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   Chapter 11 A BOLD COURSE

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 28126

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Out from the dense maze of bushes and trees came Pedro, the half-breed ally of José d'Arousta, picking his way gingerly along the narrow footpath, and evidently listening acutely for any sounds that might betray the position of an enemy, and the unwary approach of the Englishman whom he hoped to kill. A moment before he had been shrouded in gloom, for the sun was already fast setting, and the roof of leaves overhead cast a deep shadow upon everything beneath. Suddenly, however, he came into clear view, and Hal and Gerald, who were crouching within five or six paces of him, saw him distinctly.

Click! An excited negro pulled back his trigger in readiness, and Pedro, hearing the sound, stood suddenly still, rooted to the spot, and listening with all his ears. For more than a minute a death-like silence reigned, while the half-caste peered into the forest, doubtful whether to advance or retire. Prudence told him to hasten back to his friends, for the young fellow he was in search of had already proved that he was capable of looking well after himself. But fierce longing for revenge, the feeling that this was an opportunity not to be missed-one, too, that would enable him to attain his end without much danger to himself, for he hoped for a complete surprise-egged him on, and helped him to conquer his fears. He hesitated, and then, with a muttered "What a dolt I am! it was only a twig snapping," he gave a stamp of impatience, and walked on.

Next instant a nimble form sprang, unheard and unseen, upon the path behind him, and, crouching like a tiger collecting its limbs for a spring, crept stealthily after him. Then, measuring the distance with a practiced eye, the negro launched himself through the air, landing upon Pedro's shoulders. A hand closed firmly over his mouth, and a moment later the ruffian who came to destroy the beautiful hacienda, and to exercise a private vengeance, was lying as helpless as a log, bound hand and foot, while a hard and extremely uncomfortable gag was fastened between his jaws by means of a handkerchief. Close beside him crouched a peculiarly sinister-looking negro, prepared to silence him should he attempt to give the alarm, and seeming, too, to hope for such an action, for he brandished his weapon in the prisoner's face in a manner that was sufficiently formidable to upset the equanimity of the boldest man.

"That was well done-very neatly managed, indeed," said Hal, issuing from his cover. "Now, Mr. Pedro, or whatever you are called, we are going to turn the tables if we can. Take off his clothes, my lads, and if he attempts to make a sound, or to get rid of his gag, you will know how to act."

But there was very little need for the caution, for Pedro a captive was a very different individual indeed from the half-caste who sat in the railway car away in Florida, plotting the theft of Mr. Brindle's bag. His yellow eyes blinked nervously, and as the negroes crowded round him, and hustled him with no gentle hands, he looked at Hal appealingly, as if asking for his help. His limbs trembled, and a thick perspiration broke out upon his forehead.

"Not at all, my fine fellow," exclaimed Hal, as if he had read his prisoner's thoughts. "You need not appeal to me, for I told you that I was about to turn the tables. Well, I have commenced with you, and the others have their turn to come. Remember that I bear a mark upon my shoulder which you were good enough to give me. Is it likely that I shall go out of my way now to save you any pain or inconvenience, especially when I know that you came this way with the express intention of killing me-murdering me in cold blood, I should have said? That's right, boys, strip his coat and breeches off. I fancy I shall manage to squeeze into them."

Tumbling their captive without ceremony, it was not long before the negro hands had dragged his fine clothes from him. Hal picked them up, and carefully inspected them. Then he donned them calmly. Indeed, looking at him there as he struggled into the coat, one would have imagined that he was undertaking some very ordinary duty, one to which he was accustomed every day of his life. He paid particular attention to the set of the breeches, and seemed quite annoyed because the jacket of the half-caste would not button across his expansive chest.

"You see," he said, with something approaching a smile, "I want to be accurate. This fellow usually has his coat fastened, but I'm too big to allow of it. However, the resemblance will be good enough, particularly as it will be quite dark.

"Now, listen," he continued imperiously, turning to his prisoner. "I am now going to meet that scoundrel who works with you; but first I want you to answer a question, and be very careful how you do it. I have already warned you against raising an alarm. Tell me an untruth, and I will make it extremely warm for you, for pain is the only thing that appeals to men of your class. Now, my men, take the gag from his mouth and bring him to me."

Delighted to have in their hands one of the gang who had injured some of their comrades, the negroes rushed at the unhappy Pedro, and dragged him to his knees. Then they carried him to Hal, and tearing the gag from his mouth, placed him upon his feet, one of them standing close beside him and holding the cold muzzle of a rifle at his neck.

"Ah, se?or, spare me! I will tell the truth," Pedro cried, his knees knocking together, and his eyes turning in terror to the negroes who held him. "Take these wolves away from me, and you shall hear all that you wish to know."

"Silence! Do you wish to let your friends hear you?" asked Hal sternly. "Silence, man, and answer in a whisper as you value your life. Now, who is in the hacienda beside your accomplice?"

"No one, se?or, save a guard who stands at the door that opens from the top of the steps. El Capitan sits in the best room, drinking wine."

"If you were returning now, how would you act?"

"I should pass by the guard without a word, se?or," Pedro answered, flinching as the barrel of the rifle touched his neck. "Ah, se?or, I cannot reply while my life depends upon this man behind. Have the gun removed, I beg of you."

"In time, Pedro. You must really give us time," said Hal calmly. "Remember that I was to have felt the edge of cold steel myself, for your orders were that the machete was to be used to kill me. Listen to this. I am going into the hacienda to see this friend of yours, and you will be brought to the edge of the clearing. When you hear José d'Arousta's voice, repeat his commands in loud tones, and warn your comrades on guard and those who are looking to the mules, that if they approach the house or attempt to take the animals from the shed, they will be shot down without mercy. I need not tell you to obey me to the letter, for these good fellows will have charge of you. Now, bring him along, boys. The sun will be down in five minutes, and then it will be time to start."

Hal left his trembling captive in charge of the grinning negroes, and grasping Gerald by the arm, led him along the path. Five minutes later they were amongst the hands who were lying in the forest watching the shed and the guerilla sentries paraded up and down before the hacienda.

"All of you lie down here," said Hal. "Ah, there goes the sun, and very soon we shall have the moon up in its place."

He had scarcely finished speaking when the golden orb disappeared suddenly, and without the slightest warning, as is the case in the tropics, where night succeeds day with a rapidity that is astonishing. Then up floated the moon, while stars glistened dull and faint in the sky, rendered almost invisible by the bright silvery rays that now shot over the trees and deluged everything. At once all around became silent, and the clearing and house looked unreal and ghostly in the pale beams which were so different from those that had lit up the place only a few minutes before.

Glancing into the clearing, Hal saw the Spanish irregulars sauntering carelessly up and down, their hands thrust deep into their pockets, and a cigarette gleaming red beneath the teeth of each. Those who were not on duty had collected on the right beneath a group of palms, and were listlessly watching one of their number who saw to the contents of a kettle that was suspended over a big fire. They lay in all sorts of negligent attitudes, and seemed to have forgotten the hacienda and the leader who had brought them there.

"Now is the time," Hal murmured in Gerald's ear. "Look here, old boy, I am going to leave you in charge. You know as well as I do what is going to happen and how to act. Wait till you hear voices from the hacienda. I shall endeavor to make José d'Arousta order his men back to Santiago. They will have to go without arms and without mules. That is your part of the business, and you must see to it. I am going to look after the chief scoundrel, but you must have those negroes ready in case of accidents. Look over there. The rifles are piled in front of the fire, so that you can prevent the Spaniards from touching them. Do you understand?"

"Yes, quite," Gerald answered hesitatingly. "But, I say, old boy, it's a fearful risk that you are taking. Are you sure that it is wise?"

"Do you understand?" Hal asked, repeating his question and ignoring Gerald's. "Yes? Then take the utmost care, and when the time comes, make Pedro add his order to José's. There, you will manage beautifully. Good-by. If you hear a shot you may as well make a rush, for there will be trouble in the hacienda."

He nodded to Gerald, and waiting only to squeeze the hand which the lad enthusiastically thrust towards him, he rose to his feet, and stepped from the shrubs and trees on to the narrow path. A moment later he was in the clearing, walking slowly across it with a swaggering gait, such as he had seen Pedro adopting. And an extremely good substitute he made in appearance for that evil gentleman, though, as a matter of fact, he was some three inches taller. He was wearing riding-breeches, with high-cut riding boots, a wide-open coat and colored waist-cloth, such as is worn by many Spaniards. Upon his head was a broad-brimmed hat, with feather and tassel. The better to preserve his incognito he had tipped the brim well over his eyes, so as to throw a shadow upon his face. A fine manly young fellow he looked as he stalked into the moon-lit clearing, and he showed a determined face beneath the shadow of his hat.

"By Jove, what a chap!" Gerald murmured eagerly, as he lay in the forest. "I ought to be there, but he knows as well as I do that I haven't the go in me to carry out such a cool piece of acting. Who would have thought it of Hal-the fellow who never quarrels, and seems to be liked by everyone? Good old Hal! But I ought to be taking all these risks for the sake of father and Dora. Why should he? Why?"

Apparently the question rather staggered Gerald, for he at once became silent, as he reclined upon the ground watching Hal's every movement. With the utmost nonchalance Hal walked towards the hacienda, ignoring the presence of the sentries and of their comrades who were feasting round the fire. Suddenly, however, someone called to him.

"Se?or Pedro," he heard a voice cry, while a man hurried towards him.

To escape was impossible, and, therefore, Hal halted, and placed his hand easily on the butt of his revolver, which rested in his waistband. Next moment a swarthy Spaniard stood before him, and evidently described something which he had done. Hal listened carefully, and was able from his rough knowledge of the language to gather that he was being told that all was well, when he promptly made up his mind how to act.

"Pedro apes the pure Spaniard," he thought, "and, no doubt, as second in command, he treats these fellows with more or less contempt. It is the class of thing a man of his character would do. I'll say 'Good!' and turn away."

Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he turned abruptly upon his heel, and said, "Buenos!" Then he walked on towards the hacienda, while the man hurried towards his friends, having detected nothing unusual. Pedro was a rough, ill-conditioned fellow, he knew, so that the answer was all that he had expected. Still, it was galling to be treated like that, especially by one not of pure Spanish birth, and he did not fail to remark upon it.

"One would think that we were dogs," he said angrily. "Here have I been round the clearing to see that all is as it should be, and when I report the same to him, he turns upon me as though I had done him an injury. At least, it was as bad as that. Some day the half-breed cur will be sorry. He has murdered many, and perhaps someone will try to find room for the blade of a knife between his ribs. If so, I for one shall not weep. But hand me my supper. There is one consolation in the fact that he cannot cut me from my meals."

Thankful to have escaped discovery, which would have meant failure at the very commencement of his little plot, Hal swaggered to the steps, and stood there a moment to roll one of the many cigarettes with which the average Spaniard regales himself during the day. Taking care to keep his back to the sentry, who stood upon the balcony above, he struck a match and lit up, sending a cloud of smoke flying into the air.

"Now for it," he murmured gently. "I don't want a scene, and I wish to avoid bloodshed, but I mean to prevent this fellow D'Arousta from robbing Mr. Brindle. He is my employer, and it is only my duty to do all that I can."

He ran lightly up the steps, and would have passed the sentry without a word, but the man came forward, and held his rifle forward to bar the path, as if he had noticed something strange. But, more probably he was half asleep, or had been day-dreaming, for when Hal gave vent to an exclamation of impatience and anger, the Spaniard sprang back, and at once offered an apology. Hal took no notice of it, for to do so would have been to b

etray himself. Instead, he pushed on, and, pausing just for one moment to drag his hat still more over his eyes, entered the big room of the hacienda, which lay on the left.

A tall shaded lamp stood close to the wall, and some paces from it was a table at which José d'Arousta sat, with a flood of light illuminating his face. Opposite him, seated in a chair, to which his wrists and ankles were lashed, was Mr. Brindle, while standing close beside him was Dora, white and trembling, but for all that preserving an undaunted mien.

Hal took in the whole situation in an instant, and, clattering across the room without ceremony, dragged a seat to that end of the table farthest from the lamp, and sat down with the rays upon his back.

Puff! A cloud of tobacco smoke came from his lips and enveloped him.

"Ha, you are back, then, Pedro!" exclaimed José d'Arousta, turning to him. "What luck, my partner? Has it been good?"

At that moment Hal emitted another cloud of smoke, and at once commenced to choke violently. He dragged a big red handkerchief from the pocket of Pedro's coat, and held it to his face, nodding meanwhile as if to answer the question.

"Good! Better than ever! Things have gone well for us!" José exclaimed. "Here, se?ora, get me another glass of this wine. This is stuff which one does not find in Santiago, and it is well to make the most of one's opportunities. Besides, I would drink to the health of my friend, for he has just paid off a heavy score for me. Think what it is."

As if determined to do all in her power to conciliate the coward before her, Dora refilled his glass from a decanter that stood on the table, and then returned to her father's side. As for José, he lifted the wine to the light, and, having inspected it carefully, swallowed it with a gulp.

"Come," he said, with a sardonic smile, "you have not yet answered my question, se?ora. Surely it is not because you are too timid a donzella (maiden)? What score do you imagine the gallant Pedro has paid for me?"

"If I heard that he had murdered every hand upon the plantation I should not be surprised," exclaimed Mr. Brindle. "He is villain enough for anything."

"Do you hear that, my Pedro?" José cried, with a gay, bantering laugh. "See what a high opinion the Se?or Brindle has of you. My dear sir, please remember that you are speaking of my friend. He is an amiable fellow, I do assure you, and has a very tender heart. But, supposing that score referred to the overseer, the brat of an Englishman who thwarted me before? You will recollect the occasion of which I speak."

"Pshaw! he was too clever for you," answered Mr. Brindle, with a disdainful smile, "and I am sure he has outmatched you again."

"Sure! Are you, my friend? Then we will soon let you know," said José harshly. "But we will not discuss that matter now. The most important business is to settle the debt you owe me. Let me see, you said, I think, that the cash and what valuables you possess are in that safe in the corner of the room. I want the key. Where is it?"

"There it is, hanging on my watch-chain," Mr. Brindle said brokenly. "You are too strong for me, and I must submit. If I did not know well that you would shoot me like a dog, I would have defied you long ago, and left you to make these discoveries for yourself. But you have the upper hand. Wait till my turn comes; I will then hound you out of the island."

"Quite so; I believe you would if you could," answered the Spaniard, with a satirical smile. "But you have unfortunately failed to take stock of current events. For instance, war was declared between Spain and America yesterday. That very naturally throws Santiago into a turmoil, so that you might hunt the town and never find us. Again, you are an American, and once you leave your estate you are spying. Remember that, for I shall swear that it is the case, and you must know the reward you would meet with."

"War declared! Ah, I thought as much! But still, I repeat that I shall repay you for this day's work, José d'Arousta," said Mr. Brindle sternly. "Once before you attempted to rob me, and failed. You are successful this time, but it is the last, for I will never rest till you are punished."

"Really you will put yourself to much unnecessary trouble," the Spaniard replied. "But we are wasting time. Let me see what the safe contains. I am far more interested in seeing to that than in listening to what a beggarly American has to say."

He started to his feet, and, striding up to Mr. Brindle, removed the key from his watch-chain. Then he opened the safe, and pulling out the drawers, emptied their contents upon the table.

"A very pretty haul, Pedro!" he exclaimed, thrusting his fingers greedily amongst the gold which lay piled up before him. "A good reward, indeed, and one worthy of our labors. Stow it in your pocket, my friend."

Hal, who up to this had preserved a strict silence, gave vent to a guttural laugh, and hastily transferred the gold and silver to his capacious pockets. The Spaniard watched him eagerly, his attention being so much occupied with the booty he was stealing that he did not give more than a passing thought to his supposed accomplice.

"Good! That is done; and now I fancy we can bid you adieu," he said at last, turning to Mr. Brindle. "Pedro, go to the door, and give our men the order to saddle up. Se?or, forgive my rudeness in hurrying away, but duty calls, for your countrymen will be exchanging shots with us very soon, and it is well that I should be there to help read them the same lesson as you have been taught. Se?ora, your pardon. In the absence of our mutual friend, the handsome Se?or Marchant, who, I fear, is dead, permit me to proclaim myself your very devoted servant."

He turned on his heel, after giving a flourishing bow, and stepped towards the door. At that moment his eye fell upon Hal, and he stopped abruptly; for, taking advantage of his satirical bobs, the latter had drawn his revolver, and now held it presented at the Spaniard's head, while at the same time, as if to mock José's manner, he leant one hand easily upon the table as if it were almost too much trouble to stand.

"By your leave, Se?or Capitan," he said, with a short laugh. "You have given us a lesson in politeness, and I will follow suit. Hands up, at this instant!"

To say that José d'Arousta was surprised was to express the situation mildly. He staggered backwards, turned deathly pale, and then drove his hand into his pocket.

"Stop that!" said Hal, sternly, but in low tones, so that the sentry should not hear, holding his weapon within an inch of the Spaniard's head. "Hands up!"

José lifted his arms slowly and grudgingly, while he glared at Hal as if he would kill him.

"That is well. Now, I warn you that I will shoot if you show even the faintest suspicion of treachery. Dora, cut your father loose, if you please."

As if in a dream, for she was as yet unable to grasp the situation, Dora took a knife from the table, and released Mr. Brindle.

"Good," said Hal. "Now, Mr. Brindle, I will trouble you to lash this rogue in front of me."

"Delighted, I'm sure," exclaimed the latter; and at once set to work.

Taking the ropes which had bound his own limbs only a moment or two before, he wound them round the arms and feet of the Spanish brigand, and knotted them firmly.

"Now we will go on with the play," said Hal calmly. "Much depends upon you, José d'Arousta. If you give the alarm now, you and your comrades will suffer. First and foremost, you will run the danger of receiving a bullet from my revolver, and then the negro hands, who lie close outside, will fire upon your men. Pedro, too, whose clothes I was forced to borrow, will come in for very rough handling, for he is not a favorite with our good fellows. Now, you can prevent all this by doing as I tell you."

"What is it? What do you want?" the Spaniard asked crossly.

"Go to the window and order all your ruffians to return to Santiago. Tell them on no account to go for their mules, for they will be shot if they attempt it, and we are anxious to avoid bloodshed where they are concerned."

"And after that?"

"We will settle with you and your rascally accomplice."

Hal looked the man in the face and spoke sternly. For an instant José glowered at him, but realizing that he was beaten, he lowered his eyes, and muttered angrily beneath his breath.

"You've had your orders, so come along," said Mr. Brindle, grasping him by the shoulders and hustling him unceremoniously to the window. "Now, repeat them aloud, and be careful how you do it, for I have a strong hand, and will pinch your neck till the life is out of you."

Caught in a cleverly laid trap, there was nothing for José d'Arousta to do but obey. In a crestfallen voice, therefore, he called loudly to his comrades, begging them to leave the clearing and the neighborhood of the hacienda, and return to Santiago at once.

"Tell them that if they attempt to take their rifles or advance towards the house, you will be shot," said Hal, rising to his feet to get a clear view through the window.

And now his plan to compel Pedro to add his voice to the Spaniard's proved useful, for at first the remainder of the band were incredulous. They could not believe their ears, and sat round the fire gesticulating and asking questions of one another. Then the sentry descended the hacienda steps, and, unmindful of the warning, walked towards the piled-up arms. There was a crack from the fringe of trees, a flash suddenly lit up the shadows, and he fell backwards with his hands wildly clutching the air.

"That will show them that business is meant," exclaimed Mr. Brindle. "It is just as well, too, for when a band of cut-throats attack a peaceful hacienda, they must be taught that punishment will follow. But, evidently, they have had enough."

And this was the case. Hearing their leader calling from the house, and his second in command from the forest, and detecting a ring of entreaty in the voices, the remainder of the rascally band hurried away from the hacienda, and, once amidst the trees, took to their heels in the direction of Santiago.

"There they go," said Mr. Brindle, throwing the latticed shutters wide open, and listening to the crash of men breaking their way through the jungle. "Now we will deal with the others. Hal, you know what is happening. Give your orders. I must confess that I am perfectly bewildered."

"It's all very simple," answered Hal, relaxing into a smile now that the danger was past. "Gerald and I were warned that you were in trouble. Then I happened to hear this man's accomplice declare his intention of entering the forest in search of myself. I was to be put out of the way. Happily I was able to turn the tables. Pedro was captured without a sound, and I dressed up in his clothes, and came here in search of the other fellow. I knew that if I could master him I could get rid of the others, for all the hands are lying in the forest at the edge of the clearing, and you saw for yourself how quickly they checked an attempt to reach the arms. Now I will tell them what to do, and then you can take matters into your own hands."

Hal went to the window and called loudly.

"Half of you follow those brigands to the edge of the plantation, and see them well away," he cried. "Jake Johnson, you and four others can bring your prisoner in here; the remainder had better stay in the clearing and keep a good look-out."

A moment later the bushes which lined the clearing opened, and Gerald and the negro hands appeared, the former accompanying Jake Johnson and the men in charge of the captive Pedro. They trudged across the open space, looking weird and white in the pale moonbeams; then their feet were heard as they ascended the steps outside, and within a minute the two rascally Spaniards, who had dared to attack the hacienda, stood side by side, bound hand and foot, and awaiting sentence.

Hal looked at them searchingly, smiling at Pedro's appearance, for he was now clad in a tattered blanket in place of the fine clothes he had previously worn, and cut a very sorry figure; for this half-breed was not quite the man that he would have had his fellows believe. With all in his favor, and no fear for his own personal comfort and safety, he was a martinet, an insufferably proud man, who would stop at very little to support his position. Now, however, when any fate might be in store for him, and when his conscience told him that he deserved the severest punishment, he showed the stuff of which he was made. His knees trembled and shook so that he could scarcely stand upright, his face was of an ashen pallor, and big beads of perspiration trickled down his forehead.

A very different being was his leader. Rogue though he was, and coward enough to insult a lady when he had her in his power, he was yet a brave man, with a brave man's detestation for one who could not look adversity in the face. He stood there, his usually sallow face now flushed red with excitement, his head thrown back, and an air of reckless defiance about him.

"You hound!" he hissed, turning upon his quaking accomplice. "Why do you tremble? What do you fear? Have you not been the means of killing men? Then why should you grumble when your own fate reaches you? Se?or, do me the favor of removing this fellow," he continued, turning to Hal. "He is my servant, I tell you, and he has no right to stand by my side."

"Servant or friend makes little difference to me, José d'Arousta," Hal answered coldly. "He has been good enough to act as your comrade in this deed of roguery, and therefore is good enough to take his sentence with you. Now, Mr. Brindle, these two men came here unbidden and made a most unwarranted attack upon you. I leave you to settle with them, and will merely mention that three of the negro hands have been either killed or wounded by their following. Deal with them as you think they deserve."

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