XXIX. What Happened at Sundown
 

The story of Rosa's rescue came slowly and in fragments, for the news of O'Reilly's return caused a sensation. His recital was interrupted many times. So numerous and so noisy did these diversions become that Norine, fearing for the welfare of her patient, banished O'Reilly's visitors and bore him and Branch off to her own cabin, leaving the brother and sister alone. In the privacy of Norine's quarters O'Reilly finished telling her the more important details of his adventures. He was well-nigh worn out, but his two friends would not respect his weariness; they were half hysterical with joy at his safety, treating him like one returned from the dead; so he rambled disjointedly through his tale. He told them of his hazardous trip westward, of his and Jacket's entrance into Matanzas and of the distressing scenes they witnessed there. When he had finished the account of his dramatic meeting with Rosa his hearers' eyes were wet. The recital of the escape held them breathless.

"As a matter of fact, our get-away was ridiculously easy," he said, "for we had luck at every turn--regular Irish luck. I'm sure Captain Morin suspected that Rosa wasn't a boy, but he was perfectly foolish about Jacket and tolerated us on his account. We owe everything to that kid; he's wonderful. I made Morin independent for life, but it wasn't the money, it was Jacket who induced him to bring us clear to Turiguano. He landed us one night, this side of the Moron trocha. Since then we've waded swamps to our armpits, we've fought the jungle and chewed bark-- but we're here." Johnnie heaved a deep sigh of relief.

"Where did you get the money to hire schooners and corrupt captains?" Branch inquired. "You were broke when I knew you."

O'Reilly hesitated; he lowered his voice to a whisper. "We found the Varona treasure."

Norine uttered a cry. "Not Don Esteban's treasure?"

"Exactly. It was in the well where young Esteban told us it was."

"Oh, Johnnie! You mean thing!" exclaimed the girl. "You promised-- "

"You'll have a chance to dig," he laughed. "We couldn't begin to bring all of it; we merely took the jewels and the deeds and what money our clothes would hold. The rest--"

"Wait! Wait!" Branch wailed, clapping his hand to his head. "'Merely the jewels and the deeds and what money our clothes would hold?' Bullets! Why, one suit of clothes will hold all the money in the world! Am I dreaming? 'Money!' I haven't seen a bona-fide dollar since I put on long pants. What does money look like? Is it round or--?"

Johnnie produced from his pocket a handful of coins.

Branch's eyes bulged, he touched a gold piece respectfully, weighed it carefully, then pressed it to his lips. He rubbed it against his cheeks and in his hair; he placed it between his teeth and bit it.

"It's real!" he cried. "Now let me look at the jewels."

"Rosa has them. She's wearing them on her back. Hunched backs are lucky, you know; hers is worth a fortune."

"Why, this beats the Arabian Nights!" Norine gasped.

"It beats--" Branch paused, then wagged his head warningly at the girl. "I don't believe a word of it and you mustn't. Johnnie read this story on his yachting-trip. It couldn't happen. In the first place there isn't any more money in the world; mints have quit coining it. Why, if I wrote such a yarn--"

"It is almost unbelievable," Johnnie acknowledged. "I found Aladdin's cave, but"--his face paled and he stirred uneasily--"it was nearly the death of all of us. I'll have to tell you the whole story now; I've only told you the half."

While his hearers listened, petrified with amazement and doubting their ears, he recited the incidents of that unforgettable night on La Cumbre: how Cobo came, and of the trap he sprung; how Jacket stole upon the assassin while he knelt, and of the blow he struck.

When Johnnie had finished there was a long moment of silence. Then Norine quavered, tremulously: "That boy! That blessed boy!"

Branch murmured, feebly: "Dash water in my face, or you'll lose me. I--You--" He found no words to express his feelings and finally voiced his favorite expletive.

"It's all too weirdly improbable," O'Reilly smiled, "but ask Rosa or Jacket--the boy is bursting to tell some one. He nearly died because he couldn't brag about it to Captain Morin, and there won't be any holding him now. I'm afraid he'll tip off the news about that treasure in spite of all my warnings. Those jewels are a temptation; I won't rest easy until they're safely locked up in some good vault. Now then, I've told you everything, but I'm dying for news. Tell me about yourselves, about Esteban. I expected to find him well. What ails him?"

"Oh, Johnnie!" Norine began. "He's very ill. He isn't getting well." Something in her tone caused O'Reilly to glance at her sharply. Branch nodded and winked significantly, and the girl confessed with a blush: "Yes! You told me I'd surrender to some poor, broken fellow. I'm very happy and--I'm very sad."

"Hunh! He's far from poor and broken," Leslie corrected; "with a half-interest in a humpful of diamonds and a gold-plated well, according to Baron Munchausen, here. This is the Cuban leap-year, Johnnie; Norine proposed to him and he was too far gone to refuse. You came just in time to interrupt a drum-head marriage."

"Is it true?" When Norine acquiesced, O'Reilly pressed her two hands in his. "I'm glad--so glad." Tears started to the girl's eyes; her voice broke wretchedly. "Help me, Johnnie! Help me to get him home--"

He patted her reassuringly and she took comfort from his hearty promise.

"Of course I will. We'll take him and Rosa away where they can forget Cuba and all the misery it has caused them. We'll make him well--don't worry. Meanwhile, at this moment Rosa needs food and clothing, and so do I."

As the three friends walked up the street they discovered Jacket holding the center of an interested crowd of his countrymen. It was the boy's moment and he was making the most of it. Swollen with self-importance, he was puffing with relish at a gigantic gift cigar.

"I exaggerate nothing," he was saying, loudly. "O'Reilly will tell you that I killed Cobo, alone and unassisted. The man is gone, he has disappeared, and all Matanzas is mystified. This is the hand that did it; yonder is the weapon, with that butcher's blood still on it. That knife will be preserved in the museum at Habana, along with my statue." Jacket spied his chief witness and called to him. "Tell these good people who killed Cobo. Was it Narciso Villar?"

"It was," O'Reilly smiled. "The fellow is dead."

There was renewed murmuring. The crowd pressed Jacket closer; they passed the knife from hand to hand. Doubters fell silent; the boy swelled visibly. Bantam-like he strutted before their admiring glances, and when his benefactor had passed safely out of hearing he went on:

"God! What a fight we had! It was like those combats of the gladiators you hear about. The man was brave enough; there's no denying his courage, which was like that of ten men--like that of a fierce bull; but I--I was superb, magnificent! The man bellowed, he roared, he grunted; he charged me, flinging the earth high with his heels, but I was banderillero, picador, and matador in one. I was here, I was there, I was everywhere; so swiftly did I move that no eye could follow me." Jacket illustrated his imaginary movements with agile leaps and bounds. "The terror of his name frightened me, I'll admit, but it lent me a desperate courage, too. I thought of the brave men, the good women, the innocent children he had slain, and I fell upon him from this side, from that side, from the front, from the rear. I pricked him, shouting: 'That for the people of Las Villas! This for the women of the San Juan. And once again for the babies you have killed.'" Jacket carried out his pantomime by prodding with a rigid finger first one, then another of his listeners. "Oh, he went mad, like a bull, indeed, but I was another Rafael Guerra. He shed rivers of blood, the ground grew slippery and the grass became red. He stood rocking in his tracks, finally; his breath was like a hurricane. He was exhausted, he was covered with foam, his limbs were made of lead. It was my moment. 'For all your sins!' I cried, and with that I drove yonder blade through his heart and out between his shoulders, thus! My brothers, his flesh was rotten, and the steel clove it as if it were butter."

Jacket was more than gratified at the effect of his recital, for children screamed, women shuddered, and men turned shocked eyes upon one another. He realized that with a little further practice and a more diligent attention to detail he could horrify the stoutest-hearted listener, nay, cause hysterical women to swoon. He concluded his account in a studiously careless tone; "O'Reilly came, too late, but he helped me to bury the offal. We flung it head first into an old well and dumped rocks upon it. There it will lie until Cuba is free. That, my friends, was the end of Cobo, exactly as it happened."

O'Reilly saw little of his sweetheart that day, for Norine promptly bore the girl off to her own quarters and there attended to her needs, the most pressing of which was clothing. Norine's wardrobe offered little to choose from, but between them they reduced a nurse's uniform to fit the smaller figure. Meanwhile, with a rapidity and a thoroughness delightful to both of them, the two girls came to know each other.

While O'Reilly was similarly engaged in making himself presentable, he and Branch talked earnestly, with the result that they repaired later to General Gomez.

The general welcomed them; he listened with interest to O'Reilly's story of the rescue, and to the account of conditions in Matanzas. O'Reilly concluded by saying:

"I've done what I came to do, sir, but Miss Varona is badly shaken by all she has been through. She's very nervous and far from well. Esteban, too, isn't recovering."

General Gomez nodded. "Miss Evans declares he must have a change, and we have arranged to send him out of the country. His sister, poor child, should go, too."

"When can they leave?"

"Who knows? Not for some time, certainly. Expeditions are irregular."

"They should go at once," O'Reilly said, positively. "That's why we came to see you. Let us--Branch and me--take all three of them to the United States."

"You, too, El Demonio?" inquired the general.

"Yes, sir; if you please."

"But how? How can you take two women and a sick man-

"We'll manage somehow," O'Reilly declared. "It isn't far across to the Bahama Banks."

"True. That's the route of our underground--our undersea-- railroad. As you probably know, there is a venturesome countryman of yours who carries our despatches by that way. He devised the scheme, to keep us in touch with our friends in New York, and he has done us great service. He comes and goes in a small boat, but how or when nobody knows. The Spanish patrols are on the lookout for him, and there's a price on his head, so you won't find it easy or safe to cross. Beware that you are not mistaken for him."

"Do you mean that we may go?" Branch eagerly inquired.

The general hesitated, whereupon O'Reilly spoke up: "For my part, I'll agree to come back if you so desire."

Gomez shook his white head. "No! You came to find and to save your fiancee, and you volunteered to serve with us while you were doing so. We have no desire to keep any man against his will. Some one must escort Miss Evans, who is our guest. Why not you two? She has every confidence in you, and if she chooses to risk this enterprise rather than wait until we can guarantee her an easier trip we shall not restrain her. I shall see that you reach the coast safe and sound; beyond that you must trust in God."

Branch was immensely relieved; he joined volubly in O'Reilly's thanks and became careless of his arm, which no longer appeared to pain him. Peace with honor, it seemed, was all that he desired.

"I was looking forward to an interesting ceremony this afternoon," Gomez went on. "Has your arrival changed the plans?"

"Oh no, sir!" O'Reilly said, quickly. "I'd like to make it doubly interesting, if Miss Varona will consent to such short notice."

"Bravo! You have a way of doing the unexpected. Twin births, a double wedding! Why not? The sight of a little happiness will be good for all of us; we're apt to forget that life and the big world are going on as usual. I don't think Miss Varona will have it in her heart to refuse you anything."

The old soldier was right. Rosa did not gainsay her lover, and toward sundown the city among the leaves witnessed an unaccustomed scene.

The women of the camp, delighted at an opportunity of serving Norine, had transformed Esteban's poor quarters into a tiny bower of wild blossoms and green leaves; they likewise gathered flowers for the two brides-to-be, then joined with nimble fingers in adorning their costumes. When the girls came down the street, hand in hand, they received an ovation from men and women alike. Norine was pleased; she smiled and blushed and ran the gantlet bravely enough. But Rosa, sadly overwrought by the day's excitement, was upon the verge of a collapse. Nevertheless she was happy; her eyes were shining, her face was transfigured, her hand, when she took O'Reilly's, was cold and tremulous, but it warmed and grew steady under his grasp.

Many people--all Cubitas, in fact--had assembled to witness the romantic double wedding, but few actually succeeded, for Esteban's hut was too small to accommodate more than the highest officials of the Provisional Government, so the others were forced to wait outside in the gathering dusk. And those Ministers, those secretaries of departments, those generals and colonels, what a motley crowd they formed! There was scarcely a whole garment among them. They were sunburnt, wind-browned, earnest men, the old ones grayed and grizzled from worry, the younger ones wasted from hardships in the field. But out of their rags and poverty shone a stately courtesy and consideration. They were gentlemen, men of culture and refinement, the best and oldest blood of Cuba. Both Norine and Johnnie had learned their gratitude, and the story of the Varona twins was typical of the island, nowadays, so they unbent and there were warm congratulaitons, well-turned Latin pleasantries, elaborate compliments upon the beauty of the brides.

Then, afterward, there was a surprise--a genuine surprise--in the form of a banquet at the big mess shelter, with an orchestra concealed behind a screen of fresh-cut palm-leaves stuck into the soft earth. This was the men's part of the celebration, the official compliment to Cuba's guest. It was a poorly furnished banquet, with a service of tin and granite ware and chipped china, and there was little to eat, but the true spirit of festivity was present. The Lone Star emblem of the new Republic was draped with the Stars and Stripes, and there were many speeches.

Norine's protests at leaving Esteban went unheeded, and Leslie Branch escorted her in place of the bridegroom, who lay blissfully dreaming in his hammock. Her amazement passed all bounds when, from the hidden recess behind the palm-leaves, came not the music of mandolins and guitars, but the strains of a balanced orchestra under the leadership of Cuba's most eminent bandmaster. Whence the players had come, where they had found their instruments, was a mystery, but they played well, divinely, so it seemed to the music-hungry diners. Such a banquet as that was! Some one had contributed a demijohn of wine, and there was coffee, too, at the last, made from the berries of some jungle plant. The chef, once famous at the Inglaterra, was forced to appear and take homage for this final triumph.

Rosa, very dainty in her borrowed nurse's uniform, was round-eyed, timid; she evoked much admiration, but when she was addressed as Senora O'Reilly she blushed to the roots of her hair and shrank close to her husband's side. To feel herself secure, to see on all sides friendly faces, to know that these fine men and women--there were numerous good Cuban matrons present--were her own people and meant her well, was almost unbelievable. She had so long been hidden, she had so long feared every stranger's glance, it was not strange that she felt ill at ease, and that the banquet was a grave ordeal for her.

Branch proved to be a happy choice as Esteban's proxy, for he relieved Norine's anxiety and smothered her apprehensions. When called upon to speak he made a hit by honestly expressing his relief at escaping the further hazards of this war. Prompted by some freakish perversity, and perhaps unduly stimulated by the wine he had drunk, he made open confession of his amazing cowardice.

O'Reilly interpreted for him and well-nigh every sentence evoked laughter. El Demonio's heroic reputation had preceded him, therefore his unsmiling effort to ridicule himself struck the audience as a new and excruciatingly funny phase of his eccentricity. Encountering this blank wall of disbelief, Branch waxed more earnest, more convincing; in melancholy detail he described his arrant timidity, his cringing fear of pain, his abhorrence of blood and steel. His elongated face was genuinely solemn, his voice trembled, his brow grew damp with unpleasant, memories; he seemed bent upon clearing his conscience once for all. But he succeeded only in convulsing his hearers. Women giggled, men wiped tears from their eyes and declared he was a consummate actor and the rarest, the most fantastic humorist they had ever listened to. They swore that Cuba had lost, in him, a peerless champion. When he had finished they cheered him loudly and the orchestra broke into a rousing military march.

Leslie turned to voice his irritation and surprise to Norine, but she had slipped away, so he glared at O'Reilly, wondering how the latter had so artfully managed to mistranslate his remarks.

When Rosa and O'Reilly returned to Esteban's cabin they found Norine ahead of them. She was kneeling beside the sick man's hammock, and through the doorway came the low, intimate murmur of their voices. Rosa drew her husband away, whispering, happily:

"He will get well. God and that wonderful girl won't let him die."