It was a harsh measure, perhaps; but then no man should be wanting in respect to a woman, and the fellow had but himself to blame.
Jose, as I have said, withheld the news, or I should have gone at all risks to Lima. As it was, I stayed contentedly in the valley, waiting until the Indians received the signal to move.
From that time we heard rumours of hard fighting in various parts of the country, and about the middle of March 1821 a messenger arrived from Raymon Sorillo. He brought the order for thirty men to march to Pisco, on the sea-coast, where a small patriot detachment had landed under the command of Colonel Miller.
"A countryman of ours, Jack," remarked Jose, "and, from what I hear, one of the finest fellows in South America. The patriots think almost as much of him as they do of the famous Lord Cochrane."
"What is he like?"
"I haven't seen him; but he is quite young—not twenty-four yet—though he has been soldiering for the last eight years. He served under Wellington in Spain, fought all through the Chilian War, was Cochrane's right-hand man at the capture of Valdivia, and now he has come to help us. He has been shipwrecked, taken prisoner, wounded times out of number, blown up by a powder explosion—after which he was confined for six weeks in a dark room and fed through a plaster mask—and nearly killed by fever. I should say he has crowded as much excitement into his life as any man in the world."
"He seems to be a lively customer!"
"He is," laughed Jose; "and nothing will ever kill him, in my opinion!"
"Don't you think we might join him?" I asked, my blood being fired by Jose's description.
"Well," said my companion, after a pause, "that's what I was about to suggest. You must throw in somewhere, and I'm not over anxious for Sorillo to get hold of you. He's a cruel fellow, though kind enough to us, and all the cut-throats in the country are likely to flock to him. I'm sorry for the Spaniards who fall into his hands!"
Quilca was rather opposed to our plans, but finding us determined, he at last agreed that we should accompany him on the next expedition.
Day had but just broken when we rode from the valley and I turned to take a farewell glance at the place which had been my home so long. I had not been altogether unhappy there, yet I was glad to go into the world again, to take the first step on the road to Lima and my mother.
The march to Pisco passed without incident. We suffered horribly, it is true, from thirst, and from choking, blinding sandstorms; but there were no Spaniards in that desolate district to bar our way.
A few hours' march from the town we fell in with some Indian scouts, and learned from them that the Patriots lay encamped in the Chincha Baja, a beautiful valley. Our joy at these tidings was, however, soon dashed by the report that they were in a deplorable condition—suffering from fever and ague, and unable to move.
The gloomy picture was not overdrawn. The valley was a hospital, but almost destitute of doctors and medicine. The sentries, selected from the strongest of the troops, could barely stand, staggering even under the weight of their muskets. Privates and officers alike were prostrate, and a score of strong men could have killed them all without effort.
As it chanced, the enemy, stationed in an adjoining valley, though suffering less severely, were in no condition to make an attack, and the two parties could do no more than idly watch each other.
Ordering his men to dismount, Quilca went to find an officer, and soon returned with the startling intelligence that the colonel himself lay dangerously ill in one of the huts.
"Not an encouraging start!" I remarked.
"A bad beginning often makes a good ending," answered Jose cheerfully. "Let us go to see him."
The doctor, a Spaniard, was attending his patient when we entered the hut, and he beckoned us toward the bed.
I could not repress a start at the sight which met our eyes. The colonel was turning restlessly but feebly from side to side; his eyes were unnaturally bright; his cheek bones stood out sharp and prominent. He mumbled to himself in short snatches, but so faintly that only a word here and there reached us.
Once he smiled pleasantly, saying, "Yes, I see the steeple! Dear old Wingham!"
I did not at that time understand the allusion, but afterwards it became plain that he referred to his home, the home of his childhood, a place called Wingham, in Kent.
"Do you know," said Jose sharply, turning to the doctor, "that your patient is dying?"
"Perfectly; but what can I do?" replied he. "He is suffering from the tertian ague; the valley is permeated with it."
"We must get him out of it," said Jose, with decision.
"But where will you take him? the town is as bad."
"On shipboard, and give him a sea-breeze."
"The Chilian squadron is absent, cruising."
"Then we must beg, borrow, or steal a trading-vessel; for go he must and shall."
It was wonderful how the doctor brightened up at these words, and still more wonderful how he allowed himself to be commanded by a stranger. But Jose was a strong man though not often exerting his strength, and there was that in his face which made most men chary of coming to handgrips with him.
"Come, Jack," said he, "let us go to the bay and find a ship, if we wish to save the colonel's life. Another week of this pestilence and he will be dead, and Peru can't afford to lose him just yet."
"But suppose," said I, as we rode away from the valley, "that the authorities won't allow him to be moved?"
"Why, we'll move him in spite of them. Quilca's men can be trusted to help us. 'Twill be a little campaign on our own account!" said he, with a jovial laugh.
Even Jose, however, could not impress a vessel that had no existence, and the bay was empty. A few boats only lay peacefully resting on the placid waters, but of a ship there was no sign. We stood for an hour staring seaward, as if our will could conjure up a vessel, and then returned to the town. We paid a visit to the governor, but he could not help us. It was unlikely there would be a vessel, he said, until Lord Cochrane returned with the squadron from Callao.
"When will that be?" I asked.
The governor gave his shoulders an expressive shrug.
"The gallant Englishman does not confide in me," he replied. "He may come to-day; he may not come for a twelvemonth."
It was getting late now, and nothing further could be done till the following morning. Jose was disappointed, but in no way disheartened.
"If we can't get what we want," said he, "we must be satisfied with what we can get. There's a fine bit of philosophy for you!"
"And what can we get?"
"A house at the seaside. We'll look for a sheltered place on the beach to-morrow, bring down some men to build a hut, and have the colonel removed to it. With the sea air filling his lungs, he may yet have a chance of recovery."
Instead of returning to camp, we slept that night at Pisco, and after an early breakfast went again to the beach. Jose had just selected an admirable spot for the hut, when we suddenly heard a shout of "Sail ho! sail ho! There's another—and another! Why, it must be Cochrane's squadron!"
In an instant we were gazing seaward, and there, sure enough, rounding the corner of the bay, were several vessels, led by a stately ship.
By this time a number of people had assembled, and more were coming in hot haste from the town. They talked and gesticulated violently—the majority, I observed being doubtful if the incoming vessels were friends or foes.
As they drew nearer, however, all misgiving vanished, every one agreeing that the leading ship was the San Martin, so named in honour of the great general.
"The luck's with us!" cried Jose joyfully. "Before nightfall we'll have the colonel on board one of those craft. How beautifully the admiral's ship is handled! she comes sweeping in like a great sea-bird."
"Hadn't we better get a couple of men to pull us out to her? she'll anchor soon."
"The very thing! we can't afford to lose time."
Our arrangements did not take long to make, and we were soon speeding across the bay, our crazy boat being propelled by two wiry Indians. The whole squadron was now well within the bay, the smaller craft lying close in, and flying the Chilian colours; but Jose directed the boatmen to pull for the flagship.
"San Martin ahoy!" he yelled, standing up in the stern and hailing the ship in what he believed to be sailor fashion.
"Hullo! Who are you?" came the answer.
"Is Admiral Cochrane on board?"
"Well, he was a minute ago."
"Throw a rope, will you? we're coming up."
This conversation was carried on in English, for many officers in the Chilian navy were Englishmen; and now the man on the San Martin exclaimed, "Well, you're a cool customer anyhow! Walt a bit while I tell the captain."
"Hang the captain!" roared Jose; "it's a matter of life and death." And those on deck, seeing how terribly in earnest he was, flung over a rope, and we scrambled up the ship's side.
"Now, my man," exclaimed a sharp voice, "what is it you are in such a tremendous hurry about?"
"I want to see Lord Cochrane immediately," said Jose.
"His lordship is engaged in his cabin. Give your message to me."
"I prefer to manage my own business, thank you," replied Jose coolly. "Tell the admiral I have come from Colonel Miller."
As he finished speaking, a distinguished-looking officer, accompanied by several others, appeared on deck, and I knew instinctively that we were in the presence of the famous Admiral Cochrane, whose marvellous exploits had gained for him the admiration of the world.
Hearing the name of Miller, he stopped, and looking at us, said, "What is that about Colonel Miller?"
"He is dying, sir!" exclaimed Jose, as much at ease with an admiral as with a private sailor. "His men are all down with ague, and the colonel will be dead inside a week unless you remove him at once."
"Mr. Welsh," remarked the admiral to a handsome young fellow standing near, "this is your affair. Do whatever you think best; but remember, I would rather lose a ship than Miller. He's the one man we can rely upon ashore." Then looking at us, he added, "You are not soldiers?"
"This lad," replied Jose, pointing to me, "is Jack Crawford. His father was one of the largest landowners in Peru, and a great patriot. The Spaniards shot him some time ago, and the boy has been hiding ever since. Yesterday we arrived at Pisco to join the detachment there, as volunteers, and found the colonel delirious with fever. A few days longer in camp will finish him."
"He shall be removed at once," exclaimed the Admiral.—"Captain Wilkinson, will you order a boat to be lowered!" and then he began to question Jose further concerning the condition of the troops.
Very quickly the boat was got ready, Mr. Welsh took his seat, and at his suggestion we followed, giving instructions to our own men to return to shore.
"Are you a doctor?" asked Jose of our companion.
"Yes; I am Lord Cochrane's private surgeon, though, fortunately, he gives me but little work to do," and he laughed merrily. I have said that he was a handsome fellow, with a boyish, fresh-coloured face, and bright, sparkling eyes. He talked to us cheerfully about the campaign, and would not allow that Colonel Miller was in danger of dying.
"You don't know him as well as we do," he said, with a laugh. "Most men who had been through what he has would be dead already; but Miller stands alone. The last time we brought him from Pisco he had a ball in the right arm, another had smashed his left hand, while a third had gone through his chest, fractured a rib, and passed out at the back. Of course we gave him up, but he pulled through comfortably."
"Well, he is pretty bad now," said Jose significantly.
"He'll be leading a bayonet charge in a month," laughed the young surgeon, "if the war lasts as long. For my part, I expect it to be over sooner."
"I had no idea," said I, "that the Spaniards would be beaten so easily."
"The odds are all against them, you see. Lord Cochrane has scooped up their navy, San Martin is waiting to pounce on Lima, they have to watch General Bolivar in the north, and most of the people are in favour of the revolution. Hullo! here we are! I suppose you'll come with me to the camp?"
"Yes," said Jose, "and back to the ship if you will let us. We can do no good here."
"All right. I daresay we can find you a berth."
The young surgeon came near to losing his self-possession when he saw the actual state of things.
"Whew!" exclaimed he, "this will have to be altered. Why, the men are dying on their feet! And I suppose it's the same old story—not enough doctors, no proper attendants, and musty drugs. Well, we'll clear the colonel out of it first, and then see what can be done for the others."
While he attended to his patient, we had a litter made ready, in which the colonel was placed and carried to the water's edge, where the ship's boat was in waiting. The sailors rowed steadily and well, and we soon had the satisfaction of seeing the sick man comfortably installed in one of the ship's cabins.
Lord Cochrane showed the greatest concern at his old friend's shocking condition, and did everything possible to help forward his recovery.
As it chanced, I was much in the sick man's cabin; the doctor, to whom I had taken a singular liking, using me as a sort of assistant. In the early evening he went ashore with the admiral, who also took Jose with him, and together they visited the sick camp. It was late when they returned, but our patient had suffered no hurt during their absence. Indeed he lay very still and quiet, while from time to time I wiped the sweat from his brow and gave him cooling drinks.
Jose did not come into the cabin again, but I heard from the doctor that it had been decided to bring the soldiers on board, in the hope that a sea voyage would set up their strength. Our own particular Indians returned to the Hidden Valley, but in the course of a day or two the rest of the troops were embarked on the flagship. Then we stood out to sea, bearing southward, the other vessels of the squadron taking the opposite direction.
Thanks partly to the young surgeon's skill, but chiefly, perhaps, to his own marvellous constitution, the colonel began to mend slowly. The fever abated, he was able to take some nourishing food, and at last a day came when we carried him on deck.
It was extraordinary to behold the joy with which his appearance was greeted, not only by his own troops, but by every man on board. Some of them knew him only by report, but most of the sailors had witnessed his daring deeds, while the marines had taken part in them.
The officers, too, from the admiral downward, came about him, and though too weak as yet for much talk, he acknowledged their kindness by a charming and fascinating smile.
At the end of an hour the doctor gave orders that he should be carried back to his cabin, saying with a laugh, "That's enough excitement for the first day, colonel. Mustn't overdo it, you know."
Whether it was the bracing effect of the fresh sea air, or the sight of his men's most obvious improvement, I know not, but from that day his strength increased with astonishing rapidity.
During this period of convalescence he talked with me a good deal, and in the kindest manner, so that shortly I became as ardent a hero-worshipper as the others. He sent for Jose, too, thanked him for his prompt action, and declared that in a sense he was indebted to him for his life.
"But," said he, smiling, "I don't know yet who you are, or how you came to turn up at Pisco just at the right moment!" Whereupon Jose gave him an outline of our story.
He listened attentively, and at the end said, "I have heard of your father, my boy, through General San Martin, who will be glad to make your acquaintance. Meanwhile I shall charge myself with your welfare—that is, if you care to share my fortunes."
"I ask for nothing better, sir," I replied, flushing with pleasure. "There is no leader I would rather choose to follow."
"Then you shall have your wish," said he, "unless the general finds other work for you."
WHOM THE GODS LOVE DIE YOUNG.
It was, I believe, Lord Cochrane's desire to land his troops close to the port of Arica; but two unsuccessful attempts having been made, the plan was abandoned.
Colonel Miller, who had by this time resumed his duties, next transferred his men to two small schooners captured from the enemy, and having taken on board food and water sufficient for twenty-four hours, set sail for the Morro de Sama, a miserable port ten leagues north of Arica.
Jose and I accompanied him, as did also, to my great delight, the young doctor. Our two vessels were crazy craft: they had only temporary rudders, and it was impossible to steer with any degree of accuracy. Owing to this the trip occupied just double the calculated time, so that on landing we were half dead with hunger and thirst. The soldiers still suffered somewhat from the effects of the ague: their legs tottered under them, and at first they could not march longer than half an hour at a time without lying down to rest.
You must not, however, suppose that we were at all downhearted on this account. The men had the greatest confidence in their leader, while the gaiety and high spirits of the young doctor acted as a fine tonic. He was full of quips and cranks, and his merry sayings brought a smile to the faces of even the most wearied.
A winding path three miles in length brought us to the summit of a steep mountain, where we stopped awhile to rest, and to enjoy the refreshing breeze.
"Well, Crawford," exclaimed the doctor cheerfully, when we once more resumed the march, "how do you like being on active service? A pleasant change, isn't it, from being cooped up on board ship?"
At the moment I hardly agreed with him, but I made an effort to reply to his banter.
Only to a few of us was the really desperate nature of our expedition known. Of the Spaniards we entertained no manner of fear; the sole terror lay in the route to be traversed. We were already parched by thirst, and more than twenty miles of sandy desert lay between us and water.
Nor was this all. Only one man knew the route, and years had gone by since he had last travelled over it. If his strength or memory failed, it might well happen that the dreary desert would be our burial-place and the loose sand our winding-sheet. It was not exactly a cheering prospect, but we made the best of it.
The colonel marched at the head of his men, the doctor at the rear, so that he might assist any unfortunate stragglers, while Jose and I went forward with the guide.
With frequent halts for rest we ploughed our way through the shifting sand, our eyes aching and our throats terribly dry.
About midnight, as near as I could judge, the guide stopped irresolutely.
"What is it?" asked Jose, in an excited whisper; "what is wrong?"
We could not see the fellow's face, but he seemed very agitated, and there was a break in his voice as he answered,—
"I don't know—I am not sure—but I can't be certain that we are on the right track."
The words sounded like a sentence of death, and I could hardly repress a cry of horror.
"Be still!" whispered Jose; "the men must not know. Stay here a minute while I ask the colonel to halt. That will give us a little breathing-space."
He was soon back, and taking the guide's arm, he exclaimed,—
"Now come, get your wits about you, and let us see what can be done. Where do you think we ought to be?"
"I don't know," replied the guide helplessly. "The saints preserve us, or we are lost!"
"Now look here," said Jose sternly: "you are giving way, and that won't do. Pluck up your courage, man, and remember that all our lives are in your hands."
I think, perhaps, this awful responsibility had much to do with breaking the guide down. He wrung his hands and groaned, saying aloud that he had brought us to death.
"But we aren't dead yet," I remarked, "and needn't be if only you will collect your wits. Come, let us cast about a bit; maybe you'll find some landmark that will help you."
"No, no," he cried; "we may be right now, and if we stray away we shall certainly be lost. May the saints preserve us!"
I think the fellow would be there yet, but for the click of Jose's pistol and the stern ring in his voice as he said sharply,—
"This nonsense has to stop.—Take his arm, Jack.—Now go on without a word, until you can make up your mind one way or other about the route."
The next quarter of an hour was one of the worst in my life. The man stumbled this way and that, now going in a straight line, again turning to right or left, and all the time the troops in our rear were resting in fancied security. I shuddered to think what would happen if the guide failed to locate the track. Suddenly he ran forward quickly, dragging me with him, and then uttered a joyful cry. We were at the foot of a sandy hillock of peculiar shape, much like, as far as I could tell, a truncated cone.
It was not high, but apparently of considerable circumference.
The guide laughed and wept like a man bereft of his senses, and then crying, "We are saved!" he straightway fell on his knees and offered up a prayer of thanksgiving. The strangely-shaped hillock showed him that thus far he had led us correctly; and although during the night he had several further twinges of alarm, he did not lose his nerve again.
As mile after mile was traversed our thirst became excruciatingly painful, and there was no chance of relief. Between us and the valley of Sama no drop of water would be found. Still we plodded on, parched and weary, until in the eastern sky the dawn rose slowly. For just a brief period we felt the cold, damp, but refreshing breath of morning, and then the hot sun added to our misery. Our heads were scorched by its burning rays, and we were almost blinded by the glare reflected from the deep, loose sand.
It was nearly nine o'clock when the guide, extending his arm, exclaimed, "Sama—water!" And looking ahead, we caught a glimpse of the cool green vegetation in the Sama valley.
Under other circumstances it would have been laughable to watch the effect produced by our near approach to the valley. What semblance of order the colonel had kept on the march vanished. Breaking their ranks, the men rushed forward eagerly in search of the welcome water. One who for the last mile had been crawling along, supported by the doctor, darted off like a champion runner, though he fell exhausted before covering half the distance. On reaching the sparkling stream, we all, without exception, flung ourselves down by the margin, and lapped the water like thirsty dogs.
Here we remained till the next day, being supplied with food by the people from Sama, who also procured for us about a dozen horses, two of which, I am thankful to say, fell to Jose and myself.
Most of the men, after eating and drinking, stretched themselves out on the grass, and were fast asleep in a moment; but our leader had much to do, and the cheery young doctor spent half his time in attending on the sick. In this Jose helped him. I wished to do so, but in truth the long march, and the want of food and water, had worn me out.
"Lie down and get some rest," said the doctor, "or you will be left behind to-morrow. We have another twelve leagues or so before us yet."
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"To a village called Tacna."
"We call it a town," laughed Jose. "Why, there are more than four thousand people living in it."
"Dear me," exclaimed the doctor good-humouredly, "what a considerable place!"
Attended by Jose, he passed on laughing, and I curled up in the sheltered nook which I had selected as bed and bedchamber in one. I know nothing of what happened after that until Jose, shaking my arm, told me to rise.
It was scarcely light; but the troops were already preparing their simple breakfast, for they had another long and tedious march before them.
"How do you feel, Jack?" asked Jose.
"All right, thank you," said I, giving myself a shake, "but tremendously hungry. I could eat a horse!"
At that he laughed, saying, "Before the campaign's over I daresay you will be glad to eat part of one"—a prophecy that was more than fulfilled.
Directly after breakfast the men were assembled, the colonel addressed them in a few stirring words, and the march began. We did not anticipate an attack, but a few sturdy and well-mounted peasants from Sama rode ahead to make sure that the route was clear.
Outside Tacna we were met by the inhabitants, who escorted us, with much noise and cheering, in triumph to the town.
"These worthy people are good patriots, Crawford," said the doctor, who was riding next me. "Hark how they cry 'Down with the Spaniards!' It is lucky for them that we are not part of the Spanish army."
"As to that," I answered, "it is as easy to shout for one side as for the other. It is only a matter of words, after all."
"Well," he laughed, "if cheers were bullets, we need not go short of ammunition."
We remained several days in Tacna, where I had the luck to be quartered on a wealthy Spanish merchant. It was most amusing to be in his company, as he hated us like poison, and, in spite of himself, could hardly prevent his real sentiments from popping out at inconvenient times. However, either from fear or from policy, he treated me well, and during our stay in the town I lived on the best of everything. This was an agreeable interlude in the making of war, and suited me admirably.
Like all good things, it came to an end much too soon, and very suddenly. Jose, the doctor, and I had been spending an evening with one of the principal inhabitants, and on coming away met the colonel.
"I am pleased that you keep good hours," said he, with a smile. "We march at dawn. The Spaniards are moving in three detachments to intercept us; we must crush them one by one."
"Well," exclaimed the doctor pleasantly, "we can't grumble; we have had a pleasant breathing-space."
During our stay at Tacna we had received reinforcements, bringing our adventurous party up to four hundred and fifty, of which about a third part consisted of cavalry. The few days' rest had recruited our strength, and we set out in high spirits for Buena Vista, a tiny hamlet at the foot of the Cordillera.
As yet we had obtained no definite news of the enemy; but while we lay at Buena Vista, a native scout brought word that a strong Spanish force was stationed at Mirabe, a village some forty miles distant. The colonel's resolution was instantly taken, and as soon as day broke we were once more moving.
After we had left the valley, our route lay across a region where no blade of grass had ever grown. As far as the eye reached, the scene was one of utter desolation. The horses picked their steps gingerly, and the foot-soldiers stumbled along as best they could, tripping now and then over the stones and boulders that strewed the path. All day long, with intervals for rest, we tramped, and the coming of night still found us pursuing the tedious journey.
The last part was worse than the first. For six miles the road descended amidst steep rocks and mighty precipices. The pass was so narrow that we had to march in single file, each horseman on foot and leading his animal. Had the Spaniards caught us there, not a man would have escaped.
Slowly and carefully we descended in one long line, until at midnight we reached the rugged bank of the river which rushes through the Mirabe valley. In a hollow on the opposite side lay the village, and behind the mud walls surrounding the cultivated grounds were the Spaniards, little dreaming of our proximity.
"Now," exclaimed the colonel softly, "we have them in our power. We have but to cross the river and fall upon their camp."
He had already begun to give his orders, when the report of a pistol—fired, whether by accident or design, by one of our men—rang out, and all chance of a surprise vanished. The Spaniards, in alarm, began firing rapidly, though they could not see us, a thick wood stretching between them and the river.
"I'd hang that fellow," growled Jose. "He's either a fool or a rogue, and has completely spoiled the colonel's plans."
"Never mind," said the colonel cheerfully; "we must make new ones," and he immediately dispatched two rocket parties—one to the right, the other to the left—in order to engage the enemy's attention.
Meanwhile each mounted man, taking up a foot-soldier behind him, crossed the river, and then returned for another, until in a short time all had safely effected a passage. Then, unable to do more in the darkness, we lay down to wait for the coming of dawn.
Many of the men fell fast asleep in spite of the random firing, but my mind was busy with thoughts of the approaching fight.
About two o'clock, Dr. Welsh, who had been assisting the regular army surgeons, came and lay down beside me.
"Well, Crawford," said he, finding I was awake, "how do you like the music? Rather alarming at first, eh? But you'll get used to it. After hearing the bullets swish round your ears a time or two you'll think nothing of it."
"That may be," I replied, "but it is distinctly unpleasant just now."
He laughed, saying the fight would be only a skirmish at the most, and not worth considering.
"Are you going to stay with us?" I asked.
"Oh no," said he; "this is only a run ashore, just to stretch my legs a bit, you know. They get cramped on board ship. By George, those fellows intend serenading us till daybreak. Who's that on the other side of you—Craig?"
"Yes—sound asleep and snoring. I wish I were."
"Ah, no doubt he has a clear conscience. Take pattern by him, my boy."
"Thanks for the advice," said I, laughing; "it's very kind of you to offer it."
"It costs nothing," he answered banteringly; "which explains why so many people are willing to give it."
After a time I fell asleep, and did not waken till, at the first streak of dawn, an order was quietly passed through the lines for every man to hold himself in readiness.
Jose sat up, rubbed his eyes lazily, and declared that he could sleep another twenty-four hours.
"There's too much hurry and bustle about this kind of warfare," said he. "Why don't both sides agree to meet at a certain place, and to fight it out?"
"A famous plan, upon my word!" cried the doctor; "it would save no end of trouble."
"And get the business over quickly," said Jose, who was saddling up. "Hullo, there goes the colonel! I wonder if he ever gets tired?"
"No," laughed the doctor merrily; "he's made of iron."
The dawn was broadening now; and moving from the shelter of the wood, we saw the Spaniards on a level piece of ground about half a mile wide.
"They're trying to gain the ridge on the left," cried Jose; "that will give them the advantage."
But the colonel had seen the manoeuvre also, and flung his small body of cavalry at them with such force that they drew back, trying to retreat by the winding track through the mountains. Again they were intercepted, this time being forced to the edge of a precipitous cliff.
"By George," exclaimed the doctor, "they're in it now! It's neck or nothing with them."
All this time I had quietly sat on my horse, watching the phases of the fight. The scene was to me so extraordinary that I had no sense of fear. I was not upset even by the strange, wailing sounds made by the rushing bullets.
Jose and I were with the reserve cavalry; Welsh was at the colonel's side. The Spaniards fought with desperate courage, I could see that, and they pushed our men hard. Fallen soldiers dotted the level tract of ground. Some, raising themselves painfully, began to crawl back.
I make no pretence of giving an accurate description of the combat. To me it was a confused medley of men and horses inextricably mixed; of shining swords, of blinding red flashes; and my ears were deafened with the fierce cries and shouts of men spending their lives recklessly under the rising sun.
At last I saw the colonel raise his sword. Then he shouted something in Spanish, whereat, gathering up the reins in my left hand, I spurred my horse, to keep company with the rest.
"A firm seat, Jack; keep a firm seat!" cried a familiar voice in my ear; and there was Jose, riding as coolly as if taking a canter over the grounds of our park at home!
We were riding at no great pace, but all well together, when again the colonel's voice rang out, and we broke instantly into a gallop. Then in a flash I saw a body of Spanish cavalry drawn up to receive us, while from our left came a stinging hail of bullets.
A man close to me dropped his sword with a cry of pain, and the next moment his horse, taking the bit between its teeth, rushed madly to the front. I watched its progress with queer fascination. On it went, right through the Spaniards, who edged aside to let it pass, straight to the brink of the precipice, over which it fell, still carrying its hapless rider. It seemed to me that I heard his shriek, though that must have been fancy, as it could not have risen above the tumult of the fight.
"Forward!" roared the colonel, waving his sword, and the next instant we were in the midst of the throng. The young doctor was just in front of me, Jose on my right hand, and the men pressing close behind. I saw nothing of the fight save that part only which concerned myself. Again and again the shining steel was within a hair's-breadth of me—now at my head, now at my heart—while I was almost suffocated in the press.
Inch by inch, by sheer force of steel, we threaded our way through, re-formed on the further side, and, still headed by the colonel, dashed once more into the fray. This time the resistance was less obstinate. The Spaniards began to weary—to fall back, as if unable to hold their ground.
"Hurrah!" cried the young doctor, "hurrah! they're done for!"
I shall not easily forget the picture he made. His handsome face was flushed with excitement, his beautiful eyes were ablaze with light; he sat his horse erect as a young sapling. A handsomer or finer man could not have been.
I saw the tragedy from beginning to end, but could do nothing to prevent it. It was over quick as a flash of summer lightning. Before us rode a Spanish officer, calling fiercely on his men to come back. At the sound of the doctor's triumphant note he turned, and I saw his face black with anger.
"Ah, Englishman!" he cried savagely; and even as he spoke his left arm rose, there was a flash, a report, and the doctor fell forward on his horse's neck.
"See to him, Crawford!" cried the colonel huskily; and as I clutched the animal's bridle, the troopers swept on in hurricane fury, while from all parts of the battlefield there rose a cry of triumph.
A FRIENDLY OPPONENT.
I had known the young English doctor only a short time, but I had learned to love him as a dear friend. In the fight he had shown himself brave and fearless, but quite apart from this, his qualities endeared him to every one. He was always cheery and full of hope, even in our worst straits; he was tender-hearted as a child, and every sick or wounded soldier worshipped him for his unvarying attention and kindness.
He was not dead when, slipping from my horse, I placed my arm round him as well as I could to support him. I saw that his eyes were open, and that a beautiful smile lit up his face. For a second or two he recognized me and tried to speak, but this was beyond his powers. Then a change came swiftly and suddenly; the light faded from his eyes, his cheeks grew ashen gray, and though quite unfamiliar with death, I knew that his spirit had fled.
Some wounded Indians, staggering from the fight, helped me to place the lifeless body on the ground; and these poor, simple natives filled the air with their lamentations. The death of the brilliant young surgeon had deprived them of a good friend, and they were quick to show their grief.
The fight was now over. The majority of the Spaniards were either killed or captured; but no one took much pleasure in the well-earned little victory. From the chief to the meanest soldier in the detachment, every one mourned sincerely the loss of a trusty comrade.
On active service, however, one has not much time to spend in grieving. There were the dead to be buried, the wounded to be seen to, the prisoners to be secured, and then, after a short space for food and rest, we were marching in hot pursuit of the scanty remnant that had escaped.
"It's lucky," observed Jose, with a laugh, "that the colonel managed to procure a few horses."
"His command would have been one short without them," I replied.
We were by no means a smart-looking detachment. The officers rode on horseback, and a number of mules had been obtained for the men, who followed the system of ride and tie. Our clothes began to show signs of hard wear, we suffered much from hunger and thirst, and most of all from loss of sleep. This last was really a terrible hardship, and I noticed more than one poor fellow fall from his mule in a kind of stupor as I rode along.
However, by dint of pegging away, we arrived at the town of Moquegua just in time to capture most of the runaways, and then, utterly worn out and exhausted, gladly settled down for a few days' rest.
Jose and I were billeted in a house near the colonel's quarters, and the people gave us a warm welcome. They spread a good meal, to which we did ample justice, and then, although barely noon, we went straight to bed.
"I hope," exclaimed Jose as he lay down, "that we shan't be disturbed for a month. I can easily do with a month's sleep."
"The chances are," said I gloomily, "that the colonel will be knocking us up before we have fairly begun to dream." At which dismal prophecy Jose threatened me with all sorts of pains and penalties unless I held my peace.
As it happened, the colonel did not need us, and we actually slept without waking until nine o'clock the next morning, when, having made a hearty breakfast, we went to call upon the chief.
"Why, Crawford," exclaimed the colonel, smiling, "I thought you were lost!"
"Only in dreams, sir," I replied. "We've been catching up a little of our lost sleep. We did not know how soon we might be on the march again."
"So you made the most of your opportunity? Well, I don't blame you; but it is possible we shall make a long halt here."
"Possible," remarked Jose to me afterwards, "but not probable;" and events proved that, as far as we were concerned, he was right.
That evening the colonel invited us to dinner; but we had scarcely sat down when he was called away to speak to a messenger who had brought important news. He returned looking rather thoughtful, and, catching sight of Jose, exclaimed,—
"Craig, you are pretty well acquainted with the Indian dialects, I believe?"
"Yes, sir," answered Jose readily; "I can manage to talk with most of the natives."
"Then you are the very man I want. I'll tell you all about it after dinner. Mustn't send you off without satisfying the inner man, eh?"
Jose glanced at me with a smile, as much as to say, "I wasn't very far out this morning;" while I was all curiosity as to what the business might be.
As soon as we had finished, the colonel and Jose had a very earnest and confidential talk, after which my companion rejoined me, and together we left the room.
"What is it?" I asked anxiously; "anything of importance?"
"Rather, unless the Indian has made a mistake. La Hera is hiding with a few wounded men in the mountains, not a dozen miles away."
This was the Spanish leader whom we had defeated at Mirabe. He was a bold, dashing soldier, and a firm Loyalist, whose capture would deal the enemy a heavy blow.
"Get the horses ready," said Jose, "while I pick out a few men. We mustn't make a mess of this affair, or the colonel won't trust us again. And don't mention where we are going, up at the house. I daresay the folks are all right, but what they don't know they can't tell."
"Where shall I meet you?"
"Outside the colonel's quarters. Now, off with you, we've no time to waste."
The horses had benefited by their unusually long rest, and having saddled them with the help of one of our host's servants, I led them into the street. Jose soon appeared with a dozen mounted men, wild, fierce-looking fellows, and all natives.
Presently the guide came out, and directly afterwards the colonel, who spoke a few words, telling us that we were bound on an important errand, which he trusted we should accomplish successfully. Then the guide placed himself, on foot, beside Jose's horse, and we moved off.
He led us at first, purposely, in a wrong direction, in case of prying eyes, turning back at the end of a mile or so, and then steering across a wild and lonely desert track. Having covered nearly a dozen miles, we came to a tiny hamlet at the foot of the mountains. Halting here, we left our horses in charge of two men and pressed forward on foot.
Fortunately, in one way though not in another, it was a moonlight night, and we could see where to step. All around us towered huge mountains, grim and forbidding. We marched in single file by the edge of steep precipices, so close sometimes that we seemed to hang over the awful abyss. Further and further we penetrated into the dreary recesses. We seemed to be a body of ghosts traversing a dreary world. No man spoke; we heard the cry neither of bird nor of animal. The only sound to break the eerie silence was the occasional clatter of a stone, which, loosened by our passage, rolled over into the unknown depths.
I looked neither to right nor to left, but kept my gaze fixed on Jose, who walked before me. The track narrowed down so that it hardly afforded footing for one, and I prayed in my heart that we might soon come to a better vantage-ground.
I was no coward, and since leaving home had met with more than one adventure, but this was the most perilous of all. Despite every effort to keep firm, my limbs trembled, my head grew dizzy; I was seized by a strong temptation to launch myself into space. The fit passed as suddenly as it had come, but I felt the sweat trickling down my face.
Presently we emerged on to a broad platform, and Jose, stopping, seized my hand. He was trembling now, but it was at the thought of danger past. One by one the men stole cautiously along while we waited, watching with fascinated eyes, and drawing a deep breath of relief as each stepped safely from the perilous path. Whether they had also felt fearful I could not tell; their faces were wonderfully impassive, and, except when roused by savage anger, quite expressionless.
At a sign from Jose they dropped to the ground behind a group of boulders, and he, addressing them in some Indian dialect, issued his instructions. I gathered very little from his speech; but presently the men disappeared, gliding like serpents along the side of the cliffs, and leaving me with Jose and the guide.
"I don't much like this, Jack," said Jose. "I almost wish you had stayed behind. I hope the colonel can depend on this fellow."
"What is it?" I asked. "I suppose we didn't come out just for the pleasure of exercising ourselves on that goat-track?"
"No," said he; "though, to be sure, that was an uncommon diversion. The real thing is just about to begin, and this is the way of it. According to the guide, La Hera is in a cave close at hand."
"All the more chance of trapping him."
"I'm not so sure of that. The entrance to the cave is some sixty feet from the ground, in the side of a steep cliff."
"Well, we've had some experience in mountain-climbing."
"Yes, but not this sort. The face of the cliff is as perpendicular as the side of a house."
"The other fellows got up."
"So they did, but it was in the daylight, and there was no one at the top waiting to pop them off with a bullet. It seems the bandits have been in the habit of using this cave as a depot, and one of them guided La Hera there with the real object of betraying him."
"Ugh!" said I; "these traitors make me sick."
"Just so; but they are very useful. Without the help of this one, for instance, we can't capture La Hera, unless we starve him out."
"What does he propose to do?"
"Well, there is a stout rope fixed in the cave which he will let down at the right moment. Up this we shall have to climb by help of the niches that have been cut in the cliff."
"Suppose La Hera finds it out, and is waiting to receive us?"
"That," replied Jose, with a shrug of the shoulders, "is just what is bothering me. However, we shall soon discover. Our men have had time to hide themselves, and the guide is getting fidgety. But I say, Jack, I wish I hadn't brought you."
"I'm rather pleased now that you have, though I wasn't half an hour ago."
"No; I thought you breathed too hard to be enjoying yourself."
With that he ordered the native to proceed; and we all three crept along, keeping well in the shadow, though the enemy, feeling secure in possession of the rope, were hardly likely to have set a watch.
Coming to a halt, the guide pointed to a towering cliff, which, on that face at least, was in truth steep and smooth as the wall of a house. Our men lay close at hand, but completely concealed, watching for the lowering of the rope.
Now it seemed to me that we were running great risk when our object might have been gained with none at all. Why not, as Jose had remarked a short time previously, starve the inmates out?
"No good," answered he, when I asked the question. "The guide says there are stores in the cave sufficient to last a small party for months. The war would be over before they had finished their provisions. No; we must get them by surprise or not at all. I should like to see that rope dangling."
It was weary waiting, and a great strain on our nerves too, as every moment's delay gave us more time to appreciate the danger. The longer I pondered the more I disliked the business, and doubted what would be the end of it. La Hera was a bold man, and if he got an inkling of the truth, we should meet with an unpleasant reception. He might not approve of such an unceremonious intrusion into his dwelling-place.
I was still thinking of these things when the Indian guide drew our attention to the cliff. The time had come. There, distinguishable in the pale moonlight, dangled the rope, and as we watched it descended lower and lower, very steadily, until the end of it was not higher than a man could grasp.
It was the signal agreed upon to show that the enemy were asleep.
Calling softly to one of his men, Jose said, "Stay here and watch. If we are betrayed, take this man back to Colonel Miller. If he tries to escape, kill him."
The Indian moved not a muscle, while his guard took his place beside him with drawn sword, for no muskets had been brought on the expedition. Then word was quietly passed round to the others, and one by one we gathered close to the hanging rope.
We could not communicate with the man at the top, lest we should be heard by the Spaniards, and we dared not make a sound. Holding a knife between his teeth, Jose clutched the rope firmly, planted one foot in a niche, and began to mount. When he had reached half-way up, I began the ascent, bidding the men be ready to follow me.
I did not mind this part of the enterprise, dangerous though it was. The niches cut in the rock afforded decent foothold, while the rope was knotted at intervals. The peril lay not so much in the climbing as in the chance of discovery. If the Spaniards learned what was going forward, nothing could save us from certain death. This was an unpleasant thought, which I hastened to put as far from me as possible.
Meanwhile Jose's head was on a level with the cave, and I felt that the best or the worst of the business would soon be known. If the enemy were awake, it would go hard with him. His foot left the last niche, he swung on the rope, and as I watched breathlessly he disappeared.
Casting a glance downward, I called softly to the troopers to hurry, and then went up hand over hand at a breakneck pace. In a short time I was gazing at as strange a spectacle as I have ever seen. The cavern was an immense apartment, with steep walls and exceedingly lofty roof. Near the centre was a fire, on which some one had hastily thrown a fresh supply of dry fuel, and the red flames were leaping high in long, thin tongues.
Just inside the entrance Jose and the traitorous Indian stood over the windlass, by means of which the rope was worked, and as I ran to their side, one of the Spanish soldiers uttered a cry of alarm. Instantly all was tumult and confusion. Shots were fired at random, men shouted wildly, "We are betrayed!" while, above all, Jose's voice rang out high and clear, "Surrender! you are my prisoners."
With a rush the Spaniards sprang at us, fighting with the fury of wild animals, while we had to guard not only ourselves but the rope up which our men were swarming. If that were cut or loosened, our opponents would hold us at their mercy. We fought against long odds, but for a time held our own, though once I was stricken almost to my knees, and felt the graze of a sharp blade across my cheeks.
Fortunately help came soon, or it would have gone badly with us. With a wild shout a burly trooper sprang into the fray, and another soon joined him. A third and a fourth followed quickly, and the issue was placed beyond doubt.
Now, although our Indians made splendid soldiers, they hated the Spaniards so much that it was difficult to restrain their passions. Some excuse may be found for them in the long years of misery and oppression they had endured; but, of course, Jose set his face sternly against cruelties.
Thus it was in our enemies' own interest that I raised my voice, crying, "Surrender, and we will spare your lives! You cannot escape!" And Jose echoed my appeal. He, too, dreaded the slaughter that must ensue if our Indians got out of hand. Perhaps the Spaniards guessed our motive; at least they must have seen the futility of continuing the contest. One by one they flung their weapons sullenly to the ground, and yielded themselves prisoners.
"Torches!" cried Jose quickly, "and let us examine our capture. Where is Colonel La Hera?"
No one spoke, but several Indians plucked blazing brands from the fire and brought them to us. By their light we saw one man lying dead near the windlass, and three wounded. Six others, disarmed, stood round, for the most part black-browed and scowling.
Jose repeated his question. "Where is Colonel La Hera?" he asked.
"Gone to get reinforcements to drive you into the sea," answered a calm voice.
"Then he is not in this cave?" asked Jose bluntly, but with a certain ring of admiration in his tone.
Now all this time I had been taking particular notice of this Spaniard. His uniform showed him to be a major, though he was quite young. His face was frank and open; he had dark, expressive eyes, and a pleasant, musical voice, which somehow seemed familiar to me. Where had I met this man before? In a moment or two he himself supplied the answer.
"Who is in command here?" asked Jose.
"I have the honour, and, as it seems, the misfortune also, of commanding these brave fellows. I am Major Santiago Mariano, in the service of His Spanish Majesty, whom may God preserve!"
"I wish him no harm," replied Jose; "only for the future he must not reckon Peru among his dominions. Now, how am I to know that La Hera is not here?"
"Ask the man who betrayed us," said the major scornfully; and on questioning the Indian, it appeared he had mistaken Santiago for the famous colonel.
"Well," muttered Jose, "it's a disappointment; but it can't be helped. What are we to do with the wounded? They can't go down the rope."
"Let me stay with them," I suggested, "and you can send a doctor back."
"Meanwhile," interrupted the major, "I have some little skill in surgery, and, with your permission, I will remain also. You need not fear that I shall run away. I will give my parole to come to Moquegua. After that, matters must shape their own course."
"Very well," exclaimed Jose; "the plan has its advantages. I'll hurry along the first doctor I come across, Jack. But you are hurt!"
"It's only a scratch; nothing serious at all."
Jose sent half a dozen of his men down the rope; then the dead Spaniard was lowered, the prisoners followed, and Jose himself descended with the remainder of the troopers.
"Haul up the rope, Jack," he cried in farewell, "and make sure of your visitors before dropping it again."
A GLEAM OF HOPE.
As soon as the party had disappeared, I turned to the major and said with a smile,—
"Now, my dear Santiago, let us attend to the needs of these poor fellows."
I was now standing full in the firelight, and he glanced at my face with a puzzled expression. Then a half gleam of recognition shone in his eyes, and he exclaimed doubtfully—
"Surely you can't be the boy Crawford who vanished so mysteriously from the fort?"
"I am, though!" said I, laughing at his amazement. "But we shall have time for a talk presently; let us do what we can for these poor fellows first. Is there any water in the cave?"
"Yes; there is a spring at the far end. I will fetch some. Put some more wood on the fire; it smokes if allowed to go down."
Of the three wounded men only one was seriously hurt, and he, I feared, was beyond the aid of the most skilled surgeon. However, we did our best for all the sufferers, gave them water to drink, arranged them comfortably on beds of straw, and bathed and bandaged their wounds. Then I washed the cut in my cheek, and Santiago smeared it with a native ointment, which he said possessed wonderful healing properties.
"Now," said he, "I judge you are ready for late supper or early breakfast, whichever you may prefer to call it. The provisions are homely, and I am an indifferent cook, but I can at least give you enough to eat. Those brigands of yours have stored sufficient food here for an army."
Carrying a torch, I accompanied him round the cavern, gazing in wonder at the piles of Indian corn, the heaps of potatoes, and the strings of charqui, the last suspended from the walls.
"Come," said I, "there is no need to starve in the midst of plenty. What shall we have? Roast potatoes and jerked beef? The potatoes will require the least attention."
"And they are not bad if you are downright hungry, as I was when we crept in here after the affair at Mirabe. There's a smart soldier leading your men, Crawford."
"Yes; he is an Englishman named Miller, and a very fine fellow. But how come you to be here?"
"We'll talk over these things presently. Meanwhile, let us cook the potatoes. Bring another handful; I daresay two of the men will be able to eat a little breakfast."
"If it is breakfast!"
"It must be for us, because we had our supper before you paid us so unceremonious a visit. Of course we were betrayed."
"Well, as to that," I replied, "you must ask the colonel; I only acted under orders."
"Just so. Well, I am very pleased to see you, though I dislike the way in which you introduced yourself. Cut this piece of beef up finely while I fetch some salt."
"Have you any?" I asked, in some surprise.
"Oh yes. Your amiable brigands know how to stock a larder."
Two of the wounded men were able to eat, and they were very grateful for the food we took them. Then we returned to the fire, piled up some sacks to serve as seats, and began our meal.
It was all most strange to me and very delightful; it might have been a chapter lifted bodily from one of my favourite story-books. There seemed to be a piratical flavour about the whole business.
"Perhaps it is as well that I gave my parole," exclaimed the major thoughtfully, taking off another potato.
"Why?" I asked.
"I might have felt tempted to escape," he replied, looking at the coil of rope.
"You forget your jailer carries a pistol," I remarked, laughing.
"An empty one," he suggested, shrugging his shoulders. "No, no, my boy; my parole is your only safeguard."
"It is a sufficient one, at any rate."
"Yes," said he, rather dreamily, I thought. "The honour of a Mariano is sacred; my father taught me that. And yet—and yet, do you know, Crawford," he added, in a sharper tone, "I doubt if a parole given to brigands should be held to."
I did not at all like this turn in the conversation, the more especially as my pistol was really empty. I had not dreamed of taking any precautions, trusting wholly in the Spanish officer's honour.
I looked up at him, and felt reassured; there could be no treachery hidden behind that frank, open countenance.
"It seems to me you are talking nonsense, Santiago," I said cheerfully. "A man's word is his bond in any case—that is, if he be a man."
He took no notice of my remark, but sat musing, leaving half his food untouched. As for me, I helped myself to some more beef, though I must confess the major's wild talk nearly destroyed my appetite. His manner had changed so suddenly and abruptly that I knew not what to make of it. I might perhaps have reloaded my pistol without his knowledge, but this would be a confession that I had lost faith in him.
"Come," said I jocularly, pointing to his food, "you pay your cooking a poor compliment."
To this he made no reply, but looking up after a time exclaimed,—
"I have news for you. I had almost forgotten, but I must tell you before going."
"Going?" I cried; "we cannot go before the doctor arrives."
"You cannot, but I can, and must. My mind is made up. Do not try to thwart me; I should be sorry if you got hurt. Sit still, my boy; don't stir a finger, or I will kill you!"
I looked at him in amazement. His face was flushed, his eyes shone wildly; he spoke with a rapid and angry vehemence.
"By St. Philip," he cried, "I should be a cur to place honour before loyalty! My duty is to my king, do you hear? Shall I help a parcel of bandits to set the king at naught? Shall I bring disgrace on a family that has stood by the throne for untold centuries? My father died on the battlefield with the king's banner above his head, as did his father before him. And I am to stay in a cage when the door is open! I am to let these upstarts trample on the king's rights!"
The words swept from his lips in a sweeping, tempestuous torrent, and when they were done he leaped to his feet with an angry cry. I sat in my place looking at him steadily, but making no movement.
"I tell you it is monstrous!" he continued. "I care nothing for myself, but I cannot desert the king!"
"His Majesty must be greatly in need of friends," I remarked dryly, "to accept the aid of a perjured soldier."
It was strong language. I knew it would hurt him cruelly; but a desperate disease requires a desperate remedy. I thought at first he would kill me. His eyes blazed fiercely, and he sprang forward with uplifted hands. Suddenly he paused, and returned abruptly to his seat.
Thinking it best not to disturb him, I rose and made the round of the wounded men. I felt awfully sorry for the young major, and almost wished he had not passed his word to Jose. Having done so, he must, of course, abide by it, unless he cared to live with tarnished honour.
Presently, returning to the fire, I threw some more fuel on, and sat down again on my heap of sacks. Santiago had covered his face with his hands, and was rocking himself gently to and fro, like a child in pain. Evidently the wild fit had passed, and he had overcome the temptation which had tried him so sorely.
For nearly an hour we sat there, speaking no word, then looking me straight in the face, he said suddenly,—
"Crawford, I have acted like a madman, but there is nothing to be feared now."
"Nor before," I answered cheerfully. "You would not have gone a hundred yards. Come, let us now dismiss the subject. After all, it was no more than a bad dream."
"By St. Philip," he exclaimed, "it was a very ugly one. However, I am in my right mind now, and as soon as we arrive at Moquegua I will withdraw my parole. Then if a chance to escape comes, I can avail myself of it with an easy conscience. You have not reloaded your pistol?"
"No. Why should I? there is no need of it."
"Not now," he said. "I am master of myself now," and he actually smiled.
"You were going to tell me some news," I observed, after a pause. "Now that you have roused my curiosity, I hope you will satisfy it."
I spoke half jestingly, and more for the sake of keeping up the conversation than in the expectation of hearing any particular information. It was unlikely, I considered, that Santiago could tell me anything of real interest. In this I was much mistaken, as you will find.
"I don't know," said he thoughtfully, "that it will be doing you any real kindness, yet it is only right that you should know. Of course, you will understand that your escape occasioned some little stir among the garrison of the fort."
"I am quite ready to believe it," I replied, chuckling at the remembrance. "I have often laughed to think of your astonishment in the morning."
"It was no laughing matter to us, I can assure you. The commandant was furious, and went about vowing vengeance against everybody. Search-parties scoured the neighbourhood in all directions, but with no result, and we at last concluded that by some means you had been taken off by ship."
"Quite a wrong conclusion," I interposed.
"We could think of no other. However, to get on with the story. In the midst of the confusion Barejo turned up on his way back to Lima. He was simply furious, and threatened to put us all in irons, the commandant included; which, by the way, was absurd."
"It was paying me a very high compliment."
"Don't be puffed up, or imagine the general was afraid of you," laughed Santiago.
"Oh!" I exclaimed, affecting to feel disappointed, "that alters the case. But why should he be angry at my escape?"
"Because he really wished to keep you out of mischief."
"Then I have sadly misjudged him."
"I think you have. Of course, I don't profess to understand the matter, but it seems to be something in this way. When we have crushed this rebellion, the estates of those who have borne arms against the king will be confiscated."
"Spoils to the victors!" I laughed; "an old-fashioned principle."
"And, of course," continued Santiago, not heeding the interruption, "your father's estates will be among them. Now, as far as I can gather, Barejo thought that by preventing you from joining the rebels something might be saved from the wreck."
"That was very kind of the general," I remarked. "I had no idea that he took any interest in my affairs. But isn't it possible, major, that you are going a trifle too fast? Suppose, for instance, that the rebels, as you call us, should win?"
The major tossed his head scornfully.
"That is utterly impossible!" he answered, with a short, quick snap.
"But let us suppose it, just for argument," I urged.
"Well in that case," said he, "of which there is no possible likelihood, your father will keep his property."
At first I thought he had forgotten, but something in his face held my attention, and brought the blood to my head with a rush.
"Do you mean— What is it? Tell me quickly! Is my father—"
"Alive! That is my news; but you must not build on it too greatly. I can only tell you he was not slain that day in the mountains. He was dangerously wounded, but was still living when the soldiers carried him away."
"Where did they take him?"
"That I do not know; neither, I think, does Barejo. Perhaps, and in my opinion most likely, to the forts at Callao."
The major's news, as you may imagine, filled me with the liveliest astonishment and excitement. My father alive! I could hardly credit the statement. What would my mother say? How would she receive the startling information? I rose from my seat and walked about the cavern, trying to think it over coolly.
Then it dawned upon me why Santiago had said he would not be doing me any real kindness in talking of the discovery. After all, his information only reopened the old wounds. More than two years had passed since my father's disappearance, and many things had happened in that time. Not every one who entered the casemates of Callao came out alive.
"But," said I aloud, "some one must know the truth. A man can't be shut up without authority, even in Peru."
"I wish I could help you," replied the major. "As soon as I escape from Moquegua I will make inquiries."
"Thank you; but I fear it will be a long time to wait," I answered gloomily.
"Not at all! La Hera will return in a week or two, and your Miller will be too busy running away to look after prisoners. Imitate me, my boy, and make Hope your best friend."
In trying to cheer me he forgot his own distress. The light returned to his eyes, the smile to his face, and he seemed to have banished all memory of his recent despair.
"Come," said he cheerfully, "put your doubts and fears aside for the present. Our wounded want attention; we must not neglect them."
I tried hard to act upon his advice, but all the time continued to wonder whether my father was alive or dead. That was the one question that racked my brain, and to it I could give no answer.
We had just made our patients comfortable, with the exception of one who was dying fast, when a shrill whistle sounded outside.
"The surgeon!" I exclaimed, running to the entrance. "Yes, there he is with the guide and two soldiers."
"Two bandits!" said Santiago banteringly. "Give the men their proper name."
"Soldiers or bandits, they know how to fight. Help me to uncoil the rope, will you?"
"That's almost as bad as asking a man to make the noose he is to hang in. You forget that on leaving here I shall go straight to prison."
"I had forgotten, major, and sorry enough I am to remember it. Still, as La Hera returns so soon, it will be only a temporary inconvenience, and I'm sure Colonel Miller will treat you well."
"You will make me fancy soon that imprisonment is a privilege worth paying for," he exclaimed.
"Hardly that," I replied; "but, as Barejo said, it keeps one out of mischief."
We lowered the rope, the guide attached the surgeon's instruments, and at a signal we hauled up. Then the rope went down again, the two soldiers climbed to the cave, and the doctor followed unsteadily. It was evident that this novel method of visiting patients found no favour in his eyes; he was obviously nervous, and twice during the ascent I quite expected to see him go headlong.
He was a citizen of Moquegua, very young, and utterly unsuited for his present errand. So great was his agitation that when he had planted his feet firmly on the floor of the cave his hands still clung like grim death to the rope.
"You're all right now," I said, leading him away from the mouth of the cave. "Rather a queer way of getting into a house, isn't it?"
"The saints preserve me!" he exclaimed, while his teeth chattered like castanets, "this is horrible. A dozen times, coming up that rope, I wished I'd never been born. But it's the last time I'll practise doctoring outside Moquegua."
"You did very creditably, I assure you, doctor," observed Santiago, whose eyes gleamed with fun; "such grace, such agility, is given to few. I should have thought your life had been spent in scaling mountains."
The doctor looked from Santiago to me, hardly knowing what to make of such flattery.
"Faith," exclaimed he at last, "I hope there is an easier way of getting down than of coming up."
"There is," said the major, "and much more expeditious. You have but to step outside the cave, and there you are. Most people, however, prefer to go down by the rope."
The doctor groaned.
"I shall never do it," said he, "never! I shall be shut up in this place for the rest of my life."
"There will be one advantage in that," remarked Santiago pleasantly: "your patients will always be able to find you. Now I fear we must tear ourselves from your side."
"Do your best with these poor fellows," I said. "The one in the corner yonder will not trouble you long; the others are getting on nicely. You will find this cavern quite a comfortable dwelling-place. There is plenty of food, a spring of clear water, and enough fuel to keep a fire going for weeks."
"Meanwhile," observed Santiago, "we will ask the good folks of Moquegua to make a nice long ladder, so that you can get down without trouble."
It was really very laughable to watch the doctor's face as the major prepared to descend.
"He will be killed," said he dolefully. "It is a clear case of suicide. Look, he has missed his foothold, and will be dashed to pieces!"
"Nonsense," I said, with a laugh; "there is no danger if you don't think about it. See, it is nothing but going down a flight of steps backwards." But he covered his face with his hands and shuddered.
When the major had reached the ground, I grasped the rope, saying,—
"Farewell, doctor; I hope you will have a comfortable time. And don't worry about coming down; you'll find it an easy matter enough."
"Good-bye," answered he gloomily; "I shall never see you or any one else again. I shall die up here for certain."
The fellow was so genuinely frightened that I assured him we would devise some plan to rescue him; on which he brightened up considerably, and I began the descent. I asked the guide where he had left the horses.
"At the village, senor," he replied, "on the other side of the mountain."
In answer to a further question, he told us that the doctor would not cross the narrow track, and that they had, in consequence, been compelled to travel many miles out of their way.
"I think he was right," exclaimed Santiago, when we reached the spot. "This is a far worse venture than climbing to the cavern by the rope."
And indeed, seen in broad daylight, with every rock standing out pitilessly clear, and every chasm yawning wide, the place was enough to daunt the spirit of the bravest.
Familiarity had rendered the guide indifferent to the danger, but I felt as nervous as when crossing the previous evening. However, I could not make a parade of my anxiety, so I set foot on the narrow path with a jaunty air but quaking heart. Santiago smiled too, but I fancy he was by no means sorry when we gained the farther side without accident. Then we jested about the past danger, talking lightly and as if it were an affair of no moment. Nevertheless, I was thankful the heat of the sun provided an excuse for the perspiration that streamed down my face.
A STORMY INTERVIEW.
On our march to the town, Santiago assumed a light-hearted carelessness that was far from his real feelings. He laughed merrily, made joking remarks, and behaved generally as if the prospect of a spell of prison life was most agreeable. This was, of course, mere outside show. He was too proud to let his captors see his real distress; but his acting did not deceive me.
We had reached the market-place, and I was wondering at the absence of the soldiers, when Jose suddenly appeared, coming from the governor's house. On seeing us, he approached, saying, "You have been a long time. I began to think you had missed your way."
"The guide was late in the first place, as the doctor would not take the nearest way, and we did not hurry. But where are the troops?"
"Off again!" said he, his eyes twinkling: "the colonel has gone for a little jaunt of ninety miles or so to intercept a Spanish column. Thank goodness, we have missed that!—How did you leave your men, major?"
"One is dying, I fear," replied Santiago; "but the others will soon be all right, unless your doctor kills them!"
"I was sorry to send him," said Jose, "but I had no choice. He was the only one in the place available. He didn't offer his services, I can assure you."
"I can well believe it," laughed the major. "The poor fellow was half dead with fright when he reached us, and vows he will never risk the danger of getting down again."
"We must have him tied to the rope, and lowered like a sack of potatoes. Meanwhile, what is to be done with you?"
"The only suggestion I can make is that you set me free!"
"Perhaps I had better report to the governor," observed Jose thoughtfully. "He is Colonel Miller's representative. I daresay he will parole you till the chief comes."
"No, no!" cried the major hastily; "I've done with paroles! From this moment I consider myself free to escape."
"To try," corrected Jose. "Well, the effort will fill up your time, and keep you from being idle. Of course," he added, "it will change the position a little. We can still remain on friendly terms, only I must not forget to load my pistol. And now let us interview the governor."
A sentry stood at the outside gate, and several soldiers were in the courtyard; but passing through, we entered the house, and found ourselves in the governor's presence. He was a military-looking man, though holding no rank in the army—a Spaniard who had recently come over from the enemy. Two or three officers were in the room, and a young man sat at a table, writing.
Jose told his story briefly, concluding with a proposal that the prisoner should be left in his charge until Colonel Miller's return.
"There is a more agreeable way still," observed the governor, with a bland smile.—"Major Mariano, I am not unaware either of your name or your services. I know you for a dashing and brilliant officer, far and away superior to those nominally above you. I am not without the power to make you an offer. The Spanish cause is lost; in a few months your armies will be crushed; Peru will be independent. Until that time you will languish miserably in prison. Afterwards I cannot pretend to prophesy your fate; but I offer you an opportunity to escape from the wreck. Join the Patriot army, and I pledge my word that San Martin shall give you the rank of colonel at once. In a year it will be your own fault if you are not a general. Come, what do you say?"
Only a few hours previously I had seen an outburst of temper on Santiago's part; now I beheld another, which by comparison made the first appear mild. His eyes literally blazed with anger; his face was red; he actually quivered with passion. Twice he endeavoured to speak, and the words choked in his throat. Jose laid a hand restrainingly on his shoulder; he flung it off passionately.
"Dog of a traitor!" cried he at last, "do you think the blood of Santiago Mariano is as base as yours? Do you imagine I am a rat like you to leave a sinking ship? What! lend my sword to a parcel of beggarly cutthroats and vagabonds? I would rather eat out my heart in the blackest dungeon of Peru!"
Once a flush of shame overspread the governor's face, but he recovered himself promptly, and listened with a bitter smile till the end.
"You shall eat your words if not your heart," he exclaimed brutally; and turning to an officer, he added, "Rincona, bring in your men and the heaviest irons that can be found in the prison."
Santiago smiled scornfully; but Jose, pushing forward, said quietly, "You cannot do that, senor. This man is my prisoner, for whom I am responsible to Colonel Miller alone. Until the return of the colonel, therefore, I cannot let him go from my keeping."
For a moment Rincona hesitated, but at the governor's second command he left the room, while the other officers clustered round their chief.
Jose produced a pistol and cocked it, saying coolly, "The man who lays hands on my prisoner dies."
Santiago turned to him with a pleasant smile. "Thanks, my friend," he said, "but I cannot let you suffer on my behalf. Besides, there is Crawford to be considered. The consequences may be fatal to him, as he is sure to stand by you."
"Don't hesitate on my account, Jose," said I. But the major's words had made an impression, and a shadow of annoyance flitted across my companion's brow.
However, there was little time for thinking. We heard the tramp, tramp of marching feet, and presently Rincona entered, followed by about a dozen soldiers.
"The irons!" roared the governor, beside himself with passion; "where are the irons?"
"I have sent for them, sir," replied Rincona.
"You might have spared yourself the trouble," remarked Jose; "they shall not be put on."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Santiago; "what does it matter? Better so than that you two should lose your lives."
I looked at Jose. His lips were set like a vice, and I knew that no power on earth could move him now. The situation was decidedly unpleasant, and unfortunately there seemed to be no way out. True, he might kill the governor, but that would only still further complicate matters.
The soldiers, as usual, stood with impassive faces; the affair was none of theirs, save so far as obeying orders went. The officers were restless and uneasy, and one of them kept up a whispered conversation with the governor, who listened impatiently, and from time to time shook his head.
At last two other men arrived, bearing a set of heavy irons, and once again Santiago turned appealingly, but without effect, to Jose.
One might have heard a pin drop when the governor, sheltering behind his officers, cried in a loud voice, "Put that man in irons!"
"Stand still!" said Jose, raising his pistol, and speaking in the Indian dialect.
How the dispute would have ended I cannot tell, but at that moment a happy inspiration flashed into my mind. The soldiers were all Indians, and judging by their appearance, Indians of the mountains. Was it possible that any of them acknowledged the authority of the Silver Key? If so, we were safe. It was a poor chance, but there seemed to be no other.
Trembling with impatience, I opened my shirt at the neck, and drew forth the brigand chief's gift. At first no one took any notice; but when I held the key to view, the Indians raised a shout of mingled joy and surprise. Then I looked at Santiago and laughed, saying, "We are safe!"
The Indians jabbered away in their own language, talking with one another, and pointing to the emblem of authority which hung from my neck. The governor stood like a man in a dream; the officers gazed alternately at me and the native soldiers, as if doubting the evidence of their senses.
"How many of you are followers of the Silver Key, and of Raymon Sorillo?" I asked.
"All, all, master!" they cried.
"And those outside?"
"All, all!" they again shouted.
"I can trust you to help me?"
"To the death, master!" they cried with one voice.
At that I turned to the governor, saying with a smile, "The position is changed, senor. I have but to raise my hand, and you will feel the weight of your own irons. But there is no need to quarrel. Colonel Miller will be here in a few days, and he shall decide between us. Meanwhile we will guard the prisoner."
The governor nearly choked with anger, and threatened violently that as soon as the colonel returned he would have us all shot. However, as it was evident that the soldiers would obey my orders, he raised no further objection to our taking Santiago away.
"By St. Philip," exclaimed the major, "the room was hot! Are you a magician, Crawford?"
"Upon my word I begin to think so. At any rate, I possess a magical key."
"Which has saved our lives," observed Jose grimly.
"And I suspect," laughed Santiago, "that once upon a time it unlocked the door of a prison cell! But won't those natives suffer for this?"
"I don't think so. They are too strong, and their chief has more power in Peru than the viceroy and San Martin combined."
"You know him, then?"
"Yes, and so does Jose. He has done me good service, for which I am grateful, though I could never like the man. But here we are at the house. The good folk will wonder at our bringing an uninvited guest."
Fortunately a room had been set apart for us, so we could talk at our ease. I was burning to tell Jose about my father, but first of all we had to come to an understanding with Santiago. This time he made no demur at giving his parole. "In fact," said he gaily, "you have forced my hand, and I have no choice."
"So much the better," remarked Jose; "we may as well be comfortable together till the colonel arrives."
"And after that we may be hanged comfortably together!" laughed the major. "How do you like the prospect?"
"I can trust Miller. He is an honourable man, and will do what is right. It is Crawford who will suffer for inciting the troops to mutiny."
"Jose," said I presently, "I haven't told you that Major Mariano is an old friend of mine."
"And at one time his jailer," interrupted Santiago. "That ought to make him feel grateful."
"Oh," exclaimed Jose, "you are the captain Jack has often talked about! Well, I'm glad we have been able to do a little for you."
"This morning while we were waiting for your precious doctor," I continued, "he told me a very startling piece of news."
"Yes?" said Jose.
"About my father."
Jose sprang to his feet, demanding fiercely, "What do you know of Senor Crawford, major? Don Eduardo came to his end by foul means: he was not slain by the government, but by some one who hoped to profit by his death."
"According to the major's information, he was not slain at all," I said, and proceeded to relate the story.
Jose listened attentively to every word, and then asked Santiago innumerable questions. Like myself, he displayed great excitement, but I judged from his expression that he entertained little hope of my father being still alive.
"The truth is," said he, "Don Eduardo had made numerous powerful enemies both in public and private life; and as we all know, any stick is good enough to beat a dog with. Besides, he owned vast estates, and—"
"Go on!" laughed Santiago as Jose hesitated; "the king's party put him to death in order to seize them!"
"No, no," said Jose hotly; "I don't tar all Spaniards with the same brush. Still, they aren't all saints either, and I say some of them killed him under cloak of the government. And some day," he added, "I will prove it. As to his being alive, I think there is small chance of it.—And Jack, my boy, I would not mention the matter to your mother."
"But," said I, clinging to my shred of hope, "he was not killed in the mountains, and we have heard nothing since."
Jose let me talk, and listened kindly to my arguments, but I noticed that none of them made any impression. At the best, he said, my father had been thrown into prison seriously hurt, and it was not likely that he had survived the confinement.
"Have you ever seen the casemates at Callao, major?" he asked.
"Yes," said Santiago, "and very unhealthy places they are. But there are more prisons than those in Peru."
It would be wearisome to repeat our conversation, for, after all, we were arguing in the dark, having only the major's imperfect story to go by. Besides, as Jose said, many events had happened during the last two years, and my father was by no means the only noted man in Peru to disappear. So our talk travelled in a circle, leaving off at the starting-point, and for sole effect it extinguished the gleam of hope which the major's story had kindled.
In the evening, at Jose's suggestion, I went into the streets to pick up any information concerning the governor's doings. Everything seemed quiet; the sentries were at their posts as usual, while the soldiers off duty wandered about the town.
They greeted me respectfully, raising their hands in salute and standing at attention, as if I had been an officer of high degree. Recognizing a sergeant who had been in the governor's room, I stopped to ask a few questions. Greatly to my relief, I learned that, with the exception of a few Spanish officers, the troops in the town were all Indians from the mountains.
As the man seemed smart and intelligent, I told him how matters stood, and that we depended entirely upon him and his comrades until the coming of the English colonel.
"You can trust us, master," he replied, and indeed his talk made it quite clear that the friend of Raymon Sorillo and the holder of the Silver Key might rely on the Indians in Moquegua even against Miller himself.
Jose, I think, felt rather relieved on hearing my news; while Santiago laughed heartily, prophesying that, if the Spaniards were defeated, I should in a few years be king, or at least president, of Peru.
"I had no idea," said he, "that you were so important a person. No wonder Barejo wished to keep you shut up!"
That night we took it in turns to watch; but the governor attempted nothing against us, and the next day we walked openly in the street without molestation.
Colonel Miller had vanished into space, and for nearly a week we heard nothing of him; then one morning an Indian scout rode wearily into the town with the news that the Englishman was close at hand. Immediately the people rushed out in hundreds to line the street, and to cheer the returning warriors.
Jose stayed indoors with the major, but sent me out to get an early word with our leader. Bright, alert, and cheery as ever, he rode at the head of his troops, smiling and bowing to the inhabitants as they greeted him with rousing cheers. Then came the soldiers—the cavalry on dead-tired horses, the infantry on jaded mules—with a number of prisoners in the midst.
The animals were tired enough; but the men! I can hardly describe their condition. Their faces were haggard, their eyes heavy and bloodshot; some were nearly asleep, others had scarcely strength to sit upright. Very little grass had grown under their feet. As soon as they were dismissed, the citizens pounced on them, taking them into the houses, where food and drink were provided in abundance.
The governor had come out to meet the colonel, whom I expected to see return with him; but at the last moment he turned aside, and with a laughing exclamation went straight to his own quarters, whither I followed him.
"Hullo, Crawford!" cried he. "So you didn't get La Hera?"
"No, sir; but we captured a major, and I wish to speak to you about him."
"Won't it wait?" he asked, with a comical expression.
"I am afraid not, sir. The truth is, we've had a quarrel with the governor, and—"
"You want to get in your version first! A very good plan. Well, fire away, but don't make it long; I've a lot of things on hand."
By this time we had entered his room, and going straight to the heart of the affair, I told my story in the fewest possible words. The colonel listened with rather a grave face, and when I had finished he said, "It's an awkward mess, especially just now. It's absolutely necessary to keep friends with the governor, and I don't like this tampering with the troops. But, of course, I won't have the prisoner put in irons or treated differently from the rest. Bring him here now, and I'll settle the matter at once."
"Yes, sir," said I, thankful to get off so lightly.
The colonel had already begun some fresh work when I returned with Jose and the major, but he rose from his seat and saluted the Spaniard courteously.
"I understand it is useless to ask for your parole, major," he said. "Your mind is quite made up on the point?"
"Yes, sir," answered Santiago, smiling in his easy, graceful way. "An opportunity to escape may not arise but if it does, I shall certainly seize it."
"Quite right!" exclaimed the colonel; "but I fear you will be disappointed. However, though guarding you rigidly, we shall put you to as little inconvenience as possible. You will find half a dozen companions in misfortune in the prison. Most of the captured rank and file have joined the Patriots."
The major's lip curled scornfully, but he only said, "I am obliged to you, colonel, for your kindness. Some day perhaps I may be able to return it."
"Not in the same way, I hope," laughed Colonel Miller. "I have had a taste of Spanish prison life already, major. But when the war is over I trust we may meet again."
Then he sent for an officer and a file of soldiers, and Santiago turned to bid us a cheery farewell.
"Good-bye," said he brightly; "I have had a pleasant time with you.—If I do succeed in escaping, Crawford, I will inquire further into your father's story.—Ah, here is my escort!" and with a salute to the colonel and a nod to us, he took his place in front of the men, while the officer received his chief's instructions.
"He's a plucky fellow. I should have liked to set him free," I said, as we strolled back to our quarters.
"To do more mischief!" growled Jose. "I'm sorry for him, in a way, but it's better for us that he should be under lock and key. And that reminds me! How did Colonel Miller take the Silver Key business?"
"Very badly; called it tampering with the troops."
"So it was, but it saved our lives, all the same. I shall be rather pleased when we leave this district; the governor won't regard either of us too favourably."
"He can't hurt us now the colonel is here."
"No," replied Jose, with a curious smile "but we might meet with a nasty accident. Perhaps you remember my remark, made two years ago, that accidents are common in Peru. It's as true now as then."
As it chanced, Jose was shortly to have his wish; for although we did not know it then, the colonel had decided to abandon Moquegua. Many of the troops were down with the ague, the place was a difficult one to defend, unless against a weak attack, and La Hera was already on the march with a force far superior to ours. This, however, we did not learn till two days later.
A NARROW ESCAPE.
"It is a great honour," exclaimed Jose, "and you should feel proud."
I had just returned from an interview with the colonel, who had asked me to undertake for a short time the duties of his private secretary. It seemed a simple task then, but afterwards I regarded it differently. For the next three weeks I was attached to the colonel, who took me with him everywhere. A secretary is generally supposed to write, but my work consisted in riding. Day after day, from morning till night, we were on horseback, now travelling over sandy deserts to the seashore, again penetrating into the heart of the mountains—hungry, thirsty, and tired, and always in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy.
As a measure of precaution our little force retired to Tacna, where, much to my satisfaction, the colonel received from Lima news of an armistice. This, of course, extended to all parts of the country; but I was mistaken in thinking it would increase my leisure, as my time was still kept fully occupied.
In one way this was a good thing, as it kept me from brooding over Santiago's story, though even at the busiest times the thought of my father's fate would creep into my mind. I saw nothing of Jose, who had been left behind with some Indians to hold a mountain pass, but occasionally I paid a brief visit to the Spanish prisoners for a chat with the friendly major.
We had been at Tacna a month, when one evening Colonel Miller said abruptly: "Crawford, the armistice is at an end, and we must retreat. Tell Videla to send the stores and the sick to Arica the first thing in the morning; then carry this order to Ilo. You will find three small brigs there; they are to sail at once for Arica. Take Castro the guide with you, and rejoin me on the march to Arica."
"Very good, sir," I replied, though my words belied my feelings. However, I went out, gave Videla the colonel's message, and hunted up the guide.
Castro was an educated Indian, trained by one of the missionaries, and a very decent fellow. I found him sound asleep; but he rose at once, looked to see if his bag of coca was full, loaded his pistols, and saddled his horse.
"A pleasant night for a ride, lieutenant,"—the colonel had given me that rank,—"and every yard will take us further from the Spaniards. I hear that La Hera is getting ready to swoop."
"He will find his pigeon a hawk if he comes too close," I answered, laughing. "Bring your horse, and wait for me at the hospital."
The night was still young, and many people, civilians and military, were in the street, talking in excited whispers. It was plain that they had heard of La Hera's approach, and were discussing what they knew of the colonel's plans.
Soon, however, the town was left behind, and we had fairly started on our journey. There was no danger in it, except that of getting lost, which, with Castro for a guide, was not likely to happen. He knew the district as well as, perhaps better than, I knew the streets of Lima.
We jogged along quietly till midnight, not wishing to tire the animals, and then stopped near the edge of a sandy desert for an hour's rest. By this time I had begun to hate the very sight of sand; it seemed to me more dreary and pitiless than the stoniest of barren ground. Castro did not mind in the least, but lay on his back looking at the starry sky and placidly chewing his coca.
"Come, lieutenant," said he briskly at the end of an hour, "it is time to mount;" and we were soon plodding on as patiently as before.
It was nine o'clock when we finally arrived at Ilo. It may have been owing to my own tired state, but I thought I had never seen such a miserable and desolate spot in all my life. The houses were wretched mud-built hovels, and the few people in the place looked woebegone beyond belief.
The three brigs were in keeping with the village, being old and worm-eaten, and the craziest craft imaginable. I would not have sailed one across a pond. However, I sought out the commander of this ragged squadron, and gave him the colonel's order.
On reading it his face brightened, and he declared his intention of running out to sea that very afternoon.
"He doesn't look much of a hero," observed Castro; "but," with an expressive glance at the three floating coffins, "I imagine there are few braver men in Peru."
"One need not be brave to seize any chance of getting away from this depressing place," said I. "I believe I could easily take the risk of being drowned if there were no other way of escape."
"You will have the risk, lieutenant, if we are to go afloat in these brigs; but my opinion is that the bottoms will drop out of them before they reach Arica."
"In that case we must either beat La Hera or be annihilated."
"That's what it looks like," replied Castro coolly.
We stabled our horses in a tumble-down shed, fed and watered them, and, as it was impossible to leave till they were rested, lay down to snatch a brief sleep on the ground. We were invited to use the floor of a hovel for a couch, but after glancing at it, declined with great politeness and many sonorous words of thanks.
When we awoke the brigs had disappeared, and a roaring wind was sweeping down from the north.
"They'll never make headway against that," remarked Castro. "We can return to the colonel and tell him his brigs are at the bottom of the sea. There will be a pretty tune played presently, and La Hera will provide the music."
To a sailor, perhaps, the danger would not have seemed formidable; but standing on that desolate beach, listening to the hurricane rush of the wind, I could not but think Castro was right. And if indeed he had prophesied truly, then was our little force in sad straits. Burdened with sick, hampered by fleeing patriots, encumbered by prisoners, with half his troops weakened as usual by ague, the English colonel could neither fight nor flee. What, then, could he do? By this time every one knew him too well to dream he would surrender.
"Castro," said I, "we carry bad news, and bad news flies apace. Let us keep up the reputation of the old proverb. Half an hour or so may make all the difference in the world."
He made a grimace as if to say that a few minutes more or less would matter little; but he saddled his horse promptly, nevertheless, and was ready to start as soon as I.
"I reckon," he said, "that we may strike the road from Tacna to Arica by midnight to-morrow, unless our animals founder by the way. Can you trust your horse?"
"The colonel selected him."
"That ought to be sufficient warrant. The chief knows a horse, though he will ride in the absurd English style."
There were few men in the country who would have cared to cut themselves adrift as Castro did on this ride of ours to intercept the marching Patriots. His only guides were those he could interpret from nature. While daylight lasted, he steered by the sun; at night, by the stars and the faint wind that fanned our faces.