with colors flying. I want to tell my children, if I ever have any, what a glorious man I was and how I helped to free Cuba. Oh, I'd lie like a thief to my own children! Now you see why I don't want a doctor. There's only one thing I want--and that's--home." Leslie heaved a deep sigh. "Gee! I'm homesick."

"So am I," Norine feelingly declared. "I think I understand how you feel and I can't blame you for wanting to live, now that you've learned what a splendid thing life is."

"If O'Reilly had been with me I think I could have managed, somehow, for he would have understood, too. I--I'll never go back to the front, alone--they can shoot me, if they want to. Have you heard anything from him?"

"Not a word. Cuba swallowed him up. Oh, Leslie, it is a cruel country! It is taking the best and the youngest. I--want to go away."

He smiled mirthlessly. "I'm fed up on it, too. I want to be where I can shave when I need to and wear something besides canvas pajamas. I'm cured of war; I want a policeman to stop the traffic and help me across the street. I want to put my feet under a breakfast-table, rustle a morning paper, and slap an egg in the face. That's all the excitement I hunger for."

Norine filled a basin with clean water and, taking a fresh bandage, wrapped up the self-inflicted hurt, Branch watching her anxiously. Now and again he flinched like a child when she touched his wound. At last he inquired, apprehensively, "Is it infected?"

"No."

"Lord! I'm glad! Wouldn't it be just my luck to get blood poisoning?"

Norine surprised her patient by inquiring, irrelevantly, "Leslie, is there anybody here who can marry people?"

"Eh? Why, of course!" Then suddenly his somber face lightened and he cried: "Norine! Do you mean it?"

"Not you. I wouldn't marry you."

"Why not? I'm perfectly well--"

"Please answer me."

Leslie settled back in his chair. "I dare say some of the Cuban Cabinet officers could put up a good bluff at a marriage ceremony."

"A bluff wouldn't do."

"Who's going to be married?"

"I am."

Branch started to his feet once more, his mouth fell open. "You? Nonsense!" When she nodded, his face darkened. "Who is he? Some Cuban, I'll bet--one of these greasers."

"It is poor Esteban."

"'Poor Esteban'! Damn it, they're all poor. That's the very reason he asked you. He's after your money."

"He didn't ask me. I asked him. He's--dying, Leslie." There was a pause. "I'm going to marry him and take him home, where he can get well."

"What will O'Reilly say?"

"I'm afraid we'll never see O'Reilly again. Cuba frightens me. It has taken him, it will take Esteban, and--that would break my heart."

"Do you love him as much as that?"

Norine raised her eyes and in their depths Branch read her answer. "Well, that ends the rest of us," he sighed. "There's a Minister of Justice here, I believe; he sounds as if he could perform most any kind of a ceremony. We'll find out for sure."

It so happened that the President and well-nigh the entire Provisional Cabinet were in Cubitas. Leslie and Norine went directly to the former. The supreme official was eager to oblige in every way the guest of his Government and her dare-devil countryman, El Demonio. He promptly sent for the Minister of Justice, who in turn gallantly put himself at Norine's disposal. He declared that, although he had never performed the marriage ceremony he would gladly try his hand at it. In no time the news had spread and there was subdued excitement throughout the camp. When Norine left headquarters she was the target of smiles and friendly greetings. Women nodded and chattered at her, ragged soldiers swept her salutes with their jipi-japa hats, children clung to her and capered by her side. It was vastly embarrassing, this shameless publicity, but it was touching, too, for there was genuine affection and good-will behind every smile. Norine was between tears and laughter when she ran panting into Esteban's cabin, leaving Branch to wait outside.

At sight of her Esteban uttered a low cry of happiness. "Dearest! I've been lying in a stupor of delight. The world has become bright: I hear people laughing. What a change! And how is El Demonio?"

"He's all right; he's waiting to see you, but first--I've arranged everything! The President and his Cabinet are coming to witness the ceremony."

Esteban poised, petrified, upon his elbow, his face was a study. "What have you arranged?" he managed to inquire.

"'Sh--h!" Norine laid a finger upon his lips. "The guest of the Republic is to be married to-day. Dignitaries, magistrates, nabobs, are turning out in her honor. They are shaving and borrowing clean shirts for the occasion. The Minister of Justice has a brand-new pair of tan shoes and he has promised to wear them, come rain or shine."

"Norine! Oh, my dear--" quavered the sick man. "I can't let you do this mad thing. Think! I'm ready for the grave--"

"This will make you well. We're going away when the very next expedition arrives."

But still Varona protested. "No, no! Who am I? I have nothing to offer, nothing to give. I'm poorer than a peon."

"Thank goodness, I can do all the giving! I've never told you, Esteban, but I'm quite rich." Holding the man away, she smiled into his eyes. "Yes, richer than I have any right to be. I had no need to come to Cuba; it was just the whim of an irresponsible, spoiled young woman. I gave a huge amount of money to the New York Junta and that's why I was allowed to come."

"You're not a--a trained nurse?"

"Oh, dear, no! Except when it amuses me to pretend."

"How strange!" The invalid was dazed, but after a moment he shook his head. "It is hard to say this, but I don't know whether you really love me or whether your great heart has been touched. You have learned my feelings, and perhaps think in this way to make me well. Is that it?"

"No, no! I'm thoroughly selfish and must have what I want. I want you. So don't let's argue about it." Norine tenderly enfolded the weak figure in her arms, "You must, you shall get well or--I shall die, too."

"I haven't the strength to refuse," Esteban murmured. "And yet, how can I leave Cuba? What right have I to accept happiness and leave Rosa--"

This was a subject which Norine dreaded, a question to which she knew no answer. She was not in a mood to discuss it, and made no attempt to do so. Instead, she laid the invalid upon his pillow, saying:

"Leslie is waiting to wish you joy and a quick recovery. May I ask him in?"

She stepped to the door, only to behold her late companion making off down the village street in great haste and evident excitement. Surprised, offended, she checked her impulse to call him back. A moment, then she stepped out into the full sunlight and stared after him, for she saw that which explained his desertion. Approaching between the drunken rows of grass huts was a little knot of people. Even as Norine watched it grew into a considerable crowd, for men and women and children came hurrying from their tasks. There were three figures in the lead, a man and two boys, and they walked slowly, ploddingly, as if weary from a long march.

Norine decided that they were not villagers, but ragged pacificos, upon the verge of exhaustion. She saw Branch break into a swifter run and heard him shout something, then through eyes suddenly dimmed she watched him fall upon the tallest of the three strangers and embrace him. The crowd grew thicker. It surrounded them.

"Esteban!" Norine cried in a voice she scarcely recognized. She retreated into the doorway with one hand upon her leaping heart. "Esteban! Look! Some one has just arrived. Leslie has gone--" She cleared her vision with a shake of her head and her tongue grew thick with excitement. "They're coming--here! Yes! It's--it's O'Reilly!"

Young Varona struggled from his hammock. "Rosa!" he called, loudly, "Rosa!"

Norine ran and caught him or he would have fallen prone. He pawed and fumbled in a weak attempt to free himself from her restraining arms; a wildness was upon him; he shook as if with palsy. "Did he bring her with him? Is she here? Why don't you answer me? Rosa--" He began to mutter unintelligibly, his vitality flared up, and it was with difficulty that Norine could hold him down. His gaze, fixed upon the square of sunlight framed by the low doorway, was blazing with excitement. To Norine it seemed as if his spirit, in the uncertainty of this moment, was straining to leap forth in an effort to learn his sister's fate.

The crowd was near at hand now. There came the scuffling of feet and murmur of many voices. Esteban fell silent, he closed his hot, bony hands upon Norine's wrists in a painful grip. He bent forward, his soul centered in his tortured eyes.

There came a shadow, then in the doorway the figure of a man, a tattered scarecrow of a man whose feet were bare and whose brown calves were exposed through flapping rags. His breast was naked where thorns had tried to stay him; his beard, even his hair, were matted and unkempt, and the mud of many trails lay caked upon his garments.

It was O'Reilly!

He peered, blinking, into the obscurity, then he turned and drew forward a frail hunchbacked boy whose face was almost a mulatto hue. Hand in hand they stepped into the hut and once again Esteban Varona's soul found outlet in his sister's name. He held out his shaking, hungry arms and the misshapen lad ran into them.

Dumb with amazement, blind with tears, Norine found herself staring upward into O'Reilly's face, and heard him saying:

"I told you I would bring her home."

The next instant she lay upon his breast and sobs of joy were tearing at her.