Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 19

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"Well, I'm not out of my troubles yet, but I suppose I'm better off than those fellows who were captured and taken off to some Spanish dungeon."

It was Walter who mused thus, as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. The herb tea Josefina had made for him had "touched the spot" and he felt quite like himself again. The native Cubans have to fight fevers constantly, and, consequently, know a great deal about proper remedies.

"Will you eat?" questioned Carlos, who sat by, smoking a cigarette, while Josefina busied herself in preparing a morning meal of rice-cakes and strong coffee.

"I haven't much appetite, but I suppose I ought to eat if I want to get back my strength. But see here," Walter went on. "I can't pay you a cent for what you are doing for me, for I have no money with me."

"Dat's all right, Josefina and me no want pay—we glad to do for you," answered Carlos; and Josefina smiled so broadly that her eyes were fairly closed.

The rice-cakes were well done, and Walter ate several of them, and also sipped at the heavy black coffee, sweetened with sugarcane drippings. The meal over, Carlos leaped up and lit a fresh cigarette.

"You stay here and I go to shore—see if you can get to ship," he said. "If Spaniards come, Josefina show you where to hide, so no can find you."

"I'll have to stay, for I can t walk the distance to the shore—yet. By the way, where am I?"

"Dis place back of Estrella, 'bout halfway to Aguadores, on the Guama River. Can see warships from mouth of Guama."

"Yes, I've heard of the Guama. Some of the fellows on board ship said we might capture that point, or Guantanamo Bay, so as to have a place to coal when the ocean was rough. You are going to the shore?"

"If Spanish pickets let me," grinned Carlos. "Werry strong Spanish guard around here now. Werry much afraid American soldiers come."

"Perhaps they will come, if Sampson needs help," replied Walter, but without knowing that the army of invasion at Tampa was already preparing to leave for Cuba, and his own brother Ben with it.

After Carlos was gone, Walter tried to carry on a conversation with Josefina, but as the wench's English vocabulary was as limited as was the boy's knowledge of Spanish, the talk soon lagged. "Cuba libre! 'Member de Maine!" she said over and over again, and smiled that awful smile that almost caused Walter to burst into a fit of laughter. During the morning she made him some more tea and insisted upon his drinking it, greatly to the benefit of his health and strength, as he soon realized.

It was growing late in the afternoon, and Walter was wondering when Carlos would get back, when the sound of a rifle-shot from a distance startled him. Before he could get to the doorway of the hut, Josefina was outside and speeding up the trail in the direction her brother had taken.

"Get back!" It was the voice of Carlos, and he was running beside his sister, who kept up with him, despite her weight. "The Spaniards are coming."

"Soldiers?" gasped Walter.

"Yes; ten or fifteen. They caught me going through de pickets, but I knocked one so, and anodder so, and got away. Come wid me, before da catch you!" And he took hold of Walter's arm and turned him to the back of the hut.

Wondering what would happen next, but remembering what had been said about a hiding-place, the youth followed Carlos to the rear wall of the structure. Here, directly against the logs, grew a tall ebony tree.

"Dat tree hollow," explained the Cuban. "Climb to limb and drop inside. Josefina haul us out when Spanish go 'way." And he gave Walter a lift up.

The lower branches were but twelve feet from the ground, and were easily gained. Carlos came up also. "Let me drop first," he said. "Den you come on top of me. Be quick, or too late!" And down he went into darkness, and Walter came after.

The hollow portion of the tree was not over twenty inches in diameter, and it was a lucky thins: for both inside that neither was stout nor broad of shoulder. As it was, they stood breast to breast with difficulty, and yet not daring to make a sound.

A shout came from the trail, sounding in strange contrast to the song Josefina had begun to sing—an old-fashioned Cuban ditty about a sailor and his lass. Soon the soldiers drew closer, and several came around to the side of the hut.

"Ho! within there!" came in Spanish. "Where is that wretch we are after?"

"Wretch!" answered Josefina, in pretended surprise. "Whom do you mean, kind sirs?"

"You know well enough—the tall fellow who knocked over our guards and ran in this direction."

"I have seen nobody; I have been busy washing," answered Josefina, pointing to a few articles of wearing apparel which lay soaking in a water-butt.

"You cannot humbug us!" cried the leader of the Spanish detachment, in a fury. "Tell me where they are, or I'll run you through!" And he ran at Josefina with pointed sword. It is doubtful if he intended to carry out his threat, but the wench thought him in earnest, and the yell she gave would have done credit to a cannibal of the South Sea Islands.

The cry of terror from his sister was more than Carlos Dunetta could stand, and in a twinkle he placed his hands on Walter's shoulders, shoved himself upward, and showed himself at the top of the opening.

"Let my sister alone, you dogs!" he burst out. "Let her alone!" And leaping to the ground, he made after the Spaniard with a drawn machete, a long knife used in the sugarcane fields and employed by the insurgents as a favorite weapon.

There was a cry of alarm, and then came two shots in quick succession, followed by a fall close to the foot of the tree.

"You have killed my brother!" shrieked Josefina. "Oh, Carlos, Carlos, what shall I do now?"

"Back with you, you good-for-nothing woman!" came from the leader of the Spanish detachment. "I thought we were on the right trail. We ought to shoot you for lying to us."

At that moment came a deep groan of pain, showing that Carlos was not yet dead. He had been shot in the arm and through the back, but the wounds were not dangerous, although painful.

Without paying attention to what more the Spaniards had to say, Josefina busied herself over the body of her brother, laying him out on the grass and binding up his wounds with such rags as were handy. While she was doing this the Spaniards began an excited conversation among themselves, of which, of course, Walter understood not a word.

"Your brother had a very convenient hiding-place in the tree," suggested the leader of the detachment, a greasy, lean-faced corporal, who rejoiced in the name of Pedro Ruz. "Had he not shown himself, it is doubtful if we should have located him."

"You are bad men to shoot him—I want nothing to do with you," was Josefina's only response. "Go and leave my brother to me."

"Leave him here!" burst out Pedro Ruz. "No, no, he goes with us as a prisoner. If I am not mistaken, he is the spy Captain Coleo has been after these many days."

"You cannot take him away—a journey will kill him."

"He must go—whether it kills him or not. He can ride on the back of the horse one of my men is bringing up. Captain Coleo will want to interview him before nightfall. And let me tell you, if it is discovered that he has been carrying information to the rebels or those Yankee pigs out in the waters beyond the bay, why, so much the worse for him, that's all." And Corporal Ruz shrugged his shoulders suggestively.

In a moment more the horse was brought forward, a beast as lean as its owner, since fodder in that territory was becoming a scarce article. Since Carlos could not move himself, he was lifted up to the saddle in anything but a gentle fashion. Josefina began to expostulate, but the only attention paid to her was by one of the men, who snatched at her arm and hurled her backward.

"You must learn to mind your betters," said the soldier. "Our worthy corporal knows his business."

"I will search the man, to see if he carries any despatches," put in Corporal Ruz. "Ha, you rascal, let me get at that breast pocket of yours. And, Camara, climb up into the tree and look into that hole. There may be something worth finding there."