IX. Marauders
 

The surprise was easily effected, for Colonel Cobo's men were accomplished in this sort of work. Rosa, crouching upon her bench, heard nothing, saw nothing, until out of the shadows beside her human forms materialized. Her white dress, like a dim phosphorescent glow in dark waters, betrayed her presence, and as she sprang to her feet rough hands seized her. She screamed once, twice; then a palm closed over her mouth and she began to struggle like a cat.

Evangelina, who had waked at the first outcry, met the marauders as they rushed through the door. The hush of the sleeping Jungle was shattered now; there were shouts and curses, loudly bellowed orders, a great scuffling and pounding of feet upon the dirt floor of the hut, the rickety, bark-covered walls bulged and creaked. Over all sounded the shrieks of the negress battling in the pitch- black interior like an animal in its lair. Then some one set fire to the thatch; the flames licked up the dead palm-leaves to the ridge-pole, and the surroundings leaped into view.

Rosa saw a swarthy, thick-set man in the uniform of a Colonel of Volunteers, and behind him Pancho Cueto. Tearing the hand from her lips for a moment, she cried Cueto's name, but he gave no heed. He was straining his gaze upon the door of the bohio in the immediate expectation of seeing Esteban emerge. He clutched a revolver in his hand, but it was plain from the nerveless way in which he held the weapon that he had little stomach for the adventure. He was, in fact, more inclined to run than to stand his ground. Rosa shrieked his name again; then she heard the officer say:

"Where is the young fellow? I hear nothing but the squeals of that common wench."

Evangelina's cries of rage and defiance suddenly ceased, and with them the sounds of combat. From the blazing bohio ran two armed men, brushing sparks from their clothing. A third followed, dragging Evangelina by one naked arm. The black woman was inert; her scanty garments were well-nigh ripped from her body: she lay huddled where the soldier flung her.

Rosa felt herself swooning, and she knew nothing of what immediately followed. After a time she felt herself shaken, and heard the colonel addressing her.

"Come, come!" he was saying. "Why don't you answer me?" He dragged her farther from what was now a roaring furnace. "Where is your precious brother and that black fellow?"

Rosa could only stare dully.

"It seems we missed them," said Cueto.

"More of your bungling," Cobo broke out at him, wrathfully. "God! I've a mind to toss you into that fire." He turned his attention once more to Rosa, and with a jerk that shook her into fuller consciousness repeated: "Where are they? Speak to me."

"Gone!" she gasped. "Gone!" She struggled weakly toward Cueto, imploring him, "Pancho, don't you know me?"

"Well, we've taught him a lesson," said Cueto, grinning apprehensively at Cobo. "We've accomplished something, anyhow, eh?" He nodded at Rosa. "She's all that I told you. Look at her!"

Colonel Cobo took time to scrutinize his prisoner. He turned her about in the light from the burning dwelling; then he agreed.

"Yes! She's a pretty little spy--quite a prize, truly. Now then!" His thick lips spread; he spoke to her more gently. "I want you to tell me about that brother of yours, eh? Cueto said I would find him here. Ha! Still frightened, I see. Well, I have a way with women; I dare say you'll be glad to tell me everything by and by." Then, seeing that his men risked a scorching in their search of the hut and were already quarreling over the scanty plunder which it afforded, he turned from Rosa to call them away.

Profiting by his inattention, Rosa wriggled out of his grasp and ran to Evangelina, who lay face down in the dirt, her limbs sprawled loosely. She flung herself upon the prostrate body and cried the black woman's name, but she could awaken no response.

The first pink of dawn was now deepening in the east, and as soon as it had grown light enough to see to travel Colonel Cobo prepared to return to his horses. The roof and walls of the bohio had fallen away to ashes, its skeleton of poles and its few pieces of crude furniture alone were smoldering when he called his men together and gave the word to go.

"Come, my sweetheart." He addressed himself to the girl. "Leave that carrion for the buzzards."

Rosa looked up to find him leering at her. She brushed the tears from her eyes, crying:

"Go away! In God's name haven't you done harm enough?"

"Oh, but you're going with me."

The girl rose; her face was colorless; she was aquiver with indignation. "Leave me!" she stormed. "What have I done to you? Don't--"

"Caramba! A temper. And you have strength, too, as I discovered. Must I bind those pretty hands or--"

Colonel Cobo reached forth, laughing, and encircled her in his powerful arms. Rosa fought him as she had fought at the first moment of desperation, but he lifted her easily and went striding across the field behind his men.

Esteban's party made good time over the hills and into the San Juan, for Asensio knew the country well. Mid-afternoon found them in sight of La Joya. Cueto's cane was thick and high; it was ready for the knife or for the torch. Making a detour, the incendiaries approached it from the east in order to have the trade-winds at their backs. They dismounted in the shelter of a wood and removed the bags which they had carried on their saddles. Inside these bags were several snakes, the largest perhaps eight feet in length. To the tail of each the negroes fastened a leather thong, and then to each thong a length of telegraph-wire, the end of which had been bent into a loop to hold a bundle of oil-soaked waste. These preliminaries accomplished, they bore the reptiles into the cane-fields at widely separated places and lighted the waste.

Esteban, from his saddle, saw the first wisps of smoke arise and grow and unwind into long ribbons, reaching deep into the standing crop. Soon tongues of flame appeared and the green tops of the cane began to shrivel and to wave as the steady east wind took effect. From the nearest conflagration a great snapping and crackling of juicy stalks arose. The thin, dry strippings with which the earth was carpeted formed a vast tinder bed, and once the fire was started there was no checking it. Smoke billowed upward and was hurried westward before the breeze; in a dozen places the fields burst into flame. From somewhere came a faint shouting, then a shot or two, and finally the ringing of a bell.

Esteban waited only until he saw that his work of devastation was well under way, then he led his followers back toward the hills. At sunset he reined in upon the crest of a ridge and looked behind him into the valley. The whole sky was black with smoke, as if a city were in flames.

Removing his wide jipi-japa hat, the young man swept a mocking salutation to the east.

"So now, good Pancho Cueto," he cried, "I leave you the compliments of those twins you love so well."

In the shelter of a ravine the party took time to eat supper, their first meal since leaving home, and it was after dark when they finished. The negroes, who were thoroughly tired, were for spending the night here, but Esteban, more cautious than they, would not have it so. Accordingly, the men remounted their weary horses, though not without some grumbling, and set out. It was slow traveling, for the woods were dark and the trails were blind; the men were fairly obliged to feel their way. At length they crossed the summit and worked down toward the Yumuri, but it seemed as if daylight would never come.

"A weary ride," Esteban yawned. "I shall sleep for a week."

Asensio agreed. "That Cueto will be furious," said he. "Some day, perhaps, he and I will meet face to face. Then I shall kill him."

Esteban reined in his horse. "Look!" said he. "Yonder is a light."

The other horsemen crowded close, staring through the darkness. It was very still in the woods; dawn was less than half an hour away.

"What is Evangelina thinking about?" Asensio muttered.

"But, see! It grows brighter." There followed a moment or two during which there was no sound except the breathing of the horses and the creak of saddle leathers as the riders craned their necks to see over the low tree-tops below them. Then Esteban cried:

"Come! I'm--afraid it's our house." Fear gripped him, but he managed to say, calmly, "Perhaps there has been an--accident."

Asensio, muttering excitedly, was trying to crowd past him; for a few yards the two horses brushed along side by side. The distant point of light had become a glare now; it winked balefully through the openings as the party hurried toward it. But it was still a long way off, and the eastern sky had grown rosy before the dense woods of the hillside gave way to the sparser growth of the low ground.

Esteban turned a sick, white face over his shoulder and jerked out his orders; then he kicked his tired mount into a swifter gallop. It was he who first broke out into the clearing. One glance, and the story was told.

The hut was but a crumbling skeleton of charred poles. Strung out across the little field of malangas, yuccas, and sweet-potatoes were several hilarious Volunteers, their arms filled with loot from the cabin. Behind them strode an officer bearing Rosa struggling against his breast.

Esteban did not pause; he drove his horse headlong through the soft red earth of the garden. His sudden appearance seemed briefly to paralyze the marauders. It was a moment before they could drop their spoils, unsling their rifles, and begin to fire at him, and by that time he had covered half the distance to his sister. Those rifle-shots came faintly to Esteban's ears; he scarcely heard them; he merely lowered his head and rode straight at that black- visaged colonel, sobbing and whimpering in his fury.

But in spite of his speed he made no difficult target. A bullet brought his horse down and the boy went flying over its neck. Nothing but the loose loam saved him from injury. As he rose to his feet, breathless and covered with the red dirt, there came a swift thudding of hoofs and Asensio swept past him like a rocket. Esteban caught one glimpse of the negro's face, a fleeting vision of white teeth bared to the gums, of distended yellow eyes, of flat, distorted features; then Asensio was fairly upon Colonel Cobo. The colonel, who had dropped his burden, now tried to dodge. Asensio slashed once at him with his long, murderous machete, but the next instant he was engaged with a trooper who had fired almost into his face.

The other negroes also were in the open by this time, yelling and firing as fast as they could work the bolts of their rifles, and although they aimed at nothing in particular, the effect of their fusillade was all that could be wished. Cobo's men, led by the terrified Pancho Cueto, turned and fled for cover, believing themselves in danger of annihilation. Nor was the colonel himself in any condition to rally them, for Asensio's blade had cloven one full dark cheek to the bone, and the shock and pain had unnerved him; he was frightened at sight of the blood that streamed down over the breast of his white tunic, and so, when he saw his men turn tail, he followed suit, lunging through the lush garden growth, holding his wound in his hand and shrieking profane commands which went unheeded.

The field was small, the jungle was close at hand. A moment and the interlopers had vanished into it, all but one, who lay kicking among the broad malanga-leaves, and over whom Asensio kept spurring his terrified horse, hacking downward with insane fury.

This was the first hand-to-hand encounter Esteban's men had had, and their swift victory rendered them ferocious. Flinging their guns aside, they went crashing into the brush on the trail of their enemies.

Rosa found herself in her brother's arms, sobbing out the story of the outrage and quivering at every sound of the chase. He was caressing her, and telling her to have no further fears; both of them were fairly hysterical. Even before Esteban had heard all, Lorenzo, the mulatto, reappeared, leading three cavalry horses and shouting extravagant praises of his own bravery. Esteban complimented him and the fellow galloped away again, voicing the most blood-curdling threats.

Evangelina, thanks to her thick skull, was not dead. In the course of time under Rosa's and Esteban's ministrations she regained her senses, and when the other men returned they found her lying sick and dazed, but otherwise quite whole.

Then, there beside the ruins of the hut, was a strange scene of rejoicing. Asensio, recovered now from his burst of savagery, was tearful, compassionate; his comrades laughed and chattered and bragged about their prodigious deeds of valor. Over and over they recounted their versions of the encounter, each more fanciful than the other, until it seemed that they must have left the forest filled with corpses.

Esteban alone was grave. He had heard of Colonel Cobo, and, remembering that denim-clad figure out yonder in the trampled garden, he knew that serious consequences would follow. The Volunteers were revengeful; their colonel was not the sort of man to forgive a deep humiliation. Doubtless he would put a price upon the heads of all of them, and certainly he would never allow them another encounter upon anything like even terms. Then, too, the narrowness of Rosa's escape caused the boy's heart to dissolve with terror.

After a conference with Asensio he decided that they must prepare for flight, and late that afternoon they all set out to seek a safer refuge, Evangelina in tears at leaving her precious garden plot. Their led horse, one of those Lorenzo had captured, carried a pitifully light burden--only some tools, some pans and kettles, and a roll of charred bedclothes. Johnnie O'Reilly had no difficulty in locating the Residence of Ignacio Alvarado, but to communicate with him was quite another matter, inasmuch as his every step was dogged by that persistent shadow from Neuvitas. Leslie Branch had told him enough about conditions here in Puerto Principe to make him extremely cautious, and after their first talk he had once more concealed his revolver in a safe hiding- place, taking good care thereafter that nothing in his conduct should awaken suspicion.

Unfortunately his room was on the second floor of the hotel, and hence his goings and comings were always open to observation. But he noted that a window at one end of the upper hall overlooked a sloping, tile-roofed shed, and that the garden wall behind the hotel premises was not provided with those barbarous spikes or broken bottles which decorate so many Cuban walls. It promised him a means of egress when the time should come to use it. In this hall, moreover, directly opposite his door there was an oil bracket-lamp which gave light to the passageway, and which was forever going out, a fact which the young man noted with satisfaction.

One evening, several days after his arrival, a sudden rain-storm drove O'Reilly indoors, and as he ascended to his room he saw that the lamp in the hallway flared and smoked at every gust of wind. It was very dark outside; he reasoned that the streets would be deserted. Hastily securing that book which Alvarado, the dentist, had given him, he took a position close inside his door. When he heard the spy pass and enter the next chamber he stole out into the hall and breathed into the lamp-chimney. A moment later he was safely through the window and was working his way down the shed roof, praying that his movements had not been seen and that the tiles were firm. The rain was driving in sheets and he was wet to the skin when he dropped into the patio; nevertheless he was laughing to himself. He nimbly scaled the wall, crossed an inclosure, climbed a second wall, and descended into a dark side street. Taking advantage of the densest shadows and the numerous overhanging balconies, he set out at a brisk trot.

A light showed through the barred windows of the Alvarado home, indicating that the family was in. After some fumbling O'Reilly laid hold of the latch; then, without knocking, he opened the front door and stepped in.

He found himself, as he had expected, in the parlor, a high- ceilinged, sparsely furnished room with a glazed floor of Spanish mosaics. His sudden appearance threw the occupants into alarm: a woman cried out sharply; a man whom O'Reilly identified as Ignacio Alvarado himself leaped to his feet and faced him, exclaiming:

"Who are you?"

"I'm a friend. Don't be alarmed." Johnnie summoned his most agreeable smile, then he extended the sodden package he had carried beneath his arm. "I come from your brother Tomas. He asked me to hand you this book and to say that he is returning it with his thanks."

"What are you saying?" Plainly the speaker did not comprehend; there was nothing but apprehension in his voice.

O'Reilly tore the wet paper from the volume and laid it in Alvarado's hand. "Look at it, please, and you'll understand. I didn't take time to knock, for fear I might be followed."

Alvarado stared first at the book, then at his caller. After a moment he made a sign to his wife, who left the room. Wetting his lips, he inquired, with an effort, "What do you want?"

O'Reilly told him in a few words. Alvarado showed relief; he even smiled. "I see, but--Caramba! You gave me a start. And this book! Ha! Tomas will have his jokes. It is well you took precautions, for I am under surveillance. I'll help you, yes! But you must not come here again. Return to your hotel and--Let me think." Senor Alvarado frowned in deepest thought; then he said: "I have it! Every morning at half past nine a man wearing a Panama hat and a gray silk necktie with a large gold pin will pass along the sidewalk across the street from the Isla de Cuba. You will know him. One day, I cannot promise how soon, he will lift his hat thus, and wipe his face. You understand? Good. Follow him. He will give you final directions. Meanwhile I will make known your presence to certain of our friends who can be trusted. You know Manin, the druggist? Well, you can talk to him, and he will keep you posted as to our progress. Now go before some one comes."

O'Reilly wrung the Cuban's hand. Then he stepped out into the night, leaving a pool of water on the clean blue tiles where he had stood.