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   Chapter 10 A SUDDEN ATTACK

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 28958

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

When Hal and his friends appeared on deck on the morning following the disaster to the Maine, the city of Havana was in mourning. Shops, exchanges, and public offices were closed, while flags hung half-mast from the poles on all big buildings, and from the tops of the shipping in the harbor. Projecting from the water a hundred yards away was the half-submerged wreck, now blackened and unsightly, and covered with a pall of dense smoke.

Ashore the hospitals were crowded to overflowing, and surgeons were still busily at work, amputating mangled limbs, and doing their utmost for the sufferers; for more than half the ship's company had been either killed or sadly injured. Even then the news had reached America, and peaceful cities, opening their morning papers, read with a shock of the terrible calamity. Away in the country districts, farmers and cowboys learned the tidings some hours later. It was flashed east and west across the wires. The dire event was discussed in every drawing room, in hotels, restaurants, and cars. Men whispered the news to comrades as they descended in the cages to the deep levels of coal-mines, while others shouted it from the foot-plates of outgoing trains, as they steamed through the stations. And everywhere there was but one thought. Punishment must be meted out to the nation which had caused the disaster. Oh, yes, it was a crime. Not a man but knew it, though the bare facts had hardly reached him. There had been foul play, and the villains who had been guilty of it must pay.

On the part of the government, arrangements were at once made for a Board of Inquiry to sit at Havana, and for the wreck to be examined by divers. The report, which could not possibly be issued for many a day to come, was awaited with feverish impatience, many of the hotter-blooded people of the States demanding instant war with Spain, and an examination and explanation afterwards.

In Havana, nothing could have been more marked than the sorrow of the Spanish. They grieved for the unfortunate seamen, but there was no treachery, they vowed; and those who saw them on that day were confident that if the explosion had been previously arranged, it was by some miscreant who acted for himself, and against the wishes of the people.

And in this position the two nations must be left while we follow our friends to the hacienda.

"The train departs at midday," said Mr. Brindle, when they were collected at breakfast. "We will disembark in an hour's time, and make a few purchases in the town. Then we will get on board the cars, and, with luck, shall be at the hacienda in three days' time."

Accordingly, they packed their baggage and embarked in the boat which Hal and Mr. Brindle had helped to man on the previous night. By noon they were comfortably in the train, the intervening hours having been employed in buying provisions, and in obtaining revolvers and ammunition for the three men of the party.

"We shall want them more than ever now," said Mr. Brindle, slipping his weapon into a hip pocket which had been specially contrived for the purpose. "As soon as we reach Eldorado, I will get one of the negro women to make similar receptacles for you two lads, for it is as well to keep these toys out of sight till the critical moment arrives."

Three days later they descended from the cars at a wayside station some miles from Santiago, and in a beautiful part of the island. Mounting mules, they left their baggage in charge of two of the plantation hands, and before long reached the hacienda, of which Mr. Brindle had not boasted when he declared that it was the most lovely in all Cuba. And now Hal's duties commenced in earnest.

"You are to be my right-hand man, remember that," exclaimed his kindly employer a day or so later. "You will live with us, of course, and will be considered as one of the family. Early in the morning I ride round the place, which is some miles in extent; and I shall expect you to accompany me. Then, during the day, you will be about the place, and will look in here and there. The cane is now ripe for cutting, and we shall have our hands full with it in a matter of two weeks. Then the tobacco crop is unusually promising, and we shall have to harvest it immediately after the cane. Now, as to workmen. The majority of my hands are negroes, whom I imported from the estate in Florida. They are reliable, honest men, who look to me as to a father. I treat them well, and they reward me by being obedient and working hard. They are re-enforced by a few local natives; but I have purposely employed very few of the latter, for they are discontented, idle fellows, and since the insurrection started, there is never any knowing when they may be off with their brethren. Ah, here is Black Peter, my foreman, a faithful fellow, who has spent many years in my service. Pete, this is my overseer, and from to-day you will treat him as myself, and will take your orders from him."

The negro thus introduced was a white-haired man of over fifty. He looked Hal critically up and down, and then doffed his ragged cap.

"Sar, you my master from right away," he said simply. "What you say I do, and de oders follow Pete."

"That's good," Hal replied, smiling and stretching out his hand, an offer which the negro at once responded to by shaking it heartily.

"Now that you know each other, we will make a round," exclaimed Mr. Brindle. "How has everything gone on in my absence, Pete?"

"Velly fine, massa. Crops him big and plenty, and boys working, oh, so hard! Dey say de weather fine, so do all we can. Come winter and de rain and we take him easy, and sleep and smoke till de heart am full."

"That's your way, is it?" answered Mr. Brindle, with a laugh. "Well, work now is the motto, for when the winter comes there is little to be done. One thing, though, tell all the men to keep their eyes open. You'll remember the Spaniard? He may come our way again, and if he does, it would be bad for us. Do you follow me, Pete?"

The negro nodded his head vigorously, and went off promising to warn the other hands. Mr. Brindle then took his overseer on a tour of the plantations, returning by way of the machinery sheds, which occupied a central position, and which were to be Hal's special care.

Each one of the laborers as they came up to him dropped the implement he was using, and, unslinging a rifle carried across his back, raised it to his shoulder in salute.

"That is a sign of the times," said Mr. Brindle. "I have been so often threatened, particularly by that amiable fellow José d'Arousta, that I have found it advisable to arm my negroes. They are all drilled and instructed in the use of their weapons, and I fancy would fight staunchly if it came to a struggle. Fortunately, however, we have been left severely alone, though we must never relax our vigilance, particularly now that war is imminent. But come along and see the sheds in which we dry the tobacco leaf. If all goes well I shall make a fortune this summer, for the ground has been fertile, and the crops are of excellent quality."

As the days passed, Hal found little cause to grumble at the position he had taken. In the house he was at once at home, and, indeed, was just like one of the family. In the plantations he found that the negroes respected him, and did what he told them willingly. Over the mulattoes, too, he seemed to have perfect command, and seldom had cause to find fault with them. Once, however, he discovered a burly, impudent fellow ill-treating a mule, and promptly dismissed him, Mr. Brindle heartily approving of the course he had taken. The man left uttering threats, saying that before long he would return with some of his comrades, and burn the hacienda down.

Meanwhile, little of the squabble between America and Spain was heard of.

Two months later, as Hal and Gerald were returning from a distant part of the plantation, they were startled by a figure suddenly emerging on to the track in front of them. The man darted from the trees which grew thickly on either side, and waved his arms wildly. It was evening, and the darkness was so great beneath the leaves that it was not easy to see him; but Gerald called Hal's attention to him.

"Hist, massa! Am dat Massa Hal?" a voice called softly through the darkness.

"Yes. What is it? What is the matter?" Hal asked eagerly.

"Gently, boss; not speak so high. Me take Johnson, and come along to tell you dat massa and de missie am troubled."

"Mr. Brindle and Dora? Impossible!" exclaimed Hal. "Why, you must be dreaming, for we left them in the hacienda having tea not two hours ago."

"Yes, sar, and bad men watch de boss and young massa ride away. Den, as Jake work in field, he see first one and den twenty men ride across to house. He see Black Pete run to call de boys, and hear de rifle go crack, crack, crack! Pete, him lie over dere so quiet on his face, and two ob de boys wid him. Oders make run into trees and hide, so not get hit wid bullet."

"Yes; and then, what occurred?" asked Hal eagerly, springing at the same moment from his saddle. "What did these ruffians do next? Quick! The safety of the boss and his daughter depend upon my hearing at once."

"Dey laugh at Black Pete as he lie dere," continued the negro. "Den dey fire again into de trees, and ride on to de house. Jake him lie in bush and t'ink. Him say to himselb, 'De bad men am come to take all. Dey not find de young boss, and dey wait to shoot him when him come along. Me stop dat. Me go along right now and find de massa Hal, and tell him. Den, p'raps, all come right.' Me run dis way, and when me see you and de young massa riding along, me hop on to de path, and shout and wave de arm. Oh, sar, get back quick and kill dem all! Jake willing to help and do what him can."

The good fellow lifted his hands as if beseeching, and looked appealingly into Hal's face.

"You have done very well, Jake, and I shall remember," said Hal. "These men have evidently been here some time, and the trees on the plantation must have prevented us from hearing the firing. But, in any case, I don't suppose these ruffians, whoever they are, would care much who heard, for we are right away from civilized parts, and have no neighbors, while they are in force, and have driven the hands away. No doubt they feel perfectly secure, for the hacienda is so far from Santiago that they would have done all they wished and cleared away before we could get help. No; we can expect no one to intervene, and must act for ourselves."

"But how? What can we do?" asked Gerald in dismay.

"Do? That is a difficult question to answer on the spur of the moment, old boy. But this is certain, we must make a move, and that at once, for these fellows have already shown that they mean to stop at nothing. They have fired at, and apparently killed, some of the hands. There is no saying to what extent they might carry their bullying. We must stir up the men, and turn them out as soon as possible. Let me think a moment. Yes; there are thirty armed negroes. Some of them have probably never seen the gang who fired at their friends, for they will have been on the other side of the plantation, at work in the fields. But you may be sure that they will now be on the qui vive; for though we failed to hear the shots, the hands are too old, and have had too good a training to make any mistake. Their hearing is far more acute than ours, and everyone knows what wonders they are at tracking, and at following a trail in the dark. Of the thirty, three are killed or wounded. That leaves twenty-seven, and with such a number we ought to be able to accomplish something. Listen, Jake. Run off as fast as you can, and tell the boys to collect at the crushing shed. How long will it take you to find all of them?"

"P'raps quarter hour, p'raps longer, sar," the negro answered quickly. "But Jake him know a little ting. Him make sounds dat all de boys know. Dey hear and follow wid de same, so's oder boys know. Me be in hurry, boss. You see how quick me hab dem all, ebery one."

He turned, and, without another word, dived into the forest, leaving Hal and Gerald listening to the crash of the underwood as he forced his way through.

"Of course, it is absolutely impossible to know what has happened, and equally difficult to determine what to do," said Hal thoughtfully. "But I think our best plan will be to creep towards the house, and see what these men are doing. Then we may learn how matters stand, and can arrange our plans accordingly. If they know the plantation, and all about it, they will certainly be on the look-out for us on our return. I fancy if we went forward without taking the precaution to remain silent and in hiding, we should be greeted with a bullet, for they evidently care little what murder they do. Walk softly, old fellow, and keep a careful watch ahead, and your ears wide open. I am not anxious to get shot again; and besides, I want to turn the tables on these marauding rascals, and teach them a lesson which they will not be likely to forget in a hurry."

He looked calmly at Gerald, and then, motioning him to follow, led the way along the track. Soon he came to a path which was almost invisible, for it was so little used that the jungle which grew closely around the hacienda had obliterated it, just as it would have overrun the tobacco fields and the clearings meant for the cultivation of cane, if constant and arduous labor with the machete did not keep it down and within strict bounds. But Hal knew the path, for he was now well acquainted with the ins and outs of the whole plantation. Pressing forward, and closely followed by Gerald and by the two mules, he pushed the creepers and vegetation to one side, and rapidly approached the neighborhood of the hacienda. Soon the trees opened, and judging that he was near the central clearing which surrounded Eldorado, he came to a halt, and turned to his young friend.

"You stay here and look after the mules, Gerald," he said, in a voice that showed no trace of excitement. "I'll do a little prospecting. Remember that your father's safety depends as much on your caution as on anything I may do."

"Right; you can trust me, old boy," answered Gerald, taking the reins and seating himself at the feet of the mules. "I'll stay here as quiet as a mouse, and will keep the animals beside me. They will be too busy eating these green leav

es to care to proclaim their presence by whinnying to their friends."

"Then I'll get off," and suiting the action to the word, Hal started once more along the path. A hundred yards farther on it suddenly emerged into the clearing, close beside a large outhouse used as a stable for the many mules kept to work on the plantation. As Hal approached this building, he heard voices, and at once turned into the forest, and crept forward amongst the trees till he was close enough to hear all that was said. Thirty mules were tethered in the shed, and some men were feeding them. All were natives of the island save two, who seemed to be in charge. They chatted volubly with one another, and seemed to be highly pleased. But, though Hal strained his ears, he could make nothing of the conversation, for the men were speaking in Spanish. Lying close to the edge of the forest, he watched them for ten minutes or more, wondering what to do. To attempt to reach the hacienda would have been foolhardy and quite impossible, for it was sixty yards away, and several armed men were marching up and down in the clearing, evidently having been told off as a guard.

"I shall have to wait till it is dark, that is all," he murmured. "To try to get over to the hacienda just now would be simply to give myself into the hands of these ruffians, and throw all chances of rescue away. Of course, if we can get hold of the hands, we could shoot every one of these fellows down, just like so many birds. But would that do any good to our friends-to-er-Dora? I wonder who they are? The fact that there are Spaniards with the gang makes it look as though they were not insurgents. And yet there are natives too. Perhaps they are servants; and I shall be greatly surprised if our old enemy, José d'Arousta, and his rascally accomplice, Pedro, do not turn out to be the ringleaders. I know that this is the kind of band they have been working with. Irregulars they are called. Scoundrels every one of them, I should say. Hallo! Who are these?"

At this moment two men, whip in hand, and with rifles slung across their shoulders, descended the stone steps from the balcony of the hacienda, and sauntered across the clearing. They stopped in front of the first of the Spanish sentries, and questioned him closely, allowing Hal at the same moment a clear view of their faces, for they stood in the glare of a fire of logs which burnt close at hand.

One was the rascally captain of irregulars who had made good his escape when attempting to steal the bag on board the train in Florida. Beside him, as might have been guessed, was Pedro, smoking the inevitable cigarette. Even then, as he conversed with the sentry, he was in the act of rolling another, his nimble fingers twisting the paper with a dexterity which showed how accustomed they were to the work. As Hal looked, the two men laughed loudly, as if enjoying an excellent joke, and walked towards the shed.

"As I thought," exclaimed Hal, in a low voice. "It is those two ruffians, and, I suppose plunder and revenge have brought them here. What are they saying, I wonder?"

José d'Arousta, now without a beard, and looking handsome and debonair in a planter's suit and high riding-boots, conversed volubly with Pedro, and was undoubtedly in the best of spirits. Then he turned and addressed the natives, giving them some orders in a sharp voice.

"It is just as well to let them know who is their master," he said, suddenly using English. "In these times, when Spain seems to have more and more trouble heaped upon her shoulders, these dogs get uppish and want careful handling. No doubt they wonder what we are doing here. Of course, they know that it is one of our usual expeditions; but do they suspect anything more? Up to this they have been only lukewarm adherents of their brethren in the island, and have not objected to a little burning here and there, for they are making money out of it. But if they were to suspect that you and I have our own private objects in view there would be trouble. Remember, Pedro, we are Spanish irregulars. Now, about this dog of an Englishman. What has been done to capture him?"

"If he escapes us he will be clever," answered his companion. "We know that he and the boy will return by a certain path. Thirty paces from the clearing two of our men are posted. They are natives, and are armed with the machete. The boy will be taken to the hacienda, and the other will stay. Yes, Se?or Capitan, your orders will be followed in that respect," he added significantly. "That foolish young man who upset our well-laid plans in Florida will disappear, for these black fellows are masters of the art."

"And what if the mice refuse to walk into your trap?" asked the other. "How do you know that they have not already taken the alarm, and made the best of their way to Santiago?"

"The better for one if they have, Se?or Capitan; but it will not be the case. The young English fool will not desert his friends. See how he supported them in Florida, when he might easily have lain in his bunk and feigned sleep. But he must needs spring up, and come to the rescue, only to receive a bullet. He will act in the same manner this time, and he will suffer death. Madmen must be treated as madmen when they become dangerous to one's safety. But we shall soon know. We will give them a little time longer, and then, if the boy is not brought to the hacienda, I myself will go down this small pathway till it cuts into the larger one. There I will stay, and hide amongst the bushes. If in an hour I do not come to tell you that I have seen them, you may be sure that they have ridden for the town. That would be unfortunate, for we have a score to pay to the Englishman, and it would mean more trouble on another occasion. But, should they have escaped us, we need not fear surprise, for Santiago is far away, and it will be to-morrow morning before they could return with help."

"Not even then," said José d'Arousta, with a sneer. "To whom are they to apply for help? No one would listen to the beggarly Englishman, for are not they the same as Americans? At any rate, their sympathies are with these enemies of Spain. We will rest here, take all the money we can lay our hands on, and then return leisurely, conscious that we have done a piece of excellent work. If there should be trouble, we have hosts of friends to prove that we were in Santiago when the attack was made upon the hacienda. You may be sure that the matter would be dropped at once, for the commandant in Santiago has sufficient on his hands already without caring to be troubled about such a trumpery affair. Yes; I have no fears. We will take our ease, and depart with all the gold we can find."

"Leaving the hacienda in flames, se?or?" the half-caste asked eagerly.

"No, certainly not. There you show yourself sadly wanting in thought, Pedro," José d'Arousta replied, with a grim smile. "Our friends defied us once before; they escaped us in Florida, and now we have them in our toils. But, remember, the crops are just gathered and stored, and very shortly money will be received in exchange. We will leave the hacienda for another time, Pedro. Do you follow me? We will take the very last dollar now by force, returning on a later occasion for a second haul. If we are not satisfied then, it will be easy to set a torch to the hacienda, which is the pride of Se?or Brindle's heart."

"Ha, ha, ha! That is good, Se?or Capitan. It is fine!" Pedro answered, with a snigger. "Of course, we will leave him for another day's sport."

They walked away towards the hacienda, leaving Hal boiling with wrath and indignation.

"Rob him now and come again, will they!" he muttered angrily. "We will see about that. The Brindles have been more than good to me, and I will do my utmost for them in return. At any rate, I will put a spoke in José d'Arousta's wheel this time. Now, how is it to be done? I'll slip back and talk it over with Gerald, for he is sharp, and may very well be able to help."

He crept into the darkness of the forest, and, emerging at length upon the path again, he crawled away from the clearing as rapidly as possible.

"Hallo! Is that you?" exclaimed Gerald, starting to his feet as Hal suddenly rose by his side, having given absolutely no evidence of his approach. "Bother you, old man, you made my heart jump into my mouth. 'Pon my word, you are a regular Red Indian, and I am sure that one of our hands could not have done better. But what have you learned?"

"A good deal, Gerald. Take a seat there on the ground and listen."

Hal seated himself beside his young companion, and rapidly told him all that had passed between José and Pedro.

"There, you know all," he said at last. "Just stir your brains and tell me what we are to do. We have a number of reckless men to deal with; that you can plainly perceive, for they do not hesitate to arrange for my murder. On our side we can count on twenty-seven negroes, who are faithful, and who will fight if well led, but who, negro-like, may run away if someone does not show them an example."

"Then why not surround the hacienda and open fire?" said Gerald, eagerly.

"And lose control of our men at once. No; that would not do," Hal answered quietly. "Besides, what would those villains do in such circumstances? I tell you, Gerald, they are brutal enough to kill their captives. Now, look here; our men will fight, if collected together so as to feel one another's support. I have a little plan to propose which I think will settle matters satisfactorily. We are in the minority, and our men are on foot. If we push this gang of ruffians they will fight hard, and we shall not gain our end, which is the rescue of your father and Dora, and of the money in the hacienda. I suggest that we make it impossible for them to take their mules. That will be a simple matter, for we have only to post the negroes beside the shed. Then we will cover the guards who are on watch in the clearing, and will order them to decamp. After that we will deal with the ringleader. Now, old boy, will you command the firing party?"

"Rather! Of course! But what about you, Hal? What will you be doing?" asked his companion.

"I am going to set the ball rolling, if possible," answered Hal calmly. "José d'Arousta's head man is bent upon searching for me. We will capture the gentleman, and make so free as to undress him. Then I will take his place, and while he fumes and rages, will march as bold as brass into the hacienda."

"What? You are joking, Hal!" exclaimed Gerald, aghast at the boldness of the idea. "You would be shot for a certainty. You cannot mean it."

"Oh, yes, I do," Hal replied quietly. "And I can assure you that the risk is far more imaginary than real. Think it over. It is getting dusk already, and, dressed exactly like Pedro, I walk into the hacienda. The other ruffian will almost certainly be alone, and I shall have the advantage of him, for I shall take him by surprise. Do you mean to tell me that I shall not be a match for such a man?"

Hal's eyes glinted strangely in the gloom, and, glancing at him, Gerald was surprised to find that his usually smiling face had assumed a most severe and determined look.

"By Jove, you will, of course," he blurted out, extending his hand to grasp Hal's and shake it. "A match for the fellow! Of course you will be! But it's risky-awfully risky, and I don't like the thought of your going alone."

"And I don't care to think what may be happening meanwhile," said Hal earnestly. "That brute will be insulting and ill-treating everyone. Bully is written on his face as well as thief. Do you care to think that Dora may be insulted by such a man?" Hal jumped to his feet, and asked the question hotly.

"Good Heavens, no!" Gerald answered.

"Then don't try to dissuade me. If someone who is armed were not near at hand when shooting commenced, José d'Arousta might do something desperate; but with my revolver pointed at him he will be more cautious. Now, look here. You cut over to the crushing-shed and bring the negroes across. Take the mules with you in case their whinnying should be heard and give the alarm. I'll stay here and look out for Pedro. Now, hurry up, for I want some help to capture that fellow."

Promptly grasping the reins, Gerald hurried away, and returned some minutes later with the whole force of natives.

"Now, Jake," said Hal, selecting the negro who had first brought the alarm, "send twenty of the hands up this path to the clearing, and let them lie down amongst the trees in sight of the shed. If they hear anyone approaching, they are to slip aside and allow him to pass, signaling down here to let us know. Let me think. Yes; there is a marsh down in the hollow, so it shall be the croak of a frog. You understand? We are to be warned whenever anyone approaches; and, by the way, see that rifles are unloaded. Triggers get pulled too easily, and might give the alarm."

Jake hurriedly carried out the order, and disappeared down the pathway.

"I want two more to cut into the forest and stalk a couple of ruffians who are watching the other path," said Hal. "They must be careful how they approach, for the men I speak of are in hiding. When they discover the whereabouts of the sentries they must load and be ready for emergencies, and when they hear the others moving off, must shout at the two they are covering, and order them away. If the rascals show fight, they are to be dropped instantly.

"Now, you others," he continued, turning to the five who remained, "one of the leaders of the gang which has attacked the hacienda will come along this path. You will lie in wait for him, and capture him, for I want his clothes. If he is troublesome, you must silence him, for any sound now would ruin our plans.

"That is all arranged, and we will step on one side," he went on, moving away from the group, and drawing Gerald after him. "You see, it isn't that I don't like the job of tackling this beggar-I owe him one, and shall be glad to repay it; but the negroes will do it without a sound, whereas we might bungle it, and bring the whole crew down upon us. Ah, down on your knees! I heard the signal. Yes; there it is again."

They hastily concealed themselves, and, crouching low in the forest, heard first the hoarse croaking of a frog, and then the unmistakable sound of footsteps approaching.

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