MoboReader > Literature > Under the Star-Spangled Banner

   Chapter 12 A RISKY UNDERTAKING

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 30612

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Called upon to pass judgment on the two Spanish irregulars who had attacked the peaceful hacienda in search of plunder and revenge, it was long before Mr. Brindle opened his lips or endeavored to speak. He drew a chair before them, and, having seated himself with the utmost deliberation, extracted a long cheroot from a case of woven grass, which he always carried in his pocket. Turning it round and round in his fingers, as if to satisfy himself that it was one of good flavor, he bit off one end, and striking a match, lit the other very carefully. Even then he did not address the prisoners.

"Pull that lamp a little closer, Hal, old boy," he said. "That's it. Now lift the shade, that I may get a better look at these two-these two rascals."

Hal did as he was asked, throwing a flood of light upon José d'Arousta and his accomplice.

"Se?or, you are kind to us," said the former, in the calmest of calm voices, and with more than a suspicion of irony in his tones. "A strong light never did the gay d'Arousta harm. On the contrary, he has been told that it improves him."

He laughed, and, jerking his wide-brimmed hat backward, turned still more to the light, showing a handsome face, which would have been quite taking but for the color and vindictive flash of the eyes, and for the involuntary twitch of his lips, which even he, calm though he had forced himself to appear, could not entirely control.

"It is a pity, a thousand pities, José d'Arousta, that all your deeds cannot bear the light," said Mr. Brindle quietly. "I know them well, and you are aware of it. Rogue, sir, is written on your face-rogue, vagabond, and thief. What have you to say for yourself?"

"To say, se?or? Merely that ill fortune has befallen me. But for this dolt here I should have succeeded, so that I have little more to say than that I regret my failure greatly, and think myself a fool that I did not burn the hacienda about your ears. But this young Englishman was too clever for me. It is the second time, and the last, I can assure you, se?or, for José d'Arousta never forgets nor forgives, and never neglects to repay his debts in full."

"Exactly so," Mr. Brindle replied dryly. "It is the last time. Now, listen to me. A state of war has commenced in the island, and everything is disorganized. If I send you into Santiago, you will be set at liberty again, for your services will be required. Therefore I must take matters into my own hands, for men who make an unwarranted attack, and who kill my servants in cold blood, must take the consequences."

"Se?or, you are scarcely wise," José replied, with unruffled calmness. "You mean, I understand, that you will shoot us. Ah, well! do so, and what will happen? In these lawless times my countrymen will retaliate, for the news is certain to reach their ears. That will be awkward, se?or. On the other hand, you might set us at liberty, and profit yourself, for we will engage to leave you unmolested from this day onwards."

"You will engage? But what is the value of a promise from you?" asked Mr. Brindle, with a disdainful shrug of his shoulders.

"That you must decide for yourself," the Spaniard answered calmly.

Once more there was silence, Mr. Bundle sinking his face into his hands, as if in deep thought; while the captives stood in front of him, José apparently unconcerned, but for all that narrowly watching; and Pedro, with eyes that were full of fear, and knees that knocked together in sheer terror.

"Does anyone know which of my servants were hurt?" asked Mr. Brindle suddenly. "Were any killed, or wounded so badly that they will die?"

"I can answer that question, father," said Gerald, stepping forward. "Black Pete is hit badly, though not mortally, and will certainly recover: while the others have only trifling wounds."

"Then so much the better. I am glad that a death on my plantation and amongst my hands cannot be placed at the door of these men. Listen, you two," he went on, sternly, looking José and Pedro in the face. "Do you solemnly swear to leave me and mine alone in the future, and will you promise never to molest my overseer? You have threatened all of us, and we all know the nature of such men as you are. Revenge unfortunately holds a high place with you, and you will do much to accomplish an end. Put that aside. Forget that we exist, and declare to me on your solemn word that you will never come near us; for otherwise I shall take the law into my own hands, and hang you both to the trees in front of the hacienda."

"We will give you the promise on our honor, se?or," said José. "See, I look you in the face, and I swear to observe this bond between us. Se?or must know that a Spaniard never breaks his oath."

"Hum, I have had too little to do with men of your country to be able to vouch for the truth of that," Mr. Brindle answered dryly; "but I have heard of the saying that there is honor among thieves. Perhaps this is your case. However, lest you should forget this vow of yours, and come this way again to trouble me, I will give you a warning. From this day the man who approaches the hacienda with the intention of committing violence will be shot at sight. At sight, José d'Arousta; remember that. Now you may go, but carry my words with you, I pray. Outside in the clearing lies one of your gang, killed through your action. Break your plighted oath, and I will bring you to the same end, and this ruffian, too, your accomplice. Now, be off, and never let me see your faces again."

He gave an impatient stamp, and turned to Hal.

"Set them free," he said. "Let us be rid of them."

Taking a knife from his pocket, Hal advanced to the prisoners, and cut their lashings, keeping a close watch upon them the while, for it was well to suspect treachery from such men. Perhaps from Pedro there was little fear of foul play, for he had not the heart to attempt it; but from the other anything might be expected, for not for a single moment had his wonderful sang-froid deserted him. Even now, great though the relief must have been, he did not allow his feelings to betray him, or show that he had just emerged from an ordeal sufficiently trying to any man, and which might have ended in an order for his instant execution.

"The se?or is wise," he said, with a disdainful laugh. "He has realized that it is risky and foolish to harm a Spaniard in these troublous days. Ah, well! the times will change, let us hope; and meanwhile, who can say what will happen? Now we will depart, as we have your permission, se?or. Se?ora, buenas noches (good night). I would fain have stayed to pass a pleasant evening. Adios, se?ores (farewell, gentlemen). Had I the power, I would drink to our next meeting."

He swept his cap from his head, and bowed to the floor. Then, with one look at Dora and a meaning flash from his eyes in Hal's direction, he tramped out of the room with a swagger, and went down the steps, followed closely by Pedro.

"I am thankful he is gone," exclaimed Mr. Brindle. "The air seems clearer already."

"Yes; I too am glad to see the last of him for this time," said Hal. "But we shall have to deal with him again, and that very soon. Listen. What is that?"

They rose to their feet, and went to the window to look across the clearing. It was bathed in brilliant moonlight, which showed every object distinctly, illuminating the group of negroes who stood outside discussing the affairs of the past few hours in high-pitched voices, the piled-up rifles, and the dead Spaniard who lay prone in the center, with arms stretched out before him just as he had fallen. There, too, were José and his accomplice, entering the fringe of trees. As they did so, the former turned, and, seeing the faces in the window, and the figures of the watchers showing darkly against the light, he stood there and shook his fist in their direction.

"Hi! you in the room yonder!" he cried. "Listen to José d'Arousta's parting words. Remember this, Se?or Brindle, that all is fair in love and war, and a vow pledged to the enemy is not binding. I give you solemn warning that I will visit this hacienda again, if it is only to meet and chat with the adorable se?ora. Se?or Marchant, you know what to expect. I owe you a great debt, and will repay it."

He shook his fist ominously, and, plunging into the trees, was lost to view.

"And I will take his warning to heart," said Hal quietly, turning to his friends. "He says that he will repay, and I declare that if I meet him again I will shoot him like a dog on the slightest suspicion of treachery. He deserves anything, for he has broken his word and his honor."

"You will be fully justified in doing as you say, old boy," said Mr. Brindle. "But let us hope that he will never come our way again. War is said to have been declared, and, no doubt, Spain will go to the wall. Then America will look to our interests, and this unfortunate island will enter upon a new era of prosperity. Such an act of violence as has been attempted this night will then be out of the question. Now, let us go to supper; but, Hal, my dear lad, first we must shake you by the hand. I am not going to sing your praises, but I must tell you how well you have done, and what you have saved me. The money in your pockets represents a year's savings and hard work, and the total return of the plantation."

And now, while the small family at the beautiful hacienda of Eldorado discuss the evening meal, let us turn to America and to Spain, and ascertain what had been happening in the meantime, and why it was that, contrary to his previously expressed decision, Mr. Brindle had not sent Gerald and Dora back to Florida.

To say that the terrible tidings from Havana, detailing how the Maine and her unfortunate crew were blown into the air, produced a storm of passion in the United States is to tell only the meager truth. For years Cuba and the insurrection there had rankled in the hearts of all in this big country. Many a time had private sympathizers given men and money to aid the cause of the insurgents, and more than once had representations been made to Spain in order to persuade her to end the condition of misery which clouded the island, and ruined the Americans there.

The story of the Virginius, though now many years old, was still fresh in the memory of the American nation, and the wretched condition of the unfortunate natives herded together in the concentration camps, and other evils, did not tend to let the sore close. No love was felt for the Spaniard, but only hatred and contempt. Matters, however, seemed to be mending, and a gallant ship, with a fine crew of officers and men, above whom floated the Stars and Stripes, was paying a friendly visit to Cuba. What wonder, then, that the news of its destruction filled Americans with anger! Treachery was suspected at once, and a searching investigation insisted on. Divers were dispatched to the wreck, who reported that a mine had been fired beneath the keel. They were not absolutely certain, but everything pointed to the truth of what they said, for the bottom plates of the Maine, as well as the keel, were driven upwards at an angle, while the mud which formed the bed of the harbor beneath her was excavated to the depth of many feet-all going to prove that the explosions were the result of external force.

But, even now, war was not certain, though the nation clamored for it. Nothing definite could be decided upon until Congress met; and meanwhile, America commenced warlike preparations, while Spain, following her example, beat up recruits and war vessels for the struggle which was now imminent. In addition, she began to bestir herself to alleviate the sufferings of the people in the concentration camps in Cuba, and at this, the eleventh hour, did her utmost to conciliate the people of the States. But the attempt was made too late. Former Spanish promises had resulted in no improvement in the condition of the island. America, remembering this, called upon Spain to withdraw from Cuba and leave it to the natives.

A decided refusal was given, and on April the 26th a state of war commenced between the two nations, Spain at once assembling her fleet in home waters, and making all preparations in Cuba to resist the Americans; while, at the same time, she held the insurgents in check. This was José d'Arousta's opportunity; and we have seen how, accompanied by Pedro and his irregulars, he rode into the country and attacked Mr. Brindle's house.

Matters, indeed, looked anything but bright for those left in the island; and as the family sat at supper, Mr. Brindle discussed the situation earnestly with Hal.

"You see we are placed in a very uncomfortable position," he said thoughtfully. "Living out here in the country, we must look to ourselves alone to defend the place. I do not suppose that the Spaniards will trouble us unless they suspect us of trying to aid America; but when the island is infested with such scoundrels as José and his friends, our lives and property will never be safe. What is to prevent that rascal from returning as he threatened? He failed to succeed this time by the merest chance-a chance, my lad, which you made good use of, though I do not forget that some allowance of pluck was required to bring your plan to a favorable issue. He failed, but on the next occasion he will not be taken in so easily. It really is a troublesome matter to decide upon. Am I to stay here, or shall I leave until the war is over? That is the question which I continue to ask myself. Supposing I get away from the island as soon as possible, the estate will be overrun, and I shall return to find it a blackened wilderness from end to end, and the hacienda, of which I am so proud, a heap of ashes. If I stay, as I am inclined to do, the place may be burnt over our heads at any moment, and our lives may be seriously threatened. Now, Hal, you have proved so thoughtful and cute before; let me know what you think about the matter? How would you act in the circumstances?"

"It is more or less of a puzzle," said Hal slowly, "but I think you will do well to stay. When your wounded negroes have recovered, you will have thirty-three rifles with which to defend the place-that is, of course, counting ourselves."

"I beg your pardon-thirty-four!" exclaimed Dora sharply. "You have forgotten to include me, sir."

"Quite right! Quite as it should be! Ha, ha, Hal! You have caught it this time, and let it be a warning to you in future. The girl is a regular Amazon. She can shoot and ride with the best of us."

Mr. Brindle shouted the words across the table, and chuckled to see Hal flush red. As for Dora, her pretty lips parted in a smile.

"I'm sure I hadn't thought of it like that," said Hal apologetically. "But let us put it at thirty-four. Now, I should advise that all the mulattoes be dismissed. You do not require them any longer, for the winter is at hand; and, besides, what help have they been on this occasion? None at all. We have not seen a single one since the row began, and in all probability they were with the gang of brigands. Then I should at once take steps to replace them from the plantation in Florida. You could spare them, I should think; and if not, it

would not be difficult to hire more labor over there. The next and most important question to think of is how to defend the hacienda and plantation. In the first place, I should cut back the forest so as to obtain a wider clearing round the house. By doing this you will at the same time be providing material with which to build fortifications. To my mind, a sand-bag barricade on the roof would be the most useful defense, and I should run up a watch-tower above it. When the hacienda is seen to, I should erect small forts at intervals round the edge of the clearing, digging a ditch behind them. Our men could lie in them, and fire on the enemies approaching from the direction of Santiago, or from the other side; while, should anyone manage to evade them, he must still cross the clearing to get at the house, and would still be exposed to the rifles lying in the ditch."

"Hum! then you think that more men are necessary, Hal?" said Mr. Brindle.

"I do most certainly, and will fetch them for you if you wish. As far as I can see, you have only one thing to think about. You are an American by choice, and if your country were in real danger, no doubt you would volunteer your services. But this is not a struggle for supremacy between two nations, and you will, therefore need only to care for your property. If you make your preparations at once there is no reason why you should fear José d'Arousta or any of his kidney. If you fail to take all precautions, you will certainly meet with serious trouble, for that man will not forget his threat, and he will return here some day and wreck the place, besides doing injury to yourself."

Mr. Brindle did not answer for some minutes. Resting his head on his hand, he stared thoughtfully out of the window, seeming to have fixed his attention upon the long, dark shadows cast by the trees across the clearing.

"I believe your advice is good," he said at length, "and I will set about the matter to-morrow morning. We will make out a plan of the surroundings of the hacienda, putting in all paths and approaches. Then we will sketch in the positions most likely to be suitable for defenses. I fancy by using a little care we shall be able to design them to cross their fire, or rather, to allow the defenders to do so, without danger of hitting one another. As to extra hands, if you will do me the service, I will send a note by you to my overseer at Tampa, leaving it to you to make the arrangements for the transfer of ten men here. But I expect it will be a more difficult undertaking than you imagine. No doubt you will slip from the island without discovery, but it will be another affair to return, for the coast-line will be carefully watched. That, again, is a question which you alone can settle; and as it will certainly have a spice of danger about it, I am sure you will manage beautifully, for when have you failed to pull yourself and others out of a difficulty? Still, you must consider the probable risk, and tell me whether you are prepared to take it."

"I have done so, and I repeat my offer," Hal replied, without hesitation. "So long as the dangers and difficulties are not insurmountable, I shall enjoy the fun, for it will make the journey quite interesting."

"Then it is arranged; and as you may fall into trouble, Gerald shall go with you to help you out. He speaks Spanish and Cuban like a native, and may very well be of use."

"By Jove, that is ripping, father!" exclaimed Gerald delightedly. "When will we start, old boy?"

"The sooner the better, I should say. To-morrow will not be too early."

"Then all shall be ready for you by daylight," said Mr. Brindle. "Now, Hal, if you will come outside we will go round the place, and discuss the measures to be taken for defense."

On the following morning the sun had scarcely climbed out of the sea when Hal and Gerald were about, booted and spurred, and ready for the road. Each carried his revolver and a flask, while two thick rugs were rolled into bundles, ready to be strapped to the saddles one in front of each rider. A few minutes later Dora appeared, looking extremely pretty and picturesque, but with a scarcely discernible cloud about her usually smiling face.

"There," she said, with a toss of her head, "here are two parcels of food for you. Boys are always hungry, and no doubt you will be glad of something to eat upon the road."

"That we shall," Hal answered heartily. "Now, Gerald, up you get."

The mules were led forward at this moment, and the two sprang into their saddles, Hal gaining his seat with an easy vault which was by no means as simple to execute as it appeared. But he was a strong and active young fellow, and made little of such a feat. A minute later he had secured his stirrups, and had the reins in his hand.

"Good-by, and good luck to you!" cried Mr. Brindle, appearing with a letter in his hand. "Here is the note for the overseer, Hal; I ask him to send me ten extra hands. If need be he will advance you more money, though I believe I have given you sufficient to cover all expenses. One thing more. Remember that while in Cuba you are in the enemy's country, and that the less you come into contact with Spaniards the better. Now, adieu, and let us hope for a speedy return."

"Good-by, and take care of yourselves," cried Dora earnestly, coming forward to shake them by the hand. "Hal, I give Gerald into your care. Bring him and yourself back safely, and I will thank you."

"I will, never fear," answered Hal. Then he lifted his reins, and taking his hat from his head, turned from the hacienda. "Come along, Gerald," he cried, and next second was cantering across the clearing.

A minute later both were swallowed up in the forest, leaving Mr. Brindle and Dora standing on the balcony, arm in arm, looking longingly after them.

"I do hope that they will come to no harm," said Dora, as if to herself.

"Harm! And so do I. But why should they?" answered her father reassuringly. "One of them has a head on his shoulders and a heart beneath his jacket which will take him through anything. There, come in, Dora, and let us have some breakfast. Afterwards we will go round the plantation, for during the overseer's unavoidable absence you will have to act in his stead."

Hal and his companion with hearts as light and happy as the morning, and filled to overflowing with high spirits, cantered along, side by side, in the direction of Santiago. Nothing disturbed their feeling of security, and they chatted gayly, going once more over the exciting events of the previous day. At length they emerged from the forest, and Santiago lay exposed to full view, some five miles away.

"One gets a splendid look-out from this level," remarked Hal. "The town is laid out like a map beneath us; and just look at the shipping! That harbor with its narrow entrance, is like a bottle, and the fleets of Spain might lie in there and never be seen, and never fear attack from hostile ships. Hallo! what are those outside?"

He shaded his eyes, and looked at two dots floating on the water just off the harbor mouth. A moment later they showed up clearly, even at that distance, and it was easy to distinguish that they were two long, low torpedo boats, which were steaming parallel to the shore, with a trail of blue smoke blowing out behind them.

"Spanish sleuthhounds," said Hal. "Gerald, we shall have some trouble in getting away, for those boats are patrolling the harbor mouth, and, no doubt, have strict orders to stop any craft attempting to enter or leave. But we'll manage it somehow."

"Why not get aboard some merchant vessel?" asked Gerald.

"At any other time, that might do," Hal replied thoughtfully; "but now I fancy that all ships will be compelled to lay up in the harbor. Besides, the American fleet will be blockading Cuba, and to attempt to leave just now would be to run the danger of capture. Still, I've no doubt that some neutral vessels are down there, and they will be allowed to sail, for there is a clause in international law that makes it possible. We must look out for one, and I propose that we ride a little closer, and leave our mules where they can be cared for. As soon as it gets dark we will make for the town, and enter boldly. We shall be like hundreds of others, for all the people hereabouts are dressed in these plantation clothes. I'll keep my tongue quiet, while you can do all the questioning. What do you say to that, old boy?"

"That it will be the best way out of the difficulty, and, as we have still some hours to wait before the sun goes down, I vote for some grub. I'm as hungry as a hunter and as empty as a drum. An early start on a light breakfast makes one simply ravenous."

"Just the thing! I'm like you, and awfully peckish," answered Hal cheerily. "Here, what's this? The very spot for a camp and a short siesta. There is no fear of interruption, and a sleep during the heat of the day will do us good. We had precious little yesterday, and, for all we know, may have none at all to-night. Whoa! Stand, boy. There, now you can see for yourself. I dare say you are as ready for a feed and a rest as I am."

They dismounted, and removing the bits from the mouths of their mules, and loosening the girths, allowed the animals to graze. Then they sat down upon a fallen tree, and discussed the contents of the packets which the thoughtful Dora had provided. At six o'clock it was time to start, and, saddling up, they went forward at a smart canter.

"Do you see that hut over there?" said Gerald, pointing to a tumble-down erection of palm leaves and stakes which suddenly came into view some hundreds of yards in front of them. "That will be the very place to leave our mules, for a trusty native, whom I have known for years will willingly look after them till we return, even though weeks may pass."

Shaking their reins, they galloped up to the tiny hut, and called loudly for the owner.

"We are going into the town," said Gerald in Spanish, when the native appeared. "We shall be absent a week or more, and we want you to look after the mules. Can you do it for us? We will pay you well."

The man, who was old and crippled, and dressed in rags, willingly assented.

"For a week or more!" he cried, in a squeaky voice, shaking his head the while. "My advice to you, my masters, is to leave the town alone; for if you are rash enough to go there, it will be a month at least before you return-perhaps, even, I may never see you again. But I doubt whether you will be able to enter, for all the gates are closed, and the approaches guarded."

"But there are other ways in, are there not?" asked Gerald.

"Yes; you might be able to slip in by the side streets," the native agreed hesitatingly; "but take the advice of one old enough to give it, and leave the place alone altogether."

He shook his head again, and hobbled away with the mules, leaving Gerald to interpret what had passed between them.

"Perhaps it would be the wiser course not to enter Santiago," said Hal; "but we have no choice in the matter, for we want to get away from the island, and that is the only manner in which we can arrange it. Come along, Gerald. We'll decide how we are to act as we go towards the town."

Five minutes later they were walking towards the rows of lights which now twinkled from the houses in Santiago. On arriving close beside the first, they halted at a drinking-fountain, which splashed musically, inviting the thirsty traveler to stop and satisfy his wants.

"We want to get in there undetected," said Hal; "and, what is more, we're going to have a good shot at it. The question is, How are we to set about the matter? Now, my idea is to face the thing boldly, and act as if we had as much right to enter as the general himself. If we are seen skulking, suspicion will be aroused, and we shall probably have a few bullets flying about our ears. War has only just been declared, and no doubt the people are very much excited. They will be expecting something to happen, but not from this side. The Americans will come from over the sea, and therefore it is from the coast-line that danger and attack will be apprehended. What is there suspicious about us? Simply nothing! I never saw a more innocent-looking couple; and as for being different in appearance from the ordinary citizens, I am sure we should pass all but the closest scrutiny. Come along! We'll strike for the main entrance."

Gerald jumped to his feet and followed willingly, for he had already had experience of the soundness of Hal's judgment, and trusted him implicitly.

A few minutes later the road which they were traversing narrowed, and, passing through a thick grove of orange trees, ran between two rows of houses. At the end of the street a barricade was erected, and a sentry, who stood behind it in the shadow, challenged them loudly.

"Halt!" he cried harshly. "Who goes there?"

"Friends," answered Gerald, in his finest Spanish.

"Then advance, and show yourselves."

Hal and his comrade promptly stepped forward in obedience to the order, for it was too late to turn back now, even if they had wished; and, moreover, the sight of the sentry as he stood out from the shadow of the barricade, with rifle pointed in their direction, was sufficient to show them that even to hesitate would mean a report, and the whistle and shriek of a bullet in their direction.

Accordingly they moved forward till close beside him, when they stopped as the bayonet was dropped to the level of their chests.

"Here are two who wish to enter. Bring a light, one of you," the sentry cried.

"A lantern? Wait, and I will come with one," a second voice answered; and steps were heard as another of the Spanish soldiers approached.

He carried an unlighted lantern in his hand, and, when close beside the lads, placed it upon the top of the barricade, while he fumbled in his pocket for a match. At length he produced a solitary one, and, lifting his foot, struck it sharply across the sole. But the flash was instantly extinguished by a puff of wind that came whistling through the trees at that moment.

"Ah, caramba!" he exclaimed, with an angry stamp of his foot. "It is the very last that I have, and to get another I must go back to the guard-room. Have you a box about you, comrade?"

The sentry placed his rifle between his knees, and searched in every pocket, but without success.

"I cannot help you," he said crossly. "Get back and fetch a light. I am tired of waiting."

"I cannot be bothered," the other replied. "Who are these fellows?"

"We are friends," Gerald promptly responded.

"Then pass them in, comrade," said the one who had declined to fetch a light. "They are brothers-in-arms most certainly."

Gerald pulled Hal by the sleeve, and, without waiting for more, the two hurried through the barricade and on into the street. Fifty paces away the road was dimly lighted by a lamp hanging from a pole. They were just passing beneath it, and were in the act of congratulating themselves on their success, when a company of soldiers marched up, and the officer in charge, happening to catch sight of the two youths, called loudly to them to approach and declare who they were.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares