The boys had never before seen so many men on deck at the same time. Not a word was spoken as the lookouts fore and aft passed and repassed each other. On the bridge both mates were on duty.
"Say, where do you suppose all these dummies sprang from, anyway?" asked Mason, as he surveyed the scene in astonishment. "I wonder if there are any more where they came from?"
"Let's go down and interview our friend Sambo," said Harry. "He has been growing communicative lately. Yesterday he deigned to say 'Yas, sah.' Maybe we can coax something more out of him."
When they reached the galley, to the boys' great surprise, the negro poked his head out over the half door and grinning broadly, said:
"Why, Sambo," said Bert, in astonishment, "where did you find your tongue?"
"Always pick it up again in danger zone, sah."
"There goes that danger zone again," said Mason, in disgust. "I don't believe there is any danger between here and the equator, Sambo."
"Name not Sambo, sah. George Washington Jenks, New York, U. S. A., at yo' service, gents."
Finding the negro in such an unusual mood the boys grouped themselves about the door intending to draw the man out if possible, and learn what they could that might serve to confirm their suspicions as to the purpose of their cruise. As Harry stepped up to the door and brought the man's entire body into view, he noticed with amazement that he wore a cartridge belt and pistol holster from which the butt of a revolver peeped.
"Why, George, what are you carrying a pistol for this morning. Afraid the crew will mutiny?"
"Always carry gun in danger zone, sah," replied the negro, grinning still more.
"The whole ship has gone crazy over the danger zone," said Bert.
"Yas, sah," said George Washington. "May have mix-up bime-by," and he jerked his thumb over his starboard shoulder.
"Mix-up with the captain?"
"Humph. George Wash'n Jenks not such a blame fool's that. Mix-up with steamer coming up to starboard. May be, may be not. Not such a mucher at guessing."
"Is that why you are carrying a pistol; because a steamer is coming up?"
"Always carry gun in danger zone, sah," and again the negro grinned tantalizingly.
"George Washington Jenks, New York, U. S. A., I have a nice, green one dollar bill saved from a watery grave," said Harry, "and if you will tell us what the danger zone is, you can have it."
As Harry spoke he pulled a bill out of his pocket and displayed it temptingly before the negro. George Washington Jenks looked at it covetously out of the corner of his eye. Then he shook his head proudly.
"Better go ask Cap'n Dynamite. Might be he need the money. George Wash Jenks don't."
"I guess you are true blue, Wash," laughed Harry, as he put the money back in his pocket.
"You pretty good guesser, sah. Not such a mucher myself."
The boys, convinced that they could gain no information from the negro, and realizing the uselessness of attempting to question any others of the crew, strolled aft again. It seemed to Harry that the thread of smoke had grown a little thicker. The captain opened his door and stepped out on deck, glass in hand. He signalled to Suarez, who came aft at his bidding.
"Can you make her out yet, Suarez?"
"Not yet, captain, but she is headed to cross our bow and should be hull up in a few minutes."
For five minutes both men stood with their glasses trained on the smoke. Finally Suarez dropped his to his side with the air of a man who has learned what he wished to know.
"Yes?" said the captain, interrogatively.
"It's the little one we dodged last time."
"The Belair. So I thought. Change the course two points to starboard. We will go astern unless she gets curious and I suppose she will. Yes, see, she is heading up for us. Hold your course; it would be folly to change it now. If we can't bluff it through, why we can—well, do the next best thing, Suarez, eh—call her hand."
Dynamite threw back his head and laughed heartily.
"Everything is in readiness for the call, sir," said the mate, gravely.
"Very well, Suarez; tell Battersea to notify the men below to stand by."
The boys looked at one another in mute wonder. Then there were other men below, and for what? Harry's mind reverted to that forward compartment so well stocked with munitions of war.
"Bert," he whispered, "I guess they were right about that danger zone, and although I'm not 'such a mucher' at guessing, as our friend Jenks of New York, says, maybe we'll have that mix-up."
For nearly an hour the quiet routine aboard the Mariella continued. The captain slowly paced the after deck, now and then scanning the oncoming stranger through his glasses. There was an air of suppressed excitement in the silence. By this time the other steamer was clearly discernible with the naked eye, and the boys could see that she was a small gunboat flying a foreign flag, which they guessed to be Spanish. She had two large guns mounted forward, and a number of rapid fire guns aft and amidships.
She was a tiny craft for a fighter and apparently had once been a pleasure yacht; but she looked saucy and dangerous as she came on toward them. As Harry looked along the quiet decks of the staid and sober Mariella he could not help comparing her to a big dignified Newfoundland dog with a snapping terrier perking boldly up to her.
They could now distinguish the forms of men on the gunboat's decks.
"Come over here to the starboard rail, boys," said the captain, suddenly turning to them. "You may help to carry out more successfully the little farce we are about to attempt. Show yourselves as much as possible and act as if you were curiously interested in our friend, the gunboat, as no doubt you are."
At this moment a black-bearded little man, who had been strutting pompously on the bridge of the gunboat, raised a megaphone to his lips and a volley of foreign words, perfectly unintelligible to the boys, was shot out into the atmosphere.
In a moment the captain sent back a reply to what had evidently been a demand for a description of his ship.
"The Mariella, Boston for San Juan, Porto Rico; general merchandise and three passengers returning from school."
"That's us," whispered Mason. "Look important now. This is as good as playing charades. Can you guess the word, Hal?"
For a few minutes those on the deck of the gunboat seemed to be discussing the reply. The little man on the bridge gesticulated violently as he apparently argued with a subordinate officer. Finally he put his marine glasses to his eyes again and for fully a minute Harry felt that he was studying them and Captain Dynamite, who stood facing him, his big form looming up to its full height, while a smile played around the corner of his mouth.
Suddenly the little man danced up and down like a jumping jack, shot his arms in the air and waved them wildly. Then he seized the megaphone and aimed it at the captain's head. This time the boys could understand the words that he poured out, for he spoke in broken English.
"Ah, ah," he shouted, "I know you now, you el Capitaine Dynamite, el filibust, el buccaneer, el pirate. Surrend—surrend in Queen's name."
The little man's words had an electrical effect on the captain. The smile faded away and his mouth became a set, straight line. In a moment he was all action.
"Go ahead full speed, Suarez," he shouted. "All hands to quarters."
In a moment his orders were transmitted from mouth to mouth and as quickly the quiet decks became transformed. Men in a seemingly endless stream rushed up through the forward hatch from below and scattered about the decks with soldier-like regularity, each taking, without the least confusion, a station to which he had apparently been assigned. Every man was armed with sword, pistol, and rifle, and almost before the boys had recovered from the first gasp of astonishment, the bulwarks were lined with rows of fully armed, determined looking men, who stood silently at their posts awaiting further orders.
George Washington Jenks stepped out of his galley, his black, shining face as usual on a broad grin. He looked aft at the boys, pointed to the gunboat and chuckled.
"George Wash Jenks is not such a bad guesser after all," said Harry. "Mix-up has arrived all right."
"Say, but Hal, do you think there is going to be any real fighting?" asked Bert. All of the boys were intensely excited and nervous from their unusual surroundings.
"It looks a heap like it."
"And here we are right in the middle of it without as much as a hat pin to do business with," moaned Mason.
The captain, who had darted into his cabin a moment before, now emerged with a cartridge belt buckled around his flannel coat and two army pistols at his sides. He carried three other pistols in his hands.
"Here, boys," he said, as he approached them and handed one to each; "these are for protection only. Do you know how to use them?"
"Only give us something to shoot at and we will show you," piped the Midget.
"Well, if you have to shoot, there are your marks," was the reply, as he pointed to the gunboat.
In the meantime equal activity had been displayed on the Spaniard. Her decks swarmed with men, and over the still water was borne a jargon of unintelligible orders.
Suddenly there came a sharp command from the little man on the bridge. Dynamite understood it and raised his hand as if to warn the boys back. There was a puff of smoke at the gunboat's bow and then a loud report.
A solid shot whistled across the bows of the Mariella and ricochetted over the water into the distance.
"Crowd on all steam, Suarez," shouted the captain, shaking his fist at the gunboat. "We will first try the wise man's course and run away, but if we cannot shake off that little terrier, we'll have to show our teeth."
Then turning to the Spaniard again he put his megaphone to his lips and shouted to the little commander, who still capered and gesticulated on the bridge:
"Yes, I am el Capitaine Dynamite. Come on and take me if you can. Viva, Cuba Libre."
A BRUSH WITH THE GUNBOAT
The Mariella swung slowly around until she presented only her stern and the width of her hull as a mark for her enemy, and then under a full head of steam she started to show her heels to the Spaniard. But clouds of heavy, black smoke began to roll upward from the gunboat's funnel, showing that she, too, was crowding on steam for the chase.
The puff of smoke, the bark of the gun, the shot skipping over the water across their bows, much as a child scales a flat stone across a mill pond, opened the boys' eyes to the seriousness of the situation. They fingered their revolvers nervously and watched the black bow of the Spaniard anxiously, expecting to see another white burst of smoke.
But the little commander evidently believed he could rely on the speed of his vessel to overtake the Mariella, for after the warning shot, he did not fire again, and with throbbing engines the steamers settled down to a trial of speed.
"If we could only imagine that as a starting gun this would make a first-rate yacht race," said Bert, after they had been running for some minutes.
"Yes, and for a richer stake than ever a yacht raced for before," replied the captain, who had overheard the remark. Harry thought of the portrait of the beautiful girl that lay next the man's heart, and wondered if he meant her, but when he remembered the ringing defiance in his voice as he shouted back to the Spaniard, "Viva, Cuba Libre," he was inclined to believe that the man's spirit of patriotism rose superior to his love just now.
By this time the veil of mystery that had hung over the ship and her purpose had been pretty well lifted by the sequence of events, and the boys were convinced that they were a part of some secret mission against Spain in the interests of Cuba.
Harry had little time for speculation as to the motives that inspired the captain, for another puff of white smoke appeared at the gunboat's bow and a shot whistled by close to the starboard rail. The Mariella had been slowly drawing away from her pursuer, and the Spanish commander evidently feared his prey would escape.
Suarez, on the bridge, turned anxiously aft as if expecting instructions, but Captain Dynamite only set his lips into that firm, straight line and raised his glasses to watch the enemy's movements.
Another puff of smoke, a sharp report, and a shot struck the water one hundred yards astern, but in direct line with the Mariella.
"They've got the direction, but not the range," muttered the captain. "Hard a-starboard, Suarez, for half a minute, and then take your course again. We'll give that gunner another guess."
The Mariella swung to starboard just enough to take her out of the direct course of her pursuer.
"Now, try it again, Mister Sharpshooter," sung out the captain, although the Spaniard was by this time far out of range of his voice. "It will take you some time to pick up your target once more."
The Spaniard sent two other shots after them in quick succession, but they fell harmlessly to port. The quick swinging of the Mariella out of her course had disconcerted the gunners.
"Don't you think you youngsters better go below?" said the captain, joining the boys, while he calmly rolled a cigarette. "I haven't much respect for their marksmanship, but you never can tell where a stray shot may fall."
By this time the sensation of nervousness and anxiety that had followed the first shot had passed, and the boys were as eager to see the affair to an end as if they had been spectators at a play. They did not yet seem to feel themselves a part of the drama that might so easily be turned into a tragedy.
"If we are not in the way I should much prefer to remain here," said Harry, "and if we are going to be shot I had rather have it done on deck than in a stuffy cabin."
"Very well, I guess you are safe enough. Anyway, we shall be out of range in about fifteen minutes. Ah, she's going to try it again."
Another shot fell only a few feet astern.
Captain Dynamite placed his glasses on the roof of the deck house, tossed his cigarette over the side, and removing his coat, folded it carefully and placed it beside the glasses.
"You are getting a little too close, Mister Goodshot," he said, rolling back his cuffs. "I guess a dose of your own medicine is about due." Turning to the bridge, he called:
"Keep her steady, Suarez."
"Aye, aye, sir," responded the mate. There was a note of glee in his voice and he rubbed his hands together with an air of great satisfaction, as he watched his commander's preparations. He seemed to know what they portended, although the boys could see no purpose in them.
The captain now stepped quickly to the after rail, and placing his finger underneath it, seemed to be pressing upon something. A square section of the deck began to slide silently and mysteriously away, leaving a black hole up through which there rose slowly a rapid fire gun. There was a sharp click of snapping bolts as the new section of deck came into place.
"Now there will be something doing," whispered Bert.
Quickly taking his place on the saddle of the gun the captain trained it with the hand of an expert. It seemed but a second from the time he ran his eye along the sights before the discharge came. Without waiting to see the result of his shot, he turned the muzzle a little to the right, sighted it again quickly and fired.
The boys watched breathlessly, straining their eyes to see the result, but without avail. Captain Dynamite rose, wiped his hands with a silk handkerchief and walked to the deck house for his glasses.
"They are both out of commission, bedad," he said, after a minute's inspection. "Scoot for the inlet, Suarez, me boy."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied the mate, gleefully. "Don't you think you better give them one more for good measure, sir?"
"Enough's a-plenty, Suarez. We'll have her hull down before eight bells. Would you like to see what a little gun like that can do?"
He turned to Harry as he spoke and handed him the marine glasses. They were a powerful pair and as Harry regulated them to his vision he seemed to be almost on board the Spanish gunboat. All was confusion on her decks. The "both" referred to by the captain as being out of commission, were the port and starboard guns, with which she had been potting at the Mariella. Captain Dynamite's shots had each scored a bull's-eye.
In the turmoil, Harry could see that someone had been injured and was being borne away by his companions. He lowered the glasses and held them out to the captain.
"You have laid up a man for repairs, I think, sir," he said.
The captain waved the glasses back with something like a shudder.
"I am sorry," he said, quietly. "The poor chap was only doing his duty. I aimed at metal and not human bodies. I hope he is not much hurt."
He turned to the rail again, touched the spring, and the gun slowly sank out of sight, the section of the deck that concealed it slipping into place again with a click. Putting on his coat he entered the cabin, leaving the boys in possession of the glasses. For some time they were greatly interested in watching, turn by turn, the proceedings on the deck of the gunboat, but finally the Mariella made such good use of her heels that even with the glasses, they could make out nothing but the outlines of the Spaniard.
When they turned again to the deck of their own steamer, they were surprised to see that it had once more resumed its usual appearance. The armed men had disappeared, the second mate paced the bridge, and only the lookouts occupied the decks. It was now twelve o'clock, and eight bells sounded clearly on the still, tropical air. The boys recollected for the first time that they had had no breakfast, just as Captain Dynamite stuck his head out of the cabin door.
"Come on, lads," he called, cheerily; "sure we've let the Spanish terrier cheat our stomachs."
The exciting events of the morning had not impaired the boys' appetites, and they promptly responded to the call. When they went on deck again only a speck on the horizon marked the pursuing gunboat.
"Few of their old tubs can measure paces with the old Mariella," said the captain, with satisfaction, as he swept the sea with his glasses.
"She looked as if she had once been a pleasure yacht," said Harry.
"So she was, my boy. The Spaniards bought her from a New York millionaire, but she was an old model then, and they have top-hampered her with armor and guns until they have knocked what little speed she had out of her. We'll not even see a whiff of their smoke in half an hour."
"Will she continue so hopeless a chase?"
"O, sure she will. She hopes to trap us down the coast. See, there are the shores of Cuba."
The boys turned quickly as he pointed over their starboard bow and saw a low dark line in the distance.
"Hurrah," shouted Bert.
"Hurrah for what?" asked the captain, smiling at the enthusiastic boy who swung his cap as he shouted.
"Why, just hurrah," answered Bert, sheepishly. "I began to think all land had disappeared from the face of the ocean."
"Then you don't like the water?"
"Heretofore I always considered myself dead stuck on it, but hereafter terra firma for mine. Something that you can dig your heels into and where disagreeable Spaniards don't send bullets whistling around your ears. How soon will we make Havana, captain?"
One of Dynamite's roaring laughs greeted this question of Bert's.
"Me boy," he said, as soon as he caught his breath, "if we should sail into Havana harbor every mother's son of us would be shot by sunrise to-morrow."
"But you are going to land somewhere?" questioned Harry.
"Sure there's a fine bit of a place down the coast that we'll take a peep into before the moon's high to-night—barrin' any more Spanish terriers. Sure they're thick on this coast. A pack of snarling mongrels, and all snapping at the heels of Captain Dynamite. It's a proud man I should be with a head on me that's worth five thousand dollars to the man who can take it to Weyler."
"Do you mean that the Spaniards have put a price of five thousand dollars on your head?" asked Harry in amazement, as he backed away from the man instinctively.
"That was before my last voyage," chuckled the captain. "I would not be surprised if they had boosted the quotation a point or two since then. Gomez will know the latest market price."
The boys looked at him with awe. Here was a man who, though sailing into the enemy's waters, boldly laughed at the thought that there was a price on his head.
"He's the finest buccaneer I ever met outside of story books," whispered Mason, as if meeting buccaneers was an every day occurrence with him.
"Suarez," called the captain, "lay off and on until eight bells, then call me. I'm going to take a nap. We can't make the inlet until sundown."
Slowly Cuba rose out of the sea as the Mariella ploughed her way toward her shores. The long dark line began to take shape against the azure sky and to form itself into hills and valleys. The dark mass turned to a deep shade of brown and then to green as the brilliant verdure of the island caught the rays of the sun. When they were near enough to distinguish the contour of the coast line, the steamer's course was changed and for a time she stood out to sea again.
"What are we doing that for?" enquired Bert, anxiously.
"Didn't you hear the captain tell Suarez to stand off and on until eight bells? We are probably going to make a landing somewhere here, but it is not yet time."
At this moment eight bells struck and without waiting to be called, Captain Dynamite opened the door of the cabin and stepped out on deck. Once again he had changed his costume and was now attired in white duck and wore a white yachting cap. As a breeze blew his coat aside, the boys could see that he still wore the cartridge belt and pistols. He scanned the shore for a moment and then turning to the mate, who still stood on the bridge, he said:
"Well done, Suarez. At sundown I will take her in."
The coast at this point seemed covered with a thick, tropical growth of palms and high, rank weeds, interlaced thickly with vines that reached to the water's edge. Back a few hundred feet the land rose abruptly, forming the foothills of the mountainous inland. The boys looked closely for some inlet or bay into which the Mariella might steam, but there seemed to be no break in the thick foliage so far as the eye could reach. In the silhouette formed by the rising hills two palms, taller than the others, stood out against the sky like lone sentinels guarding the shore against invading buccaneers.
At dinner, the captain was in a particularly agreeable mood.
"Well, my young pirates, how are you enjoying your cruise?" he asked jokingly. "It's pretty nearly at an end and all danger for you is about past. In an hour or so we shall be safely within the sheltering arms of Cuba, and I think it is about time I introduced myself to you. I am plain Michael O'Connor, sometimes known as Dynamite Mike, but more generally styled Captain Dynamite—at your service. I am neither a buccaneer, pirate, nor privateer, but an humble Cuban sympathizer who takes his life in his hand now and then to bring arms and ammunition to the men who are fighting for the good cause of Cuba libre. I do this, first, because I love Cuba; second, because it is a very lucrative profession; third, because I like danger."
"But, Captain Dynamite, why should an Irishman love Cuba?" asked Harry.
"Sure, I'm only half Irish. My mother was a Cuban and I was born on the island on my father's little sugar plantation. The Spaniards shut him up as an insurgent. He died in jail—tortured to death I shall always believe—and my mother died of a broken heart in the arms of my childhood sweetheart, Juanita. I was not there. I left the island when only a youngster, to shift for myself in the States. I took to the sea and I shall always be thankful that I did, for it has enabled me in some measure to avenge the death of my father. But now to your own affairs, my boys. After we have safely disposed of our cargo, I shall be free to make a straight run for the States, and as I shall have others aboard for whose safety I shall be responsible, I think probably you had better stick to the old Mariella. I did think of getting you onto the railroad to Havana, but your lack of passports might cause you trouble."
"We'll stick by the Mariella, captain," said Harry. "What do you say, fellows?"
"Sure, the Mariella for us."
"All right, that's settled. I think it's about time to run to cover."
As they stepped out on deck the tropical twilight was fading and the steamer was now close within the dark shadow of the shore. Captain Dynamite went forward to the bridge.
"Turn in, Suarez. It has been a long day for you. I will take her now."
The mate saluted and left the bridge. The captain entered the wheelhouse and the man relinquished the spokes and stood silently to one side. The captain swung the wheel over quickly, with a sure, firm hand, and the bow of the Mariella came around until she was headed directly for the wooded shore. Harry saw him raise his eyes and look once at the sentinel palms.
Then the engine-room bell clanged loudly and the Mariella shot at full speed, head on for the shore.
THE MIDNIGHT MESSAGE
Harry clutched the rail involuntarily. It seemed as if at any moment they would strike the shore with a crash, and yet he could not but believe that the captain knew what he was doing. He stood quietly at the wheel, scarcely moving it after he had once taken his course, but his eyes were fixed intently ahead.
Nearer and nearer they rushed to the shore. Now they were almost upon it. Harry steadied himself, and cast one quick glance at the captain. Now the bow cut the thick foliage like a knife, but there was no shock, and the Mariella, with trees and vines scraping her sides and rising almost to her funnel-top, shot into a broad lagoon that lay completely hidden by the dense foliage at the entrance.
As they passed in, Harry looked back. The passage through which they had entered was scarcely wider than the steamer, and formed on either side by two points of rock. It needed a bold and skillful hand to bring them safely through that naturally-masked channel. The foliage dropped partly back again but there still remained a gaping hole to show where the steamer had pushed her way through.
Again the bells in the engine-room clanged, the screw churned the water violently; there was a roar and rattle of the anchor chains, and within twice her own length the Mariella came to a standstill and her dangerous voyage was safely terminated.
"Washington," called the captain, leaning out of the wheelhouse; "shut the door."
"Aye, aye, sah," responded the negro, as he emerged from the galley. "George Wash Jenks knows his duty."
Two of the men lowered a boat and jumped in. The negro followed with a long boat hook. They rowed back to the entrance of the inlet, and Jenks with his hook, deftly pulled the vines and creeping plants across it again. In five minutes none could have told that the luxurious growth had been disturbed.
The tropical night now began to settle rapidly over the still lagoon. The business of making the steamer snug at her anchorage, which is usually attended by the creaking of cordage, the clanking of chains, and the discordant shouts of sailors and commanders, was carried on almost in silence. The orders of the captain and mate were given in tones scarcely louder than used in ordinary conversation, but the men responded with alacrity. Within half an hour the Mariella, her throbbing engines stilled, lay silently at anchor and not a sound broke the stillness of the night. The shore of the main coast piled up in a black mass, without shape or color, in front of them, while the protecting arm that shielded them from the ocean loomed high above the steamer's funnel, showing in silhouette against the star-lighted sky in fantastically waving lines of palm leaves.
Tired out with the exciting and unusual events of the day, the boys, after gazing for a time at the strange, silent scene around them, retired to their bunks, and were soon fast asleep.
Captain Dynamite lay dreamily back in a steamer chair on the quarter deck, lazily puffing a cigarette, but his eyes were intently fixed on the black shore. The steamer was in total darkness. Not a lamp was lighted except a small red lantern, like a signal light, that hung over the side facing the shore.
The captain lighted a match and looked at his watch.
"Five minutes to midnight," he murmured. "They are late. Can anything have gone wrong? Ah, there's the signal now."
A small red light flashed out of the darkness of the shore. Three times it showed, and then disappeared. A dark figure that had been standing by the light on the Mariella swung it three times from side to side.
Captain Dynamite rose from his chair, stretched his great body lazily and walked to the rail. As he did so, he threw open his coat and eased up one of the pistols in its holster. His hand remained resting on the butt.
A small boat with two rowers, and a man in the stern, shot out from the black shadow of the shore onto the star-lighted surface of the lagoon. They rowed without the splash of an oar straight to the Mariella.
"Who goes there?" called Dynamite in a whisper, as the boat shot under the steamer's quarter.
"Independencia," came the prompt reply, and in a second the dark form amidships tossed over a rope ladder. In a moment more the man in the stern of the small boat had scrambled over the rail of the Mariella and strode rapidly aft. He sprang lightly up the steps to the quarter-deck, and seizing the hand of Captain Dynamite, who met him at the companionway, shook it vigorously.
"Captain Morgan, sure it's glad I am to see ye again."
"God bless you, O'Connor. Another of your dare-devil expeditions safely ended. We didn't look for you for two nights yet."
"Fair weather and only one little brush with a small gunboat. Altogether, quite an uneventful trip. And how goes the cause of independence, Captain?"
"We still hold our own, O'Connor, despite the butcher's boasts. We left them two hundred dead and wounded at our last three meetings, while our loss was only five killed and ten wounded."
"Bravo, Morgan, we'll wear them out yet. Let them pour their troops into Cuba by the thousand. Disease, our insidious ally and insurgent bullets will take care of all they can send."
"Aye, but the bullets are getting scarce, O'Connor."
"Ah, but there are enough here to do for ten thousand Spaniards," cried Dynamite, stamping excitedly on the deck, "and there will always be enough to go around so long as O'Connor lives, and the planks of the Mariella hold together."
The woolly head and grinning countenance of George Washington Jenks showed above the top step of the companionway.
"And what of Gomez, Morgan?"
"Gomez is now with President Betancourt at Cubitas, waiting for a report of your expedition."
"He shall have it within forty-eight hours Are your men ready for the landing?"
"The lagoon is guarded inland and shore. There is not a Spaniard within twenty miles."
"Then we will begin at once. What are you doing on the quarter-deck, you black rogue?"
The captain had just discovered Jenks as he stood respectfully at the head of the companionway, apparently awaiting orders.
"Sut'nly, the Cap'n call?"
"No, I didn't call, blockhead. Get below."
"Ah, ain't such a mucher as a guesser, but sut'nly I guess the cap'n stamp him foot."
"You're right, Washington. I did stamp, but I didn't want you. However, as long as you are here bring out a chair for Captain Morgan and that box of cigars on my cabin table."
"Well, Washington, you are back in Cuba with a whole skin again," said Morgan, cordially extending his hand to the negro.
"Cap'n Morgan, suah," said Jenks, carefully rubbing his hand on his trousers before accepting the captain's. "Ah'm right glad to see you again, sah. O yes, sah, George Wash Jenks' skin am whole, sah. Cap'n Dynamite, he see to that, sah. Nevah leave Cap'n Dynamite, sah."
"That's right, Washington, stick to the captain and he'll pull you through, and Cuba needs a few more honest hearts like yours."
"Ah serve Cap'n Dynamite, sah. He serve Cuba."
With great dignity the negro turned away and entered the cabin.
"An honest fellow, O'Connor, and seems devoted to you."
"Yes, I think Washington would follow me to the ends of the earth; but what are the orders, captain? We must be up and doing. I should not like to lie here long enough for the Spaniards to discover our landing-place."
"Ah, there I am as ignorant as you. Here are sealed instructions from Gomez."
Captain Morgan handed a packet to O'Connor, who broke the seal eagerly. When he had read what the message contained the hand that held it dropped nervelessly by his side. He gasped as if for breath, and pulled nervously at the collar of his shirt like a man choking. Morgan, who noticed his singular actions started toward him.
"What's the matter, O'Connor?" he asked, anxiously. "Are you ill?"
For a moment the captain did not answer, and then he said, faintly:
"Wait. I must think."
Morgan, wondering, but respecting his mood, stepped back. Captain Dynamite folded his arms and his head sank low on his chest. For fully five minutes he sat thus, and then suddenly leaped to his feet, clenched his hands, straightened up to his full heighth, and stamped his foot, loudly on the deck. The negro appeared with the steamer chair. He stopped in terror at the wild appearance of Captain Dynamite, and believing that he was the cause of his anger, stammered and stuttered in an effort to speak.
"Ah, sut'nly, came as fast as ah could, sah. George Wash Jenks no loafing nigger, sah."
"Call Suarez," said Dynamite, in a low voice, ignoring the negro's attempted apologies.
"Misser Suarez turned in, sah."
"Call Suarez," roared the captain, taking a threatening step in the direction of Jenks.
"Yas, sah," answered Jenks, his eyes big with wonder. "Needn't be so uppish. Ah shall sut'nly call Misser Suarez." Jenks backed away to the companionway in an effort to keep his face to the angry skipper and miscalculating his distance rolled backward down the stairs.
"You clumsy idiot," bellowed Dynamite, stepping to the top of the stairs and peering down into the darkness, out of which came a whisper:
"Yas, sah. Ah shall sut'nly call Misser Suarez."
Dynamite stepped back, and without speaking to Morgan, who watched him anxiously, paced the quarter-deck with nervous strides. Suarez appeared in his pajamas, rubbing his eyes. The captain stopped as he saluted, and looked from one to the other of the men. Finally he said, holding out the message to Suarez:
"Suarez—Morgan—here are the instructions regarding the removal of the cargo. They are simple. There is also news—bad news—but that concerns only me. Take this paper, Suarez, and with Captain Morgan's assistance carry out the orders to the letter. You are in command."
Then he turned to Washington, who had followed Suarez to the quarter-deck.
"Bring me my night coat, Washington, and my rifle. Suarez, have the gig lowered. I am going ashore."
"And may I ask the captain where at this hour of the night?"
"Take a file of my men, O'Connor. The country between here and Cubitas is full of Spaniards."
"Thank you, Morgan. I have good, true men of my own who know the country as well as I do myself, but they would only hamper me. I must make speed—speed, do you hear? Suarez, why do you stand there like a wooden Indian? Get my gig into the water."
"If you are bent upon going, O'Connor, and I know how useless it is to try to swerve you, why not take my boat. It is manned and lying at the ladder."
"That is better, Morgan. I will send it back to you. Come on, you lazy rascal, with that coat."
He seized his coat and rifle, and ran down the stairway to the companionway, and along the deck to the point where Morgan's boat lazily floated on the black water.
"Take your orders from Captain Dynamite," called Morgan to his men as O'Connor slid down into the boat. The negro who had followed close at his heels peered over the side and whispered pleadingly:
"Cap'n Dynamite, sah, you'se not going without George Wash Jenks?"
"To the shore, lads, and pull for your lives," said O'Connor. The boat shot away from the steamer's side and was soon lost in the dark shadow of the shore.
Washington shook his head deprecatingly, and returned to the quarter-deck, where he gravely saluted the mate.
"Your servant, sah," he said. "Cap'n Dynamite he say you in command."
"Bring a lantern, Washington, quick," said Suarez. Then turning to Morgan, he continued:
"What do you suppose the bad news can be that has so affected the chief and which he says concerns only him?"
"Gomez's message will tell. Quick, boy, with that lantern."
As Jenks stepped into the cabin, Harry, fully dressed, came out of his stateroom. The unusual noise on deck and the loud commands of the captain had awakened him.
"What's up, Wash?" he asked.
"Plenty. Cap'n Dynamite get bad news in message, and bang—he scoot for shore."
"Captain gone ashore, to-night?"
"What's the bad news, Wash?"
"Nobody knows yet. George Wash Jenks get cap'n's lantern and then we find out."
He took the lantern from the hook, and with Harry behind him returned to the deck. Morgan took the light and held it so that Suarez could read the message.
"Ah, here it is" said the mate, after he had scanned the instructions. He read aloud:
"'My heart is full of grief for you. Notwithstanding the heavy guard maintained around the house the Spaniards succeeded last night in seizing Juanita and have taken her to prison. She is charged with aiding the rebels. Come to me at once that we may plan together to effect her escape or rescue.'"
"Spaniards got Missee Juanita?" shouted Washington, who had listened eagerly while Suarez read. "I guess I go to cap'n."
The negro made a flying leap for the rail and in another instant would have dived into the sea toward the shore. Morgan was too quick, though, and seizing him by the collar dragged him back to the deck.
"Never was such a mucher at guessing," murmured the negro.
"What do you say to putting the boy ashore and letting him join O'Connor?" asked Morgan. "He knows the country and might be of much assistance to that stubborn man in his dangerous journey."
"Please, Misser Suarez, sah, lemme go after Cap'n Dynamite. He and Missee Juanita need George Wash Jenks."
The negro dropped on his knees as he pleaded with the mate.
"And we will go with you, Washington."
It was Harry who spoke, and the men turned to him in astonishment.
"You do not know the danger, my boy," said Suarez, quietly.
"We'll chance it. We owe Captain Dynamite a big debt. If there is a chance to help him in his trouble it is our duty to do so."
"It is a question whether you would help or hinder him."
Suarez was undecided. While he bore the boys no malice he had always chafed at their presence on the ship. No interest in them as individuals would have caused him to oppose their wishes. His thoughts, hopes, desires, and ambitions were all Cuba's. The fate of the three boys whose lives meant nothing to the cause, was nothing to him. Deep down in his heart he would be glad to rid the ship of them. But he feared the wrath of his chief. He walked the deck in silence for a few minutes and then, as if speaking to himself he said:
"If any one should take one of the boats and make the shore during the night, their escape might not be discovered until daylight."
As he finished speaking, George Washington Jenks beckoned to Harry, and together they made their way silently down to the main deck.
INTO THE ENEMY'S COUNTRY
Harry called Bert and Mason and explained the situation to them. Both were eager to accompany the expedition on shore. Washington was busy forward when the boys joined him. He had gathered and piled up under the rail a supply of guns and ammunition sufficient to arm a company of men. He had made good use of the few minutes the boys had occupied in dressing, for a small boat already lay alongside the steamer. Harry surmised that the men, who were all exceedingly fond of their commander, had assisted Washington in order that he might set out to give what aid he could to Captain Dynamite. There was scarcely a man among them but had made several voyages with him, and they well knew the danger that attended a journey through that part of the island, and the fate that awaited their chief if he should fall into the hands of the Spaniards. The mate was still in close conference with Captain Morgan, and either intentionally, or because of his preoccupation, paid no attention to the preparations of the little expedition.
"What are you going to do with all those guns?" asked Harry, as he surveyed the pile.
"May be some big shooting," replied Washington, nodding his head, wisely. "More guns, more shooting."
"But how are we to carry that arsenal? If I am not mistaken travelling hereabouts is not the easiest thing in the world, and we shall want as little to hamper as possible."
"I guess young gemman right," said Washington, looking regretfully at the heap of guns.
"Let us each take a gun and a pistol——"
"And machete—machete," interrupted the negro, his eyes bulging, while he swung his arm as if wielding one of the short Cuban swords.
"All right, Washington, machete if you choose. They may do to cut our way through the underbrush."
"Cut way through Spaniard," said Washington, still waving his arm excitedly.
"You can do all that kind of cutting, George Wash Jenks. Perhaps you would prefer a razor."
"All right; machete it is, and I hope you will find something to use it on and work off some of that cutting energy."
They then each selected from the supply of arms a rifle, pistol, and all the ammunition they could comfortably carry. They lowered them into the small boat and were about to climb in when Harry stopped them.
"What about food, Washington?" he asked. "We'd better tote some along, I think."
With his usual energy, Harry had naturally taken command of the expedition.
"How much of a tramp is it to where Captain Dynamite is going?"
"Captain Dynamite go to Gomez—Gomez at Cubitas."
"That does not mean anything to us. How far is it from here to Cubitas and how long will it take us to reach it?"
"'Bout two days."
"All right. Now Washington, you get some ship biscuit, dried beef, and coffee from your stock in the galley and we will each carry our own rations. I guess we can get through on that grub for two days."
"And ah guess a leetle lasses for coffee, Misser Harry," pleaded the negro.
"How under the sun are you going to carry molasses, Washington? I guess you will have to take your coffee black and without sweetening."
"Never was such a musser at guessing," murmured Washington, as he turned into the galley. He soon reappeared with the rations, four oilskin jackets, and a coffee pot. They divided the food and each bundled up his supply in an oil skin and tied the package on his back. They were now ready to begin their journey, and one by one they silently slipped over the side and dropped into the boat below.
"Washington, you take the tiller," said Harry. "You know the way."
"Do you know where to make a landing in the dark?"
"George Wash Jenks knows every inch of the coast hereabouts with him eyes shut."
"All right then. You get up in the bow, Midget, and keep a lookout ahead. Bert and I will row. It's not more than three hundred feet to the shore."
The boys bent to the oars and the little boat shot across the narrow streak of starlit water into the shadow of the rugged shore.
"Stop!" whispered Mason quickly, when they were within a few feet of the beach. The boys backed water and brought the boat up within her own length.
"What is it?" asked Harry, anxiously.
"There's a man on shore with a gun aimed plumb at us," replied Davis, pointing into the darkness ahead.
"Him one of Misser Morgan's men," said Washington. "Him all right, ah guess, maybe."
The boys started to row again when a loud command from shore made them rest on their oars with great dispatch.
"Halt, or I'll fire."
The words came out of the darkness in deep, determined tones. The boys could dimly distinguish the form of a man standing on a little bluff above them, with his rifle aimed with disturbing accuracy directly at their boat.
"We are friends from the Mariella," called Harry, "and are on our way to join Captain Dynamite."
"Captain Dynamite passed through the lines half an hour ago. He said he was travelling alone."
"Yes, that's right," answered Harry. "He thinks he is, but we want to help him. Let us come ashore and I will explain to you."
"Halt, or I fire," again came the command.
"Don't you think we better go back, Hal?" whispered Mason, who had crouched down in the bow out of the way of a stray bullet. "I don't care much for this real gun business. It's too exciting for my constitution."
"Don't you understand," persisted Harry, "that we are friends of Captain Dynamite and the cause?"
"Friends of the cause will give the countersign," said the voice in the same even tone.
"Washington, you ought to know the countersign," whispered Harry to the negro, who had listened to the conversation with open mouth. He shook his head as if he did not comprehend.
"You know—the word that tells people that you are a friend of Cuba."
"O, dats de password—suah." Washington grinned with joy.
"Well, the password then; what is it?"
"Ah guess it is 'Independencia.'"
"I hope you have guessed right this time."
"Not such a mucher," murmured Washington, deprecatingly.
"Independencia," repeated Harry, loud enough for the man on shore to hear.
"Advance friends," said the sentinel, quickly lowering his gun.
The party landed without further opposition and found instead of one man, whose form they had been able to distinguish from the boat, ten or a dozen more a few feet back from the shore, squatting around a small fire, the light of which was masked by a thick growth of underbrush. They were all dark-skinned men with heavy growths of black beard. They looked up without displaying any particular interest as the boys landed, but the sentinel who had challenged them came forward and held out his hand in greeting. He was undoubtedly an American.
"Glad to see any one who speaks English," he said, as Harry approached and took his offered hand. "What are you boys doing here?"
"That's a long story," replied Harry, smiling. "Briefly, though, Captain Dynamite ran down our sail boat while we were sailing off Martha's Vineyard, picked us out of the water and brought us along whether we would or no."
"And where are you going now?"
"To join Captain Dynamite. He may need our assistance."
The man smiled.
"I am afraid you will be more likely to need his if you persist in your purpose," he said.
"That, of course, is a matter of opinion," replied Harry, drawing himself up indignantly. "And to return the compliment may I ask what you are doing in Cuba?"
"Certainly," laughed the man. "I came with Morgan. We are soldiers of fortune."
"Then you are not a patriot?"
"Not exactly. I believe in the cause and I also believe that we will eventually win."
"And then you expect your reward?"
"That's what we are fighting here for."
"Sort of playing with fortune," chimed in Mason.
"Not exactly—sort of throwing dice with fate."
"Well, come on, fellows," said Harry. "We are losing time and letting the captain get more of a lead on us."
"So you are determined to go on?"
"I see no reason yet to turn back," replied Harry.
"But you do not know the country and its dangers."
"We have a good guide," said Harry, pointing to Washington.
The man leaned forward and peered in the darkness at the negro.
"Why, it's George Wash Jenks," he said in surprise. "Captain Dynamite's man. How are you, Wash?"
"Ah guess ah's all right, sah."
"Still guessing I see, Wash."
"Not such a mucher, sah," the negro grinned broadly.
"Well boys, you are right about your guide. You can't go wrong around here while Wash is with you. Good luck to you. You will have to travel fast to catch up to Dynamite though. He was making express time and would not even stop to shake hands. All I could get out of him was: 'Gomez—I must get to Gomez.' Nothing wrong, is there?"
"No, nothing—nothing that concerns the cause. Good-bye. Come on, Washington."
Harry turned and started into the brush.
"Not that way, Misser Harry," called Washington. "We keep by the shore a piece yet. Never get no further than six feet in there, ah guess."
He turned along the narrow beach below an overhanging bluff. For half an hour they hugged the shore.
"Did the captain come this way do you think, Washington?" asked Harry.
"Don't guess this time, Misser Harry. No other way to come."
So far the going had been comparatively easy. They had to now and then clamber over jagged points of rocks that made out into the sea, and in the darkness they several times stumbled and fell, but no one was much hurt. Most of the way, however, had been along the sandy beach. Now Washington stopped and seemed to be looking for something. He peered out into the darkness over the sea and then shook his head. Then he stepped back toward the water and looked up at the skyline of the quickly rising inland country.
"Lost the trail?" enquired Harry, after he had watched the negro's movements for some time in silence.
"Not lost 'em, Misser Harry. Tryin' to find 'em. Big tree on leetle island. Can't see 'em." He pointed out over the sea where he had been gazing. Then he turned and pointed inland. "Big tree there. Can see him all right."
The boys looked up to where he pointed over the land and saw a large palm rising high above its fellows and clearly marked against the sky. It resembled the two big trees that had guided Captain Dynamite in making the entrance to the hidden lagoon. Evidently Washington was searching for some spot that was to be discovered by bringing the big tree on shore and the now invisible one on the island into line.
"George Wash Jenks, he find 'em. Don't worry 'bout dat," he said, as he walked about five feet to the right and then faced about and approached the bluff, which at this point was twenty feet high and thickly grown with brush and low entangling plants. He fumbled around among the vines and then turning to the boys called: "All right now."
As Harry came up he pointed at the bluff and then pulling aside the underbrush began to slowly work his way inward. The boys followed him. The branches scratched their faces and the ground vines clung to their feet. They were entering a narrow cleft in the hill which was filled with rank vegetation.
"Keep a pushin'," said Washington. "Not so bad when we get in leetle more."
They struggled on for about one hundred feet when the brush became less thick and finally they reached a narrow lane that had been hewed and trampled through the high growth. Their progress now became easier and with Washington in the lead they pushed ahead rapidly. They had made their way about half a mile inland when out of the brush came a voice that brought them to a standstill with a start.
"Alto! Quien Va?"
"Dat another Misser Morgan's men," whispered Washington.
"Independencia," said Harry, when he had recovered his breath, for the challenge coming unexpectedly from one concealed by the darkness and the bushes was somewhat startling. There was a low reply in Spanish and they proceeded without molestation.
About every half a mile a mysterious voice challenged them, but the countersign secured for them uninterrupted progress. Through the waning night they pushed on, until the light in the sky told them that day was breaking. Then Washington stopped. He had scarcely spoken since they took the trail.
"Missers," he said, as they halted, "better have breakfast now."
"Can we light a fire here safely?"
"Yes, now; not bime bye."
They unslung their improvised knapsacks and gathering some dry brush soon had a small fire burning. Washington made the coffee, procuring water from a stream that ran through the brush. The boys, thoroughly tired out, threw themselves down for a brief rest. They munched their crackers and dried beef with relish and drank coffee in turn from a tin cup that Washington had had the foresight to provide.
"This seems very much like camping up at school," said Mason.
"Yes, only I would prefer to have the boys in the bushes than a lot of Spaniards and Cubans with real bullets in their guns," replied Bert.
"You always do look at the unromantic side of things, Bert. We haven't seen a Spaniard yet."
"Good and plenty when we get in the open," said Washington.
"How do you know this country so well, Washington?" asked Harry.
"Born here, Misser Harry. I'se Cuban nigger."
"I thought you said you were 'George Wash Jenks, New York, U. S. A.?'"
"I suah are now, sah. I was only a picaninny when I ranned away with Massa Cap'n Dynamite."
"So you ran away with your young master, eh?"
"Yas, sah, dat's it."
"And you've been with him ever since?"
"Him couldn't lose me, sah." George grinned.
"And who is Miss Juanita?"
"Missee Juanita live on next plantation. She and Massa Capt'n Dynamite goin' to get married bime bye. He tell her so when he ranned away."
"Well Washington, it's sun up now and we better be moving if we expect to catch up with Massa Captain Dynamite."
"We not catch Cap'n until we get to Cubitas."
"Cap'n travel through this country faster'n any mule, and he not stop 'til he get there."
"Not stop to sleep?"
"No sleep, no eat. Missee Juanita in danger. I know the Massa Cap'n."
CAPTURED BY SPANIARDS
The party, after breaking their fast, packed up their rations and started on again. The tangled forest of low growth through which they struggled began to thin out, and they found themselves in an almost open country at the foot of a range of mountains. Before they left the shelter of the bushes, Washington motioned the boys back, and dropping on his stomach, wriggled to the edge of the woods, where he made a long survey of the country. Seemingly satisfied, he beckoned to the others to come on, and they all cautiously crept out into the open country.
"Must keep eyes peeled now for Spaniards," said Washington. "Plenty of 'em 'tween here'n Cubitas."
"Which way now, Washington?" asked Harry.
The negro pointed straight ahead.
"Over that mountain?" queried Mason, in dismay.
"Suah—and then another—but that's Cubitas."
They toiled on while the hot sun began to mount high in the sky. The perspiration dripped from their faces as they walked. The mountain was thickly wooded to its very base and they made as rapid progress as possible in the wake of the doggedly plodding negro in the effort to gain the shade and the security of the trees.
"Half hour more and we find good place for siesta. Can't go on 'til sun goes down," said Washington, who had noticed the boys' fatigue.
When they reached the foot of the mountain the negro struck off into the thick woods, and after a long climb they came out into a small glade, through which trickled a tiny stream. The boys drank greedily of the cool water, and Washington gathered boughs and leaves and soon rigged up a temporary shelter under the trees. Throwing themselves down beneath this, with their coats for pillows, all hands dropped off into a deep sleep.
When Harry awoke it was late afternoon. Bert was sitting up rubbing his eyes. Washington and Mason still slept on.
"I'm getting very tired of this sort of thing, Hal," whispered Bert, "I am afraid I was not cut out for a strenuous life. Do you think there are any Spaniards loafing around in this neighborhood?"
"Let's take a look while the others finish their nap," suggested Harry.
The boys picked up their rifles and cautiously entered the woods, moving from tree to tree and dodging around rocks and boulders in true Indian fashion. The excitement of thus picking their way through the woods caused them to forget that they were proceeding in anything but a direct line, and when they at last bethought themselves, neither could tell in which direction the camp lay behind them.
They dared not shout, and they looked at each other in dismay.
"We are a brilliant pair," said Bert in disgust. "Now what are we to do? Have you any idea how far we have come, or in what direction?"
"I think I have a general notion. Let's work back anyway."
They faced about and began to make their way as rapidly as possible in the direction from which they believed they had come. Both were pretty well frightened for they realized the danger of becoming separated from their guide in that wild country, aside from the possibility of falling into the hands of Spaniards. In their nervous scare they hurried recklessly on, tripping now and then over trailing vines and plunging head on into thickets. Still they did not come upon the glade from which they had so unwisely strayed.
At last, convinced that they were not proceeding in the right direction, they stopped and tried again to figure out the position of the camp. It was useless. They were now hopelessly lost. Harry looked up at the sun anxiously. It was getting low.
"It looks as if you and I were in another scrape, Bert," he said, trying to smile.
"We might wander for days without getting out of this labyrinth."
"It's not so bad as that. We can get into the open all right by simply following the mountain down. But I do not know what good that would do us, for we could never find the pass through which we came."
"No, and then there are the Spaniards."
"Well, I suppose the Spaniards are a pretty serious proposition to Washington, who is their natural enemy, but I do not think they would do us much harm. We're American citizens, you know."
"They are not looking for American citizens out here, and we should have a hard time explaining. We couldn't say we came on the Mariella."
"No, that would hardly do. Still, we have not done anything to injure Spain, and we were certainly unwilling passengers on the Mariella. I do not see how they can do anything very disagreeable."
"Judging from what Captain Dynamite says, they are inclined to consider every one except a Spaniard as an enemy and a Cuban sympathizer."
"Well, we've got to take some sort of a chance, so we might as well shout."
"All right, both together."
They sent up a "holloa" that rang through the trees.
"Mason—Washington," they shouted. "Answer. We have lost you."
Away in the distance they heard a faint answering call. In their efforts to retrace their steps they had wandered still further from their companions. They could not distinguish the words of the reply, but the sound gave them the direction, and with glad hearts they set off.
Suddenly they heard a crackling in the bushes behind them.
"Quien Vio?" called a voice. Their hearts sank within them. Turning quickly, they looked into the muzzles of four rifles.
"Gee, it's the Spaniards at last," whispered Bert. "Still I don't know but I had rather see them than no one. It was getting mighty lonesome."
"They may be more of Morgan's men," said Harry.
"By jove, that's so. Let's try the countersign on them."
"Don't," commanded Harry, quickly, catching his arm. "Suppose they were not. The word would convict us at once."
Had Washington been with them he would have recognized the Spanish challenge.
In the meantime the men had advanced, keeping the boys covered with their guns as if they were a pair of desperadoes who might attack them at any moment. They wore old and dirty uniforms, but it was plain that they had once been of regulation color and pattern.
"They are Spaniards fast enough," whispered Harry, as the men approached. "Cubans have no regular uniform." Then to the men he said:
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are glad to see you. We are lost out here on your mountain. They are your mountains, I believe. We're Americans, you know."
"Ah, Americanos," said one of the men. "Surrend."
"Yes, Americanos if you prefer it so, but what do you want us to surrender?"
"Surrend," repeated the man, laying his hand roughly on Harry's rifle.
"O, the guns? Certainly. They are of no use to us, apparently."
Harry and Bert believing it to be the best policy to be tractable, held out their guns with amiable smiles. They were snatched rudely from them. When the rifles were safely in the hands of the soldiers, a little fat man whom they had not seen before stepped out of the bushes, where he had evidently intended to remain until the prisoners were disarmed. He was an officer, judging from his side arms, and with great pomposity he now advanced, puffing and blowing, toward the boys. He said something in Spanish to one of the men, who replied: "Americanos."
"Who you are doing here?" he demanded of Harry.
"O, sir," said Harry, "it is an agreeable surprise to find a gentleman who speaks our language so fluently," and he advanced with hand extended. The little man jumped back as if he feared the boy was about to strike and dodged behind his men, jabbering rapidly in Spanish. Evidently in response to some command, the four men rushed upon the boys and pinioned their hands behind their backs, tying them with gun straps.
"Look here," said Harry, indignantly. "I don't know who you are, but this is an outrage on two American citizens—do you understand?" He walked boldly up to the fat officer as he spoke and notwithstanding the boy's hands were now tied, the man backed away from him in fright.
"You will have to answer for this to the United States—do you understand that?" continued Harry.
"Poof to United States," said the little man, snapping his fingers. He then gave another order in Spanish, and two of the men took up a position in front of the boys and two behind. The men in front began to march and those behind prodded the prisoners in the back with their guns, to indicate that they were to go on. There was nothing for the boys to do but submit, and slowly they began the descent of the mountain, the valorous commander keeping well to the rear.
"These are your gentle Spaniards who wouldn't do a thing to you," said Bert, as they marched unwillingly along between their guards.
"O, this pompous little fat man is some subordinate officer who is puffed up with his own importance. We will be all right when we get to headquarters and can see the commanding officer."
"I'm not so sure of that. They do not seem to be bubbling over with kindly respect for the United States."
"Wait till we see the consul. You know O'Connor told us to call for our consul if we got into trouble."
"They may not let us see him."
"Then we'll—what will we do then, Bert?"
"Then it will be a case of measuring our wits against these fellows', and trying to make our escape. We may be able to get word to Captain Dynamite. Anyway Mason and Washington will probably discover that we have been captured and will go on to the captain."
"Yes, but he has troubles of his own now to attend to."
"Still I do not think he is the man to desert us entirely. He might get his friend Gomez to do something for us."
"Well, a great deal depends on whether we have fallen into the hands of a small or large detachment of Spaniards. If it is only a skirmishing party, Gomez or Morgan might rescue us."
"Let us hope it is a small outfit. I don't like the spirit these chaps show, nor the contempt in which their fat commander seems to hold the United States."
They were now getting near the foot of the mountain. Suddenly Harry clutched Bert's arm.
"What is it?" asked Bert, startled by Harry's movement.
"Don't look to right or left. I just saw the Midget's white face peeking out at us as we passed that last clump of bushes. It's all right now. They know we are prisoners and you can trust Mason for getting a move on." The boys tramped along with lighter hearts now that they were confident that their companion knew of their predicament.
"I hope they will not get pinched too," said Bert.
"Don't always look on the dark side of things, old chap," said Harry, a little testily. "Cheer up."
They were now in the open country again and made more rapid progress. The Spaniards moved along without any attempt at caution now. They well knew the Cuban methods of warfare, and did not fear an attack in the open. Opposed always by much superior numbers, the insurgents had learned that the only way to successfully cope with their enemy was to keep under cover and prosecute a guerilla warfare.
As they climbed the top of a small hill the boys were surprised to see in front of them the outlying buildings of what seemed to be a town or city of some size and importance. When they approached nearer they found that these buildings were but poor huts or cabins, and formed a sort of irregular, narrow street that led into the town, which was situated about a mile beyond. As they entered the street the character of these shed-like habitations flashed upon the boys. They were the homes of the "reconcentrados" of whom O'Connor had told them. The boys shuddered as they passed them and for a time scarcely dared to look to one side or the other for fear that they might see some horrible sight, so forcibly had O'Connor's description impressed them. Most of the huts were without doors and the interiors were open to a passing view. So hopeless were the miserable inmates that they did not even care to hide their suffering from the heartless eyes of the curious. The men laughed and joked as they passed on and Harry could not but feel that their jests were pointed by the misery of the reconcentrados.
Finally a horrible curiosity turned their heads and they saw in front of one of the huts a group of four persons. They were a man, a woman, a child of perhaps fourteen, and a babe in its mother's arms. The man lay stretched at full length on his back at the roadside. His eyes, which were open, were turned upward to the sky. The woman sat with her back to the mud wall of the hut. Her eyes were fixed on the man at her feet. The child stood in the doorway looking with expressionless eyes out into space. The few rags that covered them only served to emphasize the emaciation of their bodies and limbs. It needed no trained eye to tell that they were starving. As the party passed, not one of the four changed position or once turned their eyes. In their mute suffering they seemed unconscious of their surroundings.
One of the guards looked and laughed brutally.
Harry tugged at his bonds. In his fierce indignation he would have struck down the man.
Finally they passed out of this street of misery and entered the town. The boys had forgotten their own troubles in the contemplation of the suffering of the unhappy creatures behind them. The guards who had been slouching along at a swinging gait now straightened up and assumed a more soldierly air. At a word of command from their fat commander they halted before a building which was more imposing in appearance than its neighbors, and looked to be a public edifice of some sort. They marched, with their prisoners still between them, up the few steps that led to a wide doorway and into a large room on the right, where an officer was reclining in a lounging chair, lazily puffing a cigarette. It was now growing dark outside and the room was dimly lighted by a lamp that stood on the flat desk in front of the only occupant.
The man straightened himself up as the squad entered, and the little commander saluted with great deference.
"I told you so," said Harry, who noticed the air of deep respect that now marked their captor. "The little fat man is only an understrapper. Now we shall have a hearing."
While the little officer reported to his superior, the latter looked the boys over with some apparent curiosity. He asked a few questions and then uttering something that sounded like a judicial decision, he sank back in his chair again and lighted another cigarette.
The guard faced about, prodded the boys in the back again with their guns to indicate that they were to move on, and the procession filed out into the street again. For a moment the boys could scarcely realize that they were to have no hearing, and then Harry turned to the fat man indignantly.
"Are we not to be permitted to tell our story?" he demanded. "Where are you taking us? I demand a hearing as an American citizen in the presence of the American consul."
The little man, who evidently understood much of what he said, chuckled, and the men, taking their cue from their commander, jabbed the boys once more in the back.
"It's no use, Hal," said Bert. "We might as well wait and see what they intend to do with us."
They passed from one narrow street to another until they again halted in front of a building whose narrow windows were closely barred.
"Looks uncomfortably like a jail," said Harry, as he surveyed the white front of the gloomy structure. A door on the level with the street opened, the guns prodded the boys in the back again, and they entered through the low portal into a dark corridor. The door closed behind them and they found they were alone with a black-bearded man who carried a bunch of large keys that jangled unpleasantly.
He motioned silently for the boys to follow him, and as they had no choice in the matter, they did so. At the end of the corridor the man opened a door and pointed in. The boys entered and the door swung to behind them silently.
It was almost dark, but through the barred window of the room just enough twilight crept to show the boys that they were in a room that contained only a wooden table, two chairs, and two low wooden beds.
ON TO GOMEZ
When Mason and Washington awoke and discovered that their companions were missing, the negro became greatly excited.
"You stay here, Misser Midget," he said. "I go see if I can find 'em. They get lost in these woods, or catched by Spaniards. Don't you move 'til George Wash Jenks come back or you get lost too."
Washington took his rifle and disappeared among the trees, while Mason anxiously paced the small glade. The time passed slowly and the boy's nerves were strung to their highest tension. He started at the smallest rustle of the leaves in the trees around him, and began to imagine all sorts of disagreeable possibilities. What if Washington should be unable to find his way back or should fall into the hands of the Spaniards? And what if the Spaniards should discover him before Washington returned. His excited mind began to reflect pictures of a lone boy starving to death in the woods. And then the picture would change and he would be struggling against an overwhelming number of Spaniards, who would seize and bind him and rush him off to suffer the horrors of the inquisition.
Suddenly in the distance he heard the boys' shout. It sent the blood tingling through his veins. At least he was not quite alone in the woods while his companions were within hailing distance. He sent up a glad cry in response. Again came the shout and again he replied, and then with his heart more at ease, he sat down on a rock and waited for them to appear.
There was a slight crackling in the bushes behind him. He turned quickly. Washington burst into the clearing, his eyes bulging with excitement.
"Quick, Misser Midget," he said, seizing the boy's arm and dragging him off into the thicket.
"Spaniards got Misser Harry and Misser Bert and comin' this way."
Crouching low in the bushes, they saw the prisoners marched by and were helpless to aid them. Once Washington gripped his gun and made a movement to dash out of cover, but his better sense prevailed.
"No use," he whispered. "Spaniards too many and must be more close by."
When the party was well down the mountain, Washington pushed aside the bushes and straightened up. Turning to Mason, who was pale from excitement, he said: "Now we make tracks for Massa Cap'n Dynamite. They take Missers where they take Missee Juanita. Massa cap'n he come back with one—two—three hundred men and he and Cap'n Morgan they make 'em sorry."
As there seemed to be nothing else to do but to seek reinforcements, Mason, with a heavy heart picked up his bundle and his rifle, and followed Washington through the woods. Their progress was slow, as the negro proceeded now with more caution. Darkness soon came upon them and made their advance still more difficult. The route that Washington was following often necessitated a climb up the almost perpendicular face of a rock as the mountain became more precipitous. Mason's hands bled from contact with the rough rocks, and he panted for breath. Still Washington pushed on, and when morning broke they found themselves at the top of the mountain.
"Take short rest," said Washington, unslinging his pack and sitting down with his back to a boulder. "Eat a bite and Wash make some coffee. Heap easier goin' down mountain."
"But you said there was still another mountain to climb, Washington," said Mason, wearily.
"Yas, sah, but Cubitas and Massa Cap'n Dynamite on top that one. May meet 'em comin' down with one—two—three hundred men."
"I hope we meet them at the foot, Washington. I do not long for another climb like this one."
"Pretty tough one, suah 'nough, sah."
The descent was of course much easier than the climb, but nevertheless they found many obstacles in their way, and as caution dictated that they should keep well aside from any open trail, their progress down the mountain was scarcely more rapid than their climb had been. But they had the advantage of daylight and passed over the rough places with fewer bruises and cuts. They made one more short stop at about noon, and then pushed on again although the sun was now excessively hot, even as it filtered through the thick foliage. It was late afternoon when they reached the bottom of the mountain and entered the valley between the two ranges of hills. This valley was about a mile wide and through it flowed a narrow stream. The shores were wooded, but the rest of the country was an open plain. They waded the little river, and as they were about to clamber out on the other side, the familiar challenge rang out:
"That General Gomez man. Say password," said Washington.
"Independencia," said Mason, with a slight quaver in his voice.
These unexpected challenges from invisible sentinels were somewhat wearing on the nerves. They passed on without interference.
"Where was that man stationed, Washington?" asked Mason.
"Up top of head in big tree," chuckled the negro. "Good place to pop over Spaniard if he comes along. Not get by the next one so easy."
Washington was right. When they reached the foot of the mountain they were again challenged, and although Mason promptly gave the countersign, they were at once surrounded by a dozen armed men, who talked rapidly in Spanish. Washington, who spoke the language imperfectly, explained that they were the bearers of an important message for Captain Dynamite, and after many conferences aside and further questioning, two men were told off to accompany them, and they were allowed to proceed practically as prisoners.
"All right now," said Washington, with a broad grin. "Got a suah 'nough body guard."
A wide, well-used trail made the ascent of this mountain comparatively easy. When they reached the top, Mason was surprised to find a small settlement in the middle of which was a large, low, wooden building, all four sides of which were patroled by sentinels. Toward this building their guard headed. They entered through a wide doorway and found themselves in a large, square room, with three other occupants. It was now quite dark, so that for a moment Mason did not recognize Captain Dynamite as one of the men. The three were in earnest converse at a long table, and for some time did not notice the new comers, who paused on the threshold.
"That Massa Cap'n Dynamite, General Gomez, and President Betancourt," said Washington, pointing to the notable group.
Mason looked with interest at the old general who stood at the head of the table. He was easily distinguished because of his military bearing and accoutrements, for the grizzled warrior had one little weakness—a love of display. He was a much smaller man than Mason expected to see, but there was that in his rugged, tanned face and firm chin that at once commanded respect and attention. He bore his seventy odd years lightly and his slight form was as straight as a ramrod. His uniform, unlike those of his faithful followers, was immaculately spotless. His carbine, on which he rested, was gold mounted; the sabre at his side was elegantly chased and decorated, and the silver on his pistol handles glittered in the waning light. As he turned his eyes on the group in the doorway, his heavy iron-grey eyebrows contracted into a scowl and he spoke quickly to O'Connor. The latter turned and started from his chair angrily.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"If you please, Massa Cap'n, ah——"
"Let me explain, Wash," said Mason, advancing a step when he felt the hand of one of the guards fall heavily on his shoulder. "I think, captain," he continued, pointing to the man, "that we can get along now without the protection of these gentlemen."
O'Connor waved his hand and the two men saluted and filed out.
Mason advanced boldly to the table and facing O'Connor, said:
"Captain Dynamite, you should not blame Washington. It is his love for you and Miss Juanita that brings him here."
"I suppose you are right, boy," said the captain, still scowling, "but I am in great trouble and I do not like to have my plans interfered with. But what brings you here?"
"Well, we heard that you were in trouble, and as Washington was going to join you, we thought we would come along, too, and be of what assistance we could."
The scowl faded from the man's face. He turned to General Gomez and spoke to him in Spanish. When he had finished, the old warrior looked the Midget over from head to foot and the stern lines of his face broke into a genial smile, gentle and reassuring. O'Connor stepped forward, and taking Mason's hand, shook it warmly.
"I thank you, my boy, for your good intentions. You must have made excellent time over a rough and dangerous road, for you are here close at my heels. And your journey has left its marks, I see," he said, as he noticed Mason's cut and bruised face and hands, and his torn clothing. "But where are your friends?"
"The Spaniards have got 'em," said Mason, laconically.
O'Connor looked first at the boy as if he thought it a joke, and then at Washington, in whose troubled face he read confirmation.
"Yas, Massa Cap'n; Spaniards got 'em, suah 'nough," said Washington, nodding his head vigorously in the affirmative.
"When, where, how did it happen?" asked O'Connor, rapidly.
"It was on the far side of the fust mountain, after we pass the fust clearing. Boys left the camp and before George Wash Jenks could find 'em 'long came Spaniards and snapped 'em up."
"Why did you let them leave the camp, you rascal? You know this country too well for that."
"Went while George Wash Jenks was asleep," answered the negro sheepishly.
"Well, where did they take them?"
"Leettle town 'bout mile down clearing, ah 'spect.".
"Humph! You don't know, then?"
"George Wash Jenks think it best to come to Massa Cap'n and not go snoopin' after Spaniard in the open. Got cotched too."
"Yes, I guess you are right. Now, what is to be done? I wonder if the boys will know enough to keep their tongues still about the Mariella?" The captain looked questioningly at Mason as he spoke.
"You needn't fear, sir, that they will say or do anything likely to get you into trouble," said the boy, promptly.
O'Connor smiled at the boy's defence of his comrades.
"I was not thinking of myself, my boy; but if it were known that they were in any way connected with the expedition of the Mariella it might go hard with them."
"I think they will understand that, sir."
"Now, the next question is how to aid them. I think my own mission lies in their direction. But you need freshening up a bit, and I'll wager you are hungry. I will send a man with you to my quarters. You will find soap and water there and a tin basin. The accommodations are a little primitive and not quite up to the Mariella's, but you can get some of the dirt out of those cuts. We will sup here when you are ready. Washington, you know the way to the mess-room. Go and fill up that empty stomach of yours and then return to me. You go back to Captain Morgan in an hour."
"O, Massa Cap'n, not goin' to send George Wash Jenks back?"
"You will be best serving me, Washington. You will bear a dispatch of the utmost importance. It must be in Captain Morgan's hands within thirty-six hours in order that he may co-operate with us. I know of no other man who knows the road well enough to cover it in that time. You will also act as an escort to Miss Juanita's mother and her attendants."
Proud of the distinction and eager to serve his master, as he insisted upon calling O'Connor, the negro straightened up.
"Message shall be there, sah. Missee Juanita's mother shall have escort, too."
O'Connor called an orderly and sent him with Mason to his quarters. After washing and tidying up his tattered clothing as well as he could, the boy returned to the military headquarters, where the three men were again in earnest conference. O'Connor motioned to a big wooden settee at one end of the room. Mason stretched out on this and, utterly worn out, his eyes closed and in five minutes he had dropped off into a heavy slumber.
For half an hour longer the men continued their conference, and then, having come to some unanimous conclusion, they rose from the table. O'Connor, seeing the sleeping boy, stepped over to the settee and removing his coat, rolled it up and placed it gently under his head. Then, with a military salute to President Betancourt, he and General Gomez passed out of the building.
Mason was suddenly awakened by the shouts of men and the jangling of guns and sabres. He sat up quickly and rubbed his eyes, looking around the room in a bewildered manner. At first the train of recent events would not form themselves properly in his mind. He could not for a moment recall the room in which he found himself, or how he got there. The moonlight was streaming in at the low open windows and fell upon the long table at which again sat the three men, while an orderly stood silently behind the chair of the general. They were apparently eating, and hunger gnawing at the boy's stomach dulled any sense of delicacy and he rose and walked directly to the table.
"I think you said we would sup here, Captain," he said.
O'Connor turned and motioned to the orderly to bring a chair.
"I certainly did, my boy, but seeing you asleep I thought I would not disturb you at present. Sit down, and while you eat tell me all you know of the capture of the boys and the movements of their captors."
Mason told the details of the boys' capture and O'Connor repeated it in Spanish to Gomez and Betancourt. In the meantime outside of the building all was confusion, and through the open door and windows the boy could see that armed men were rapidly gathering in response to the loud commands of leaders. As fast as one squad or company formed, it moved off and down the mountain trail by which Mason and Washington had approached the plateau. Another squad began forming at once. There seemed to be a constant stream of men pouring down the mountain side.
HARRY REFUSES TO BETRAY CAPTAIN DYNAMITE
Harry and Bert had hardly time to inspect the bare room in which they were imprisoned, when the door opened again and two men entered. They removed the straps from the boys' wrists and retired without a word. A key grated in the lock after the door had closed. Harry walked over quickly and tried to open it. There was no handle or lock on the inside and it would not yield to pressure.
"Well," said Harry, after a short silence, dropping onto one of the beds.
"Well," repeated Bert in the same half-questioning tone.
"We are prisoners hard and fast. What do you think they mean to do with us?"
"Send us on to Havana, maybe, for the inspection of Weyler. But in the meantime what are we going to do? I don't believe in letting them have it all their own way, do you?"