Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 20

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As Walter did not understand what was said, he was not aware of his peril until the Spanish soldier began to climb the tree. Then he realized the truth, and his heart sank within him.

"It's all up with me now," he half groaned. "I wonder what they will do with me after they find me."

Reaching the top of the opening, the soldier paused and shouted something to his companions regarding the darkness of the hole below.

"Light a match and drop it down," ordered Corporal Ruz. "This rascal carries nothing," he went on, disappointedly, having found Carlos's pockets empty of anything of value. The negro did carry a message, but it was on a small patch of thin paper, which had been rolled up tightly and concealed in his thick woolly hair.

The match was lit and dropped, and all ablaze it landed upon Walter's head. He caught it in silence and put it out, but the movement was noticed from above.

"There is some one else in the tree—a white man," cried the soldier. "Come out of that!" he continued.

Walter guessed what the command meant, and as further concealment would have been useless he attempted to crawl from the hole. But this was not so easy, and in the end the soldier had to lend a hand, and then both leaped to the ground together.

"Un Americano!" ejaculated Corporal Ruz. "De donde viene V.?" he added, asking Walter where he came from.

At this the boy shook his head. "I don't understand you," he said.

"No habla V. castellano?" continued the corporal, asking if he did not speak Spanish.

Again Walter shook his head.

"Yankee pig!" murmured the corporal, using a term quite common in Cuba during the war. "Why does he not learn our beautiful language? Does he expect we will learn his dirty English?"

He turned to the soldier who had discovered Walter, and between them they searched the lad's clothing thoroughly, and even took off his shoes and stockings.

"Nothing," growled the under-officer. "It is strange."

Carlos had been almost unconscious, but was now recovering. "We are in serious trouble, I am afraid," said Walter, addressing him; but Carlos pretended not to understand, not wishing the Spaniards to know that he spoke English, for then they would have been more certain than ever that he was a spy.

In a few minutes the entire party had left the hut and was making its way along the trail, Carlos on horseback and the others walking, Walter between the corporal and a Spanish private, and Josefina bringing up in the rear as if unwilling to leave her brother.

The soldiers were eight in number, and each was armed with a Mauser rifle of recent pattern. They were a hungry-looking set and their uniforms were sadly in need of repair. Six were of middle age, but the other two were no older than Walter, for conscription into the Spanish army begins at as early an age as it does in the navy—some of the soldiers and sailors being scarcely fifteen to sixteen years old!

The course of the party was upward, over rocks and trailing vines, and through a woods where hardly a breath of air was stirring. The heat soon made Walter's head ache again, and he was glad enough when a small Spanish camp was gained and he was allowed to sit down in the shade of a plantain and rest.

The encampment was in the open, the only shelter being that provided for the officer in charge, Captain Coleo—a bit of dilapidated canvas stretched between four trees fifteen or twenty feet apart. Under this shelter were located a couple of hammocks, a small folding table for writing, and a camp chair.

Walter found Captain Coleo a thorough gentleman despite his surroundings. He was well educated and spoke English fluently, with a soft accent which under other circumstances would have been quite pleasing.

"So you are an American youth?" he said, after he had listened to his corporal's report and examined Carlos. "And where did you come from, and what are you doing here?"

Feeling there would be no use in concealing the truth, Walter told his story. At the mentioning of the Merrimac the Spanish captain s brow grew dark.

"It was a brave deed, but it will do your countrymen small good," he said. "The boat is not directly across the channel, so the harbor pilots have discovered. All of your comrades are now prisoners in Morro Castle, and I presume that is where I shall have to send you."

"As a prisoner of war?"

"As a prisoner of war. And you can be thankful that in trying to escape you were not shot down," continued Captain Coleo.

Walter was very thirsty, and said so. "You look as if you were getting ready to have the fever," was the captain s comment, and he had a soldier bring Walter a tin cup full of guarapo, water sweetened with sugarcane ends, and said to be healthier than the plain article. Good water in Cuba is scarce, and although Walter did not know it, it was only the captain's natural good-heartedness that obtained for him what he wanted.

It had threatened rain for some hours, and as nightfall came on, the first drops of a violent tropical storm descended. Soon from a distance came the rumble of thunder, and spasmodic flashes of lightning lit up the woods. The soldiers huddled under the shelter of a clump of low trees, while Captain Coleo sought the protection of the canvas, accompanied by Walter, Carlos, and a guard. Walter's hands had been bound behind him, and he was allowed to sit on a small block of wood beside one of the hammocks in which the wounded negro reclined.

"We will not move to Santiago to-night," said the Spanish captain. "I think the storm will clear away by morning."

He was busy making out a report, and sat at his little table for the purpose, a spluttering Mambi taper fastened to a stick driven into the soil being his only light. The taper went out half a dozen times, but there was nothing to do but to light it again, and this Captain Coleo did without the least show of impatience. To him war was a business, and he was satisfied to take matters just as they came.

The guard trudged around and around the patch covered by the canvas, his rifle on his shoulder and the never-failing Spanish cigarette in his mouth. Occasionally he glanced toward Walter and the negro, but his interest in the prisoners soon gave way to his own discomforts, and he gave them no more attention.

Presently Walter felt a hand steal over his shoulder. "What you think—we run for it, maybe?" whispered Carlos.

"I'd like to run, but we may get shot," whispered Walter in return.

At this Carlos shrugged his shoulders. With two Mauser bullets in him the tall negro rebel was still "game." It was such men as he who had kept this unequal warfare in Cuba going for three long years despite Spain's utmost endeavors to end the conflict.

"Raise up a bit and I untie rope," he said, as the guard made another round and walked from them. "Maybe we can go when big thunder and lightning come—not so?"

"All right—I'll go you," cried Walter, lowly, and in a bit of Western slang. "A fellow can't die but once, and I have no desire to be taken to the dungeon of Morro Castle, or to any other Spanish lockup."

He raised up, and in a trice Carlos had the cords about his wrists unloosened. Captain Coleo still sat writing. But now the taper went out again and he paused to relight it.

At that instant came a blinding flash of lightning and a loud peal of thunder which startled the few horses the camp possessed and caused them to prance about madly. "Now!" cried Carlos, and with one quick leap he cleared six feet of ground between the hammock and the nearest patch of woods. Walter also leaped, and away they went side by side through the wind, rain, and darkness.

Crack! crack! It was the reports of two Mausers, and the ping of a bullet from the Spanish captain's pistol followed. Walter felt a strange whistling by his ear, and putting up his hand found it covered with blood. The bullet from the pistol had scratched the side of his head. Had his aim been an inch closer, gentlemanly Captain Coleo would have killed the youth on the spot.

"You are hit?" queried Carlos, breathing heavily, for loss of blood had made him weak.

"I—I reckon it's not much!" panted Walter. "But hurry up—they are coming after us!"

The boy was right; both the captain and the guard were following the pair with all possible speed, while three others brought up in the rear, the other soldiers remaining behind to manage the horses, three of which had broken their tethers and were bounding down the trail at a breakneck speed.

Could he manage to escape? Such was the one question which Walter asked himself as he stumbled on in the darkness. A very few minutes would suffice to answer the all-important query.