XXX. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
 

The journey to the coast was made by easy stages and Esteban stood it fairly well. The excitement wore upon him, to be sure, and the jolting of his litter was trying, but Norine was always at his side where he could see her, and Rosa joined in the tender care of him. Guides, horses, and a tent for the sick man had been supplied, and over these O'Reilly exercised a jealous watchfulness, ably seconded by Branch. For once, at least, the latter lent himself to useful ends and shirked no duties. His wounded arm recovered miraculously and he exercised it freely; he skirmished industriously for food and he enlivened the journey by a rare display of good spirits.

Jacket, of course, went along. Upon the announcement of O'Reilly's intended departure for the States he had promptly abandoned Cuba to her fate. He foreswore her utterly and declared himself a loyal American citizen. He made it plain once more, and for the last time, that where O'Reilly went, there went he, for they were one and indivisible. It dismayed him not at all to turn his feet to new pathways, his face toward new adventures.

Relying upon the best information obtainable at Cubitas, O'Reilly had counted upon securing a sailboat from a certain fisherman whose sympathies were known to be loyal, but in this he was disappointed. The party arrived at its destination, a tiny clearing on an unfrequented part of the north shore, only to find it deserted and already grown to weeds. The house was empty, the boats were gone--all but one old hulk, too rotten to warrant moving, which lay high up on the sand, its planks worm-eaten, its seams wide spread by the sun.

Having established Esteban in the hut, O'Reilly took counsel with his Cubans, but gained little satisfaction from them. They knew of no other fisherman in this vicinity; the nearest towns were in Spanish hands; they advised a return to Cubitas at once. This O'Reilly would not listen to. Sending them in one direction, he took Leslie and Jacket and rode away in the other. The trio followed the beach for several miles until they came to a vast mangrove swamp which turned them inland. This they skirted until the jungle became impassable and they were in danger of losing themselves; they returned at dusk, having encountered no human being and having discovered neither roads nor houses.

The other expedition reported slightly better successes; it had located a small plantation some distance to the east, the owner of which had warned them against exploring farther, inasmuch as a strong Spanish patrol, on the lookout for that American despatch- bearer from Nassau, was operating in his neighborhood. It was these very troops, he announced, who had driven the fisherman from his home; he was sure there were no boats anywhere within reach.

O'Reilly was in a quandary. He gravely doubted Esteban's ability to stand the rough return journey, and when he spoke to Norine of turning back she was panic-stricken at the suggestion.

"No, no!" she cried, anxiously. "We must get him away. Oh, Johnnie, every day we lose by waiting lessens his chances! His heart is set on going through and it would--kill him to go back."

"Then I guess we'll have to go through," he smiled.

For the first time in their acquaintance Norine lost control of herself.

"We simply must find a boat. All he needs is proper care, proper food, and medical attention. Here we can get nothing. Why, the disappointment alone--" Her voice failed her, tears started to her eyes, and she began to tremble wretchedly. "If he--If I--lose him I'll die, too," she sobbed.

O'Reilly tried to comfort her and she bowed her head upon his shoulder.

"Promise that you won't go back," she implored him.

"Very well, if you'll consent to risk this miserable tub we found on the beach--"

"I'll risk anything--a raft, even."

"It is large enough to carry us if we can manage to make it hold water, but it won't be safe. The weather is good at this season and it shouldn't take us long to run across to Andros if we have luck. If we don't have luck--"

Norine dried her eyes. "What would you do if you were alone? Would you dare try it?"

He hesitated, then confessed, "I think I would, but--"

"Is there an even chance of our getting across?"

"Perhaps. It all depends upon the weather."

"Can't we--build a boat?"

He shook his head. "Even if we had lumber and tools it would take too long. Ten miles to the east there are Spaniards. We must do one thing or the other quickly, before they learn we're here."

"Then let's go on. I'm sure Rosa will agree."

Rosa did agree. When her husband put the question fairly to her she showed by the pallor of her cheeks and by the rekindling light of terror in her eyes how desperately she feared remaining longer in this land of hate and persecution. "Don't turn back," she cried. "I'm not the girl I was. I've endured so much here that-- I'm always in fear. Anything would be better than going back."

When morning came O'Reilly made a closer examination of the abandoned boat. The result was not encouraging, and when he told Leslie of his intention to make use of it the latter stared at him in open amazement.

"Why, we'll all be drowned!" Branch declared.

"You can return to Cubitas if you wish."

"Yes, and fight some more! No, thank you! I've got a hunch that I'll be killed by the very next gun I see."

"Then you'd better risk the sharks."

Jacket, who was conducting an independent examination of the craft, made an encouraging report. "Ho! I'd go 'round the world in this boat," said he. "She's rotten, and you can stick your finger through her, but fish have no fingers. When the water comes in we'll dip it out."

"Do you want to go with us?" Johnnie eyed the newspaper man curiously.

"I--Y--yes!" Branch gasped. "I'll go, but it's a shame to lose all of Rosa's diamonds."

O'Reilly and one of the guides rode away to the farmhouse discovered on the previous afternoon, and returned in a few hours with all the tools they could find, together with a bucket of tar and a coil of galvanized wire. Then work began.

The wire, cut into short pieces, served as nails and staples with which to draw together the gaping seams. Old rags from the house and parts of the men's clothing supplied calking, upon which the tar was smeared. While one man shaped mast and oars, another cut Esteban's shelter tent into a sail, and fitted it. A stiff, sun- dried cowhide was wet, then stretched and nailed to the gunwales at the bow, forming a sort of forward deck to shelter the sick man from the sun and rain. Jacket climbed the near-by cocoa-palms and threw down a plentiful supply of nuts for food and water on the voyage.

With so many hands the work went fast, and late that evening the crazy craft was launched. It was necessary to handle her gingerly, and when she took the water she leaked abominably. But during the night she swelled and in the morning it was possible to bail her out.

O'Reilly had to acknowledge himself but poorly pleased with the boat. Branch called her a coffin and declared it was suicide to venture to sea in her, an opinion shared by the Cubans, but the girls were enchanted. To them this fragile bark looked stout and worthy; they were in a fever to be gone.

On the second afternoon the trade-wind died to a gentle zephyr, so the cocoanuts and other food were quickly put aboard, a bed of bows was rigged beneath the rawhide forecastle and Esteban was laid upon it. Then adieux were said and a start was made.

From the point of leaving it was perhaps five miles across the sound to the fringe of keys which in this neighborhood bordered the old Bahama Channel with its unplumbed depths of blue water. Here it was calm, so the run was soon made. The boat handled well enough, all things considered; nevertheless, to O'Reilly, her navigator, it was an anxious hour. Not only was he forced to keep a sharp lookout for blockading gunboats, but he feared he was doing wrong in committing his precious freight to the uncertainties of the Atlantic. Even had he been alone, with a crew of able sailors under him, this voyage would have daunted him, for it was without doubt the wildest adventure in which he had ever participated. When he hinted at these fears and put the matter before his companions for a final test, Branch refused to speak, but Esteban and the girls were earnestly in favor of pushing on. Jacket, of course, loudly seconded them.

At sunset they entered a pass and ran between low mangrove banks. The tide was ebbing and it hurried them through and out into the open sea, where they felt the lift of the mighty ocean swell. Over these slow undulations the sailboat plowed, heading toward the empty northern horizon, with the kindling Pole Star as a beacon. The sky was clear, the sea was gently roughened by the night breeze, the constellations grew bright and appeared to hang low.

When the coast-line of Cuba had become a blur astern Rosa crept back and seated herself beside her husband.

"I breathe freely for the first time since that day when Don Mario came to offer me marriage," she told him. "The past is beginning to seem like a bad, bad dream and I feel a great hope, a great gladness. I am reborn, O'Rail-ye."

"A few hours more and we can all breathe easy." He smiled down at her. She laid her small palm over his fingers which grasped the steering-oar, whereupon he cried with pretended sternness: "Avast there! Don't distract the attention of the skipper or he'll sail his boat in circles. Look out or he'll send you below."

Rosa persisted mutinously, so he punished her with a kiss planted fairly upon her pouting lips, whereupon she nestled closer to him. "How much I love you," she whispered. "But I never can tell you, for we are never alone. Was there ever such a courtship, such a marriage, and such a wedding journey as ours?"

"We're the owl and the pussy-cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, 'With plenty of honey and lots of money, wrapped up in a ten-pound note.' Some day when we've settled down in our Harlem flat, and I'm working hard, we'll look back on this and consider it romantic, thrilling. Maybe we'll long for excitement."

"Not I," Rosa shivered. "To be safe, to have you all to myself where I can spoil you, that will be excitement enough."

"We'll rent that little apartment I looked at, or one just like it."

"But, O'Rail-ye, we're rich."

"I--I'd forgotten that. Then let's pretend to be poor. Think how our neighbors would talk about that pretty Mrs. O'Reilly on the fourth floor, and her magnificent jewels. They'd swear I was a smuggler."

As the evening lengthened and the boat forged steadily ahead the two sat murmuring happily. Forward, another bride and groom were similarly engaged. Branch and Jacket took turns bailing.

It proved to be a long, long night, for the boat, though roomy, was uncomfortable. O'Reilly steered as straight a course as he could without compass, but toward morning he saw that the sky was growing overcast and his apprehensions stirred anew. Daylight brought an increased breeze which heeled the boat further. She made better speed, but she likewise took more water through her seams and it became necessary to lend Leslie and Jacket a hand with the bailing. The deep channel was far behind now, and they were on the shallow Bahama Banks; beneath them they could glimpse beds of sponges, patches of coral, white bottom with occasional forests of brilliant-hued sea fans. The horizon still remained vacant and the tip of Andros lay far to the north.

Fortunately the haze was not thick enough to wholly obscure the sun and so O'Reilly was enabled to hold his course. But he did not like the look of things.

By ten o'clock the sea was tumbling and the worm-eaten hulk was laboring. It became necessary to shorten sail. Soon the bottom of the boat was awash and Esteban lay in a pool of brine. Even when the girls helped to dip it out they could not lower its level. The wind freshened steadily; all hands worked desperately, wet to the skin.

In time there came a spiteful drizzle which completely hid the sun and left no indication of the course except the direction whence drove the rain.

No one spoke now. Even Esteban lay silent, shivering miserably upon his sodden bed. In obedience to O'Reilly's command Jacket flung overboard all but a half-dozen of the remaining cocoanuts. Rosa finally straightened her aching back and smiled at her husband.

"Are we going down?" she asked.

"Oh no! This is merely a squall," he told her, with an assumption of confidence he was far from feeling.

Johnnie tried to reason himself into a more hopeful frame of mind. He assured himself that he and his companions had survived too many perils to become the prey of an idle breeze like this; he argued that no fate could be so cruel as to cheat them when they were so close to safety. But this manful effort brought him little comfort in the face of the chilling rain and with the whitecaps curling higher.

Deliverance came suddenly, and from the least-expected quarter. Out of the mist to starboard there materialized a shape, a schooner driving ahead of the wind. The refugees descried her simultaneously and stood ankle deep in the wash, waving their hats and their calabashes, and shouting crazily until she saw them and fetched up.

Intense thanksgiving, a melting relief, robbed O'Reilly of half his strength; his hands were shaking, his muscles weak; he could barely bring his craft alongside. He saw black faces staring down, he heard cries of amazement and surprised inquiries, then a heaving-line came aboard and the leaky tub was drawn close.

There was a babble of voices, shouted questions, hysterical answers. Rosa was weeping softly; Norine had lifted Esteban and now clutched him tight, while her tears fell upon his face.

The schooner was a sponger bound for Nassau; its blackbird crew spoke English and they willingly helped the strangers overside, laughing and shouting in a child-like display of excitement. How firm, how grateful was the feel of that stout deck! How safe the schooner's measured roll! O'Reilly's knees gave way, he clutched with strained and aching fingers at the rigging to support himself, leaving Branch and Jacket to tell the surprising story of their presence here. Soon there was hot food and coffee, dry beds and blankets for those who needed them.

Johnnie tucked his bride snugly into one of the hard berths, then stooped and kissed her. Rosa's teeth were chattering, but she smiled happily.

"God's hand directed us," she said. "One only needs to pray long enough and strong enough and He will hear."

It was a month later. Quaint old Nassau lay dozing under an afternoon sun. Its wide shell streets, its low houses, the beach against which it crowded, were dazzling white, as if the town had been washed clean, then spread out to bleach. Upon the horizon Jay tumbled, foamy cloud masses, like froth blown thither from the scene of the cleansing. A breeze caused the surface of the harbor to dance and dimple merrily, the sound of laughter came from the water-front where barefoot spongers and fishermen were busy with their boats and gear. Robust negresses with deep bosoms and rolling hips balanced baskets and trays upon their heads and stood gossiping with one another or exchanging shouts with their men across the water. There was noise here, but the town as a whole was somnolent, peaceful. It sprawled beside the sea like a lazy man lost in day dreams and lulled by the lapping surf and the hum of insects.

Up from the beach came O'Reilly and his youthful alter ego, Jacket. They were clad in clean white clothes; a month of rest had done them good. Jacket was no longer wizened; he was plump and sleek and as full of mischief as a colt, while O'Reilly's leanness had disappeared and he filled his garments as a man should. They had spent the day fishing on the reefs and now bore home the choicest part of their catch.

They turned in through a picket gate and up a walk flanked by flower-beds and outlined between rows of inverted glass bottles set side by side, the Bahama idea of neatness and beauty. At the end of the walk stood a cottage with wide porches hidden beneath jasmine and honeysuckle and morning-glory vines.

O'Reilly's eyes were shining with anticipation; he yodeled loudly. But there was no need for him to advertise his return, for at the first click of the gate-latch a figure had started from the fragrant bower and now came flying to meet him.

"Look, Rosa!" Jacket lifted the heavy string of fish. "We had stupendous luck." But Rosa was in her husband's arms and neither she nor O'Reilly had eyes for anything but each other.

"You were gone for ages," pouted the bride.

"You missed me, eh?"

"See! I caught the biggest ones, as usual," Jacket boasted. "I'm a skilful fisherman and I talk to my hook, but O'Reilly sits dreaming about somebody while the little crabs eat all his bait." When this evoked no notice the boy shrugged in disgust and went on around the house, muttering: "Caramba! You'd think they'd get sick of so much billing and cooing. But no! I have to steal him away and take him swimming or fishing if I want a word alone with him. And the others are just as bad--another pair of pigeons. It's like living in a dove-cote."

Rosa, too, had vastly changed. She was clad in a charming little muslin dress, there were dimples in her cheeks, she wore a heavy Mardchal Neil bud at her breast. O'Reilly held her off and devoured her with his eyes.

"Sweetheart, you grow fresher and more beautiful every hour," said he.

Rosa danced upon her toes, and tugged at him. "But come quickly and see the surprise we have. I've been wild for your return, so hurry." She led him swiftly up the steps, and there, standing beside a chair, was Esteban Varona. "He dressed himself and walked out here alone. He's well!"

"Esteban! Really--"

The brother nodded decisively. "It's true. I rebelled at last. To- morrow I'll walk to the gate and the next day we'll go fishing."

"Jove! How splendid!"

"Why, I'm as firm on my feet as a rock."

Norine emerged through one of the French windows and explained: "He took advantage of me while I was gone for the mail, and now he's quite out of control. Here's a letter from Leslie, by the way. He's home and has a position and hopes we'll follow soon. There's one bit of news; he says the talk of intervention increases and he may have to return to Cuba as a war correspondent. Fancy! He's deathly frightened at the prospect."

"Intervention! That would be fine," Esteban cried. O'Reilly nodded. "Oh, it's bound to come, and when Uncle Sam takes hold Cuba will be free."

Norine agreed: "I'm sure of it. And then--we'll all go back to our rainbow's end and dig for that pot of gold."

Esteban turned adoring eyes upon the speaker; he took her hand in his. "I've found my rainbow's end," said he.

"And I've found mine," O'Reilly asserted. "I've gained your father's treasure, and more--I've found the prize of all the Indies." With his arm about Rosa he drew her into the house.

Esteban lowered himself into his chair and Norine rested herself upon its arm. He lay back with eyes closed. From the regions at the rear came the voice of Jacket. The boy was in a declamatory mood. He had gathered an audience, as was his daily custom, and was addressing them in English:

"I skilled more'n a dozen Spaniards at Pino Bravo. It was my day. By rights I should have been made a general, but--"

THE END