VIII. The Spanish Doubloon
 

On the whole, Pancho Cueto's plans had worked smoothly. After denouncing the Varona twins as traitors he had managed to have himself appointed trustee for the crown, for all their properties, consummation for which he had worked from the moment he read that letter of Esteban's on the morning after Dona Isabel's death. To be sure, the overseer had acquired title, of a sort, to the plantation by paying the taxes over a period of years, but it was the quinta itself which he desired, the Quinta de Esteban with its hidden gold. That there was a treasure Cueto had never doubted, and, once the place was his to do with as he chose, he began his search.

Cueto was a tireless, thorough-going man, therefore he did not set about his explorations in the haphazard manner of Dona Isabel. Commencing at the lower edge of the grounds, he ripped them up with a series of deep trenches and cross-cuts. It was a task that required the labor of many men for several weeks, and when it was finished there was scarcely a growing thing left upon the place. Only a few of the larger trees remained. Cueto was disappointed at finding nothing, but he was not discouraged. Next he tore down the old slave barracoons and the outbuildings, after which he completely wrecked the residence itself. He pulled it apart bit by bit, brick by brick. He even dug up its foundations, but without the reward of so much as a single peseta. Finally, when the villa was but a heap of rubbish and the grounds a scar upon the slope of La Cumbre, he desisted, baffled, incredulous, while all Matanzas laughed at him. Having sacrificed his choicest residence, he retired in chagrin to the plantation of La Joya.

But Cueto was now a man with a grievance. He burned with rage, and his contempt for the boy and girl he had wronged soured into hatred. Such time as he did not spend in racking his brain to explain the disappearance of the dead Esteban's riches, he devoted to cursing the living Esteban and his sister, who, it seemed to him, were somehow to blame for his wrecked hopes.

In time he began to realize also that so long as they lived they would jeopardize his tenure of their property. Public feeling, at present, was high; there was intense bitterness against all rebels; but the war would end some day. What then? Cueto asked himself. Sympathy was ever on the side of the weak and oppressed. There would come a day of reckoning.

As if to swell his discomfiture and strengthen his fears, out from the hills at the head of the Yumuri issued rumors of a little band of guerrilleros, under the leadership of a beardless boy--a band of blacks who were making the upper valley unsafe for Spanish scouting parties.

Cursing the name of Varona, Pancho Cueto armed himself. He did not venture far alone, and, like Dona Isabel before him, he began to have bad dreams at night.

One day a field of Cueto's cane was burned, and his laborers reported seeing Esteban and some negroes riding into the wood. The overseer took horse within the hour and rode pell-mell to Matanzas. In the city at this time was a certain Colonel Cobo, in command of Spanish Volunteers, those execrable convict troops from the Isle of Pines whose atrocities had already marked them as wolves rather than men, and to him Pancho went with his story.

"Ah yes! That Varona boy. I've heard of him," Cobo remarked, when his caller had finished his account. "He has reason to hate you, I dare say, for you robbed him." The Colonel smiled disagreeably. He was a disagreeable fellow, so dark of skin as to lend credence to the gossip regarding his parentage; a loud, strutting, domineering person, whose record in Santa Clara Province was such that only the men discussed it.

Cueto murmured something to the effect that the law had placed him in his position as trustee for the crown, and should therefore protect him; but Colonel Cobo's respect for the law, it seemed, was slight. In his view there was but one law in the land, the law of force.

"Why do you come to me?" he asked.

"That fellow is a desperado," Pancho declared. "He should be destroyed."

"Bah! The country is overrun with desperadoes of his kind, and worse. Burning crops is nothing new. I'd make an end of him soon enough, but nearly all of my men are in Cardenas. We have work enough to do."

"I'd make it worth while, if you could put an end to him," Pancho said, hesitatingly. Then, recalling some of those stories about Colonel Cobo, he added, "There are two of them, you know, a boy and a girl."

"Ah yes! I remember."

"I can direct you to the house of Asensio, where they live."

"Um-m!" Cobo was thoughtful. "A girl. How old is she?"

"Eighteen."

"Ugly as an alligator, I'll warrant."

"Ha! The most ravishing creature in all Matanzas. All the men were mad over her." Cueto's eyes gleamed craftily, for he believed he had measured Cobo's caliber. "She should have married old Castano and all his money, but she was heart and soul in the revolution. She and the boy were spying on us, you know, and sending the information to that rebel, Lopez."

"Lopez! Spies, were they?"

"The worst kind. You'd scarcely believe it of a beautiful girl, with her culture and refinement. I tell you it broke more than one heart. De Castano, for instance, has never recovered. He sits all day in the Casino and grieves for her. Such hair and eyes, such skin--as white as milk--and flesh as pure as the petals of a flower. Well, you wouldn't believe such charms existed."

Colonel Cobo, the guerrilla, licked his full, red lips and ran a strong, square hand over his curly, short-cropped hair. "You say you know where she--where they are living?"

"Ah, perfectly! It's less than a night's ride. There's no one except the boy to reckon with."

"How much is he worth to you?" bluntly inquired the soldier, and Cueto sat down to make the best terms possible.

"Do you think he received my letter?" Rosa asked of her brother one evening as they sat on the board bench by Asensio's door. It was a familiar question to Esteban; he had answered it many times.

"Oh yes!" he declared. "Lopez's messenger got through to Key West."

"Then why doesn't he come?"

"But, my dear, you must be patient. Think of his difficulties."

The girl sighed. "I do. I think of nothing else. Sometimes I feel that he is here--I seem to feel his presence--then again the most terrible doubts assail me. You know there was another woman. Perhaps."

"What an idea!" Esteban exclaimed. "As if he could think of any one after knowing you. Did he not assure you that he was going to New York for the sole purpose of breaking off that affair? Well, then!" This subject always distressed young Varona; therefore he changed it. "Come! You haven't heard of my good fortune. I captured another fine snake to-day, a big, sleepy fellow. Believe me, he'll wake up when I set fire to his tail. He'll go like the wind, and with every foot he goes away will go more of Pancho Cueto's profits."

"You intend to burn more of his fields?" absently inquired the girl.

"Every one of them. You should have seen those rats when we soaked them with oil and set them afire. They scampered fast; but their hair is short; they don't run far. These snakes will be better."

"It seems terrible to destroy our own property."

Esteban broke out excitedly; he could not discuss Pancho Cueto without losing control of himself. "Would you permit that traitor to fatten upon the profits of our plantations? He thinks he is safe; he is preparing for a rich crop at high prices, but he shall never reap a dollar from Varona land as long as I live. I shall ruin him, as he ruined us."

Rosa shook her dark head sadly. "And we are indeed ruined. Think of our beautiful house; all our beautiful things, too! We used to consider ourselves poor, but--how little we knew of real poverty. There are so many things I want. Have we nothing left?"

"I thought it best to buy those rifles," the brother murmured, dropping his eyes. "It was one chance in a million."

"No doubt it was. It seems those Spaniards will sell their souls."

"Exactly. We can dig food from the earth and pluck it from the trees, but good Mausers don't grow on every bush. Besides, of what use would money be to us when we have no place to spend it?"

"True!" After a moment Rosa mused aloud: "I wonder if Cueto found the treasure? If only we had that--"

"He didn't find it," Esteban declared, positively. "I"--he hesitated--"I think I know why he didn't."

"Yes?"

"I think I know where it is."

"Esteban!" Rosa stared, round-eyed, at her brother.

"Oh, I mean it. I've been thinking so ever since--"

"Where is it?" breathlessly inquired the girl.

After a furtive look over his shoulder Esteban whispered, "In the well."

"You're joking!"

"No, no! Think for yourself. It was old Sebastian who dug that well--"

"Yes."

"And he alone shared father's confidence. That sunken garden was all Sebastian's work; he spent all his time there, although he was a big, strong man and capable of any task. No one else was allowed to tend it. Why? I'll tell you. They feared to let any one else draw the water. Isabel searched for years: if that treasure had been above ground her sharp nose would have smelled it out, and now Cueto has moved the very earth."

Rosa sat back, disappointed. "So that's your theory?"

"It's more than a theory," the boy insisted. "Look at this!" From the pocket of his cotton trousers he produced an odd-looking coin which he placed in Rosa's hand.

"Why, it's gold! It's a Spanish doubloon," she said. "It's the first one I ever saw. Where did you find it?"

"You'll think I'm crazy when I tell you--sometimes I think so myself. I found it in Isabel's hand when I took her from the well!"

Rosa was stricken speechless.

"She clutched it tightly," Esteban hurried on, "but as I made the rope fast her hand relaxed and I saw it in the lantern-light. It was as if--well, as if she gave it to me. I was too badly frightened to think much about it, as you may imagine. It was a horrible place, all slime and foul water; the rocks were slippery. But that coin was in her fingers."

Rosa managed to say: "Impossible! Then she must have had it when she fell."

"No, no! I saw her hands upstretched, her fingers open, in the moonlight."

"It's uncanny. Perhaps--"

"Yes. Perhaps some unseen hand led her to the place so that we should at last come into our own. Who knows? I didn't bother my head about the matter at first, what with our flight and all, but now I reason that there must be other coins where this one came from. There's no doubt that father hid his money. He turned his slaves into gold, he bought jewels, precious metal, anything he could hide. Well, perhaps there were old coins in the lot. The water in the well is shallow; Isabel must have groped this piece from the bottom. Some day I shall explore the hole and--we shall see."

Rosa flung her arms rapturously about her brother's neck and kissed him. "Wouldn't it be glorious?" she cried. "Wouldn't it be wonderful, to be rich, and to want for nothing; to have fine clothes and good things to eat once more? Good things to eat!" Her lip quivered. "Oh--I'm so hungry."

"Poor little girl!"

"Wait till O'Reilly hears about this." Rosa was all excitement once more. "He'll be glad he came and got me, if he does come."

Esteban caressed her. "He'll come, never fear. You remember he warned me to be careful? Well I--I blame myself for bringing you to this. For myself, of course I don't mind, but for you this life must be terrible. I know it. Every time I leave you my heart is in my throat for fear of what may happen in my absence--and yet I can't always be at your side."

"There! You acknowledge that I handicap you. Except for me you would be making a glorious name for yourself."

"Nothing of the sort. More probably I'd be getting myself killed. No! It's better this way. We must be brave and patient and--think of what is waiting for us at the bottom of that well."

It was indeed a great piece of luck which had enabled Esteban Varona to buy a half-dozen Mausers from a Spanish soldier. Through Asensio's acquaintance he had profited by the dishonesty of an enemy, and, although it had taken all his money to effect the purchase, Esteban considered the sacrifice well worth while. The fire of patriotism burned fiercely in him, as did his hatred of Pancho Cueto, and the four trusty young negroes to whom he had given rifles made, with Asensio and himself, an armed party large enough to be reckoned with. These blacks were excitable fellows, and wretched marksmen, but, on the other hand, each and every one had been raised with a machete at his hip and knew how to use it. After a few preliminary forays under Esteban's leadership they had absorbed a bit of discipline and were beginning to feel a military ardor.

In the Cuban field forces there were many negroes, and many of their fellow-patriots fought better, or endured the hardships of guerrilla warfare more cheerfully, than they. Gen. Antonio Maceo was of mixed blood, and yet his leadership was characterized not only by rare judgment and ability, but also by an exalted abandon of personal bravery. His several brothers rendered Cuba services scarcely less distinguished, and they were but of a few of many dark-skinned heroes. This struggle for independence was no patrician's war; the best stock of the island fought side by side with field-hands.

At dawn of the morning following his talk with Rosa, when the members of his command assembled, Esteban was up and ready. He had made his preparations to destroy Pancho Cueto's fields, and since the road over the hills to La Joya was long he had summoned them early.

"Be careful!" Rosa implored him. "I shall die of suspense."

"It is for you to be careful," he laughed. "Keep a good watch, and conceal yourself at the first alarm. However, I think we have taught these bandits a lesson. As for Cueto, he would run to the jungle if he saw us. He has the heart of a mouse." He kissed his sister affectionately and then rode off at the head of his tattered band.

Rosa waved him a last farewell as he disappeared into the woods, then, to occupy herself, she helped Evangelina with what little housework there was to do, later going with her to the garden patch where the viandas grew.

Evangelina's early devotion to her mistress had not diminished with time; if anything, it had deepened. When emancipation came she would have returned to the service of her beloved twins had it not been for Dona Isabel's refusal to accept her. As it was, she and Asensio had married, and by means of Rosa's surreptitious help they had managed to buy this little piece of land. Rosa had practised self-denial to make the purchase possible, and her self- sacrifice had borne fruit: that act of childish beneficence had created a refuge for Esteban and herself and had ripened the negro woman's affection into idolatry.

Evangelina's joy at having the girl to herself, where she could daily see her, touch her, serve her, was tempered only by the knowledge of Rosa's unhappiness. She scolded and tyrannized, she mothered and adored the girl to her heart's content; she watched over her like a hawk; she deemed no labor in her service too exacting. It would have gone ill with any one who offered harm to Rosa, for Evangelina was strong and capable; she had the arms and the hands of a man, and she possessed the smoldering black temper of Sebastian, her father.

Even in peaceful times few people came to this clearing, in the woods, far off from the main-traveled roads of the Yumuri, and the day, as usual, passed uneventfully. Evangelina worked, with one eye upon her Rosa, the other watchfully alert for danger. When evening came she prepared their scanty meal, upbraiding Rosa, meanwhile, for her attempts to assist her. Then they sat for an hour or two on the bench outside the door, talking about Juan O'Rail-ye and the probable hour of his coming.

There were no candles in Asensio's house now, and had there been, neither woman would have dared light one. To hunted creatures darkness is a friend; danger stalks under the sun.

When Rosa fretted about her brother, the negress reassured her. "Don't be frightened, little dove; he has the makings of a great soldier. It's a good thing for the Spaniards that he isn't general. Cuba would be free in no time."

"He's so reckless."

"Oh, he knows what he's doing. Besides, Asensio wouldn't let him be hurt. I took pains to tell him that if ever he permitted Esteban to suffer so much as a scratch I would disembowel him with his own machete. He knows me. Now, then, it is growing cool and the night air carries fevers. Creep into your bed and dream about that handsome lover of yours."

"No, I'll keep watch with you."

Evangelina was indignant. "Go!" she stormed. "What will happen to those red cheeks if you don't sleep? Do you think the American will want to marry an old woman with wrinkles? He may be here to- morrow--yes, I have a certain feeling about it."

Rosa obeyed, although reluctantly. "I'll sleep for a while," she compromised, "then I'll come out and take my turn."

This exactly suited the elder woman, who knew something about the slumbers of youth. Nevertheless, dawn was still a long way off when, true to her promise, Rosa emerged from the hut with an apology for having slept so long. Evangelina protested, though her eyes were heavy and she had been yawning prodigiously for hours. But for once the girl was firm. "I can't sleep," she declared. "Why force me to lie staring into the dark while you suffer?" Having finally prevailed in her determination, she seated herself in the warm place Evangelina had vacated, and, curling her small feet under her, she settled herself, chin in hand, to think of O'Reilly. It was a good time to think, for the jungle was very still and the night like a velvet curtain.

"We had better leave the horses here." Pancho Cueto hesitatingly addressed the dim blur which he knew to be Colonel Cobo. The Colonel of Volunteers was in a vile temper, what with the long night ride and an error of Cueto's which had considerably lengthened the journey.

"Where is the house?" growled the officer.

"Not far. But the path is rocky and the horses' feet--"

"God, yes!" There was a creak of saddle leathers and a groan as the colonel dismounted. "Now, my good Cueto," he threatened, "another of your mistakes and I'll give you something to remember me by. Damnation! What a night! As black as hell."

"It will be daylight before we know it," the other said, nervously.

"Excellent! Then I can see to deal with you if you've fooled me." A curt order brought his men out of their saddles. One of their number was detailed to guard the animals, while the rest fell in behind Cueto and followed him up the trail by the starglow.