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Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 29136

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"Who are you two over there? What are you doing out in the streets at this time of night. Come nearer and let me see you," cried the officer, who had just marched in with a detachment of troops as Hal and Gerald entered the town and were moving away from the barricade. "Come, I say, or we will make it uncomfortable for you, my fine fellows."

"By Jove! What are we to do?" asked Gerald, in a low and anxious voice. "He orders us to come near so that he may inspect us."

"The deuce he does! Then we must make the best of a bad matter and go, for it cannot be helped," Hal answered quickly. "If we attempt to bolt now they would simple riddle us with bullets. Let us brazen the matter out, and should our luck fail us, just keep your eye on me, old boy, and when you see me move make a bolt for the houses."

"Right. Come along; he's in a hurry."

Indeed, the Spaniard was accustomed to be obeyed on the instant, and noticing at once that the two suspicious characters who had caught his eye hesitated, and stood talking in low voices, he reiterated his order in a loud and commanding tone.

"Now, who are you?" he demanded fiercely, when they had approached. "Turn your faces to the light that I may see you. Fellows of your sort love the darkness, it seems to me, and slink along in the shadows."

"We are two of the people of Santiago who work in the stores," Gerald replied quietly. "We have been a short way out into the country to see a friend."

"Indeed, and who may he be?" was the haughty answer. "I do not like the ring of your words, my fine fellow. Ha! What is this? You are both too fair for men of our race. Here, sentry, bring along a lantern. There is no seeing with this smoky affair that hangs to the pole. Wait, though. My men, march these two birds beneath the lamp yonder. Then we shall be able to make sure of them."

Hal listened to the conversation with his eye fixed upon the Spaniard's face, and though he did not understand what passed between him and Gerald, yet the tones of suspicion and the commanding, bullying voice told him that all was not well.

"What is the trouble?" he whispered in Gerald's ear as they stood facing the officer.

"We are to be marched beneath the lamp," replied his friend rapidly. "He suspects us, and is certain to discover that we are not Spaniards."

"Then we'll settle the matter for him by making a bolt," Hal answered quietly. "There is a house directly opposite, and the door is ajar. Now, are you ready, old boy? Then, rush for it."

At that moment the Spaniard approached still closer, and, grasping Hal by the arm, called upon his men to close up and surround the strangers. Our hero did not hesitate. Stepping back a pace, he drove his fist with all his force in the officer's face, and sent him sprawling to the ground. Then he dashed forward, and, gripping the nearest soldier by the waist, flung him against his comrades with a jar that scattered them, and threw them into confusion. Next moment he was rushing towards the house, and though the Spaniards raised their rifles, and pulled the triggers recklessly, nothing happened, for they had not expected trouble when they marched down to the barricade, and had, therefore, neglected to place cartridges in the breeches. The omission probably saved Hal's life, for, though taken by surprise, and staggered by the force with which their comrade had been flung against them, the soldiers would have picked him off with the greatest ease had their weapons been loaded, for the range was not more than twenty yards, and a moving figure is an easy target at such a distance. However, fortune was favoring Hal, for he escaped injury, though for a moment it was very doubtful whether it was possible. A few seconds later he had darted into the house, and had flung the door to with a bang.

"Quick! We must get out of this at once," he cried, catching Gerald by the sleeve. "To the back door for your life!"

Hastening through the rooms, they searched for an exit at the back, but failed to find one. Then they turned their attention to the windows, and, forcing one of them open, leapt out without hesitation. There was a narrow yard behind the house, which was inclosed by a high wall, but the two lads made nothing of it. With a spring they grasped the top, and hoisted themselves up. Then they dropped to the ground on the farther side, and took to their heels, stumbling blindly across gardens and bamboo fences, till at last they emerged once more upon the road.

"This will do for us," gasped Hal. "Listen! Those fellows are at work on the house, and isn't the officer angry! By George! I am not surprised, for I gave him a tremendous crack."

They stood still for a moment, crouching close beneath a hedge, and distinctly heard a crash as the door, which they had bolted behind them, was broken in. Then the voice of the Spaniard was heard shouting angry orders to his men.

"He is telling them to search every corner," said Gerald, with a laugh. "A pity he did not send them round to the back."

"Perhaps," agreed Hal. "But I can tell you, old man, that it was lucky for us. I don't know what these beggars would do if they captured us; but we must recollect that, though we may not have any part in this quarrel between the two nations, yet we are enemies to them, and those who belong to the nationality of their opponents, and who attempt to enter Santiago without a pass, are nothing more nor less than spies in the eyes of the garrison."

"For whom death is the reward," interposed Gerald serenely. "Yes, old chap, you need not tell me about it. I am well aware of the ugly position into which we have fallen."

"Then let us move on at once," said Hal. "As soon as they find that the house is deserted, and that the birds have flown, there will be a tremendous outcry, and a hot search will be made. I propose that we make straight away for the wharves alongside which the shipping is to be found."

Accordingly, they took to their heels, and ran down the road. Then they turned into another, and were hurrying along it, when they heard a whistle behind them. It was shrill and piercing, and was at once taken up and repeated on either side of them and in front. Then, to their astonishment and dismay, a bright spot suddenly rose up and flashed from the edge of the harbor, and a broad electric beam swept rapidly and silently on its way towards them.

"The searchlight!" exclaimed Hal. "Down into the shade at once, or we shall be discovered. These fellows are proving far more wide awake than I had imagined them to be. I should say that they have telephones from all the outlying stations and barricades, which enable them to communicate with the people in charge of the light."

And, indeed, this was the case. Balked in his endeavor to trace the two suspicious characters who had disappeared into the house after violently assaulting him, the Spanish officer had at once rushed to the barricade, and had sent messages along the wires to other parts. Then, too, the outlying pickets had been warned by the blowing of whistles, which was evidently a previously arranged signal in case of trouble occurring. Before even the searchlight had burst into the night or commenced to revolve, Hal and Gerald were entirely surrounded by a cordon of vigilant men, few of whom knew exactly what was happening, though all could guess that someone was near at hand whom it was desirable to capture. And the electric light would help them. Meanwhile, they would stay in some dark spot, and follow the rays, hoping to catch sight of the fugitives as they darted from side to side in the endeavor to escape them. A dark figure crouching beneath a tree or hedge would satisfy them, and on the instant, up would fly the rifle to the shoulder, there would be just a second's pause to correct the aim, and then-bang!-the hapless fellow would spring into the air with hands outstretched, to fall next second doubled into an inert heap. Oh, yes! it was simple, and an extremely diverting sport to those who had themselves no danger to fear.

As for Hal and Gerald, their desperate position filled them with consternation, for as they ran hither and thither in the vain endeavor to fly from the sweeping beams, the snap of twigs and the rustle of leaves brushed on one side were followed by the sharp crack of rifles fired at random in that direction. Perhaps there was no great danger to them in that; but still, the bullets flew unpleasantly near, and sent them running again, hunting them like hares from point to point. Suddenly, as they crossed an open space, the searchlight fell full upon them, and instantly the surrounding darkness was lit up by the flash of many rifles. Ping! ping! ping! The shots rang out with startling loudness, and the bullets hummed and pelted through the air overhead.

"Halt there, and surrender!" a voice cried from the trees. "If you move a step farther away I will shoot you."

"We are caught, and must make the best of it," said Hal to Gerald, with a groan. "Tell them that we give in, old fellow."

Holding his hands above his head, Gerald did as he was asked. Then they stood still in a patch of brilliant light, which was made all the more glaring by the contrast of thick darkness all around. A few minutes later some Spanish soldiers advanced towards them, rifle in hand, and, forming a ring round the lads, marched them away, their path lit up all the while by the electric light which followed every movement. Passing down the street, they at length came to a large building, into which the prisoners were at once taken.

"Sit down there, and do not stir a finger, or you will be shot," said the sergeant who was in charge of the party, indicating a rough bench with a curt nod of his head. "I will go inside and ask his excellency the colonel to interview you. By the time he is ready, those who warned us from the barricade will have arrived to give their evidence; and then, my friends, it will be a case of a rope, a friendly branch, and plenty of air to dance on."

He glanced at his captives, favoring them with a malicious grin as he outlined their probable end. Then he went to a door close at hand, and, having knocked upon it, entered, and closed it behind him.

"I suppose he has gone to explain matters," said Hal coolly. "Keep up your pecker, Gerald. The case looks precious bad, but we'll pull through, depend upon it."

"Right. I hope we may. But things look ugly. That pleasant gentleman who has just done talking to me is good enough to tell me that we shall soon be hanged. If it comes to that, Hal, why, we must face it out, and die as those at the hacienda would have us do."

He looked into his companion's face and smiled bravely, for Gerald was determined to show his friend that he, too, possessed a fund of pluck which would carry him through an unpleasant difficulty.

"We will, old boy," Hal answered cheerily; "but let us hope that it will not come to that. Hallo! Who's this?"

At this moment an officer, who was dressed in the usual Spanish uniform, emerged from the inner room, and was walking hurriedly across to the door, being bent evidently upon the performance of some special duty, when his eye fell upon Hal and Gerald. Almost instantly a startled cry escaped him, and he sprang backwards in astonishment.

"What! You!" he exclaimed, in tones of surprise, surveying them with an air of delight. "You two from the hacienda! Idiots! You have played into my hands. Men, close round your prisoners, and take the best care of them, for I can vouch for it that they are Americans. They are spies, and have come here to find out our secrets."

He strode towards them, and grasping Hal's hat, tore it from his head. Then he laughed sardonically in his face, and, with a triumphant glance at the two prisoners, turned upon his heel, and re-entered the room from which he had emerged a minute before.

"What bad luck! What hard lines!" exclaimed Hal, with something approaching a groan. "That fellow José d'Arousta again!"

It was, indeed, an unfortunate meeting, and one fraught with the greatest peril for Hal and his friend. They were prisoners, and practically under a charge of spying upon the enemy; but for all that, a minute or more before, the aspect of affairs had not been altogether hopeless. How changed it was now! The very man of all others in Santiago whom it was most desirable that they should not meet had run up against them, had recognized them, and now, burning to avenge a private grievance, had promptly denounced them as spies. No wonder that Hal shuddered. Across his mind flitted the recollection of Mr. Brindle's tale of the Virginius, and of the fate meted out to her hapless crew-captured at night, condemned, and promptly shot at dawn. That was the sequence of events; and what was to prevent a similar fate from befalling them?

"The letter! Of course, the letter which Mr. Brindle gave me," exclaimed Hal, aloud, as if Gerald had been following the train of thoughts which had been running through his mind.

"Why that letter?" asked the latter, looking at him in astonishment. "What are you talking about, old fellow?"

"I was wondering what we could do to prove our identity, and the innocent intention we had in coming here. José d'Arousta, you may be sure, will not let such a golden opportunity of revenge slip by without making the utmost use of it. He will proclaim us as spies, and if you will only take the trouble to look at matters as they appear to others, you will admit that that is the most natural conclusion for any Spaniard to arrive at. War is declared, and, indeed, exists, between Spain and America; and no doubt the whole of the island of Cuba, including the towns, is under martial law. You are the son of a naturalized American, and I his overseer. We are discovered at night in Santiago, and when called upon to surrender, we fly from the soldiers. Naturally, we shall be put down as spies who have come to see what defensive arrangements have been made, so as to be able to communicate them to our friends. But the letter which your father gave me will exonerate us. It states in clear terms that we are endeavoring to leave for Tampa, and tells for what purpose. Do you see, old boy? We put a spoke in D'Arousta's wheel which I fancy will upset the whole apple-cart, so far as he is concerned."

"Splendid! I am relieved to hear it," cried Gerald. "I'll be honest, and tell you that I was beginning to feel in a blue funk; but now, of cour

se, it will be all right, and we have nothing to fear."

"Ye-e-s, perhaps," Hal answered doubtfully. "But someone will have to pay for that officer's broken nose. I hit him heavily, I can assure you, and fairly laid him out. Hush! The door is opening."

At this moment José d'Arousta pushed his head into the outer room, and signaled to the sergeant.

"Bring in the prisoners," he said in triumphant tones, "and see that you surround them, for these foreigners are capable of playing the maddest tricks, and might throw themselves upon his excellency if you were to relax your watchfulness."

Shouldering their rifles, two of the soldiers grasped Hal and Gerald by the arm; then the others took up their positions in front and behind, and, at an order from the sergeant, the party marched into the room. It was a large, bare compartment, dimly lighted by a single oil lamp standing upon a table in the center. The atmosphere was thick with the fumes of burning oil and stale tobacco smoke, and even a widely opened window failed to clear it and make it more pleasant for those who were there.

Seated behind the table was a middle-aged officer, with stern but not unkindly features. A clerk in military attire stood at the desk beside him, and was taking down a letter at his dictation.

"These are the prisoners, then-the very first we have taken, I understand," said the officer, suddenly looking up and closely scrutinizing Hal and Gerald. "Who are they? Why have they been taken? Where is the evidence?"

"Captain Volaga is the chief witness against these spies," answered José d'Arousta, stepping forward from the shadow, "and I am the next, your excellency. They are known to me as Americans. But it would be better, perhaps, if my brother-in-arms told his tale first."

"Americans! Ah, they look it! Then we will employ their language. We who have lived in these parts soon pick up English, and, if we use it, all will be able to understand. Come, what are their names, and where do they hail from?"

The colonel turned to the lads, and asked them the question in tones which betrayed little accent.

At this moment the door of the room opened, and the officer whom Hal had struck entered with his face bound up, and scarcely more than his eyes showing.

"Who is this?" demanded the colonel.

"I am Captain Volaga, excellency," was the answer, in a voice which trembled with suppressed rage. "I have come to give my evidence against these men."

"Then step forward, and tell me first of all whether you identify them."

"Yes, excellency, they are the same," the officer replied, looking at the two prisoners with no friendly eyes, "and this young ruffian is the one who struck me and injured one of my men. I will tell you how it happened, Se?or. The dolt at the barricade passed them through without question; but I was sharper. Seeing them stealing beneath a lamp, and being suspicious of them, I called to the rogues, and ordered them to come to me so that I might find out who they were. Then, without provocation, this one"-and he pointed at Hal with the end of his sword, favoring him at the same time with an angry glare-"struck me violently in the face, and followed up the attack by hurling one of my men against his comrades. Both then ran from us into a house standing near at hand, and when we searched it they were gone."

"Indeed! I trust that you are not greatly hurt, Se?or Capitan," the colonel answered. "But, surely, your men were armed? How, then, did these prisoners escape? One is only a boy, and the other cannot be twenty yet. It is strange to hear that an officer and several of his Majesty's soldiers were insufficient to capture them."

It was, indeed, a peculiar tale, real though it was, and it scarcely redounded to the credit of the officer. He had no answer to give to his chief's questions, but stood there, a look of bitter hatred upon his face.

"Well, now for your story, Se?or José d'Arousta," said the colonel. "What do you know of these lads?"

"They come from the hacienda Eldorado, and are Americans, and therefore spies, your excellency. Search them, and I am sure that you will find that they are armed."

He turned to the men who were holding the prisoners, and gave them an order. Instantly they ran their hands over them, and produced the revolvers which both lads carried.

"You see," continue José, with a sneer, "they meant to look after their own safety. Spying is a dangerous game to play!"

"And now, what have you to say?" asked the colonel courteously, turning to Hal. "A very serious charge is made against you. First of all, you are Americans, it seems. Then you are discovered slinking into the town, and when called upon to surrender and give an account of yourselves, you attack an officer, and contrive to escape from him in spite of his escort of armed men. You are captured finally, and are found to be carrying arms. An explanation is needed."

"And I shall be glad to give it," said Hal quietly. "We come, as this man beside me has stated, from the hacienda Eldorado; but we are not spies. The war is nothing to us, but our safety, and that of our friends, is another matter. Only yesterday, your excellency, we were attacked by a band of cut-throats, who nearly relieved us of all we possessed. Our mission now is to go to Tampa, and return with negroes from Mr. Brindle's other estate, who will help to defend the hacienda. We entered this town for one reason, and only one, namely, to get a passage on a steamer sailing to Tampa."

"The hacienda attacked!" exclaimed the colonel doubtfully; while the face of Captain Volaga showed a smile of insolent incredulity.

"Yes, se?or," Hal answered calmly. "Attacked late in the afternoon, and under the leadership of this man." He pointed to José d'Arousta, and looked him sternly in the face.

"Ha, ha, ha! He will accuse me of being an American spy next, Se?or Colonel!" cried José. "You can see that he is fabricating a tale. It is a splendid cock-and-bull story from end to end."

"So it would appear," the colonel replied. "Accuse one of my officers of brigandage! It is monstrous-ridiculous! Young sir, you do your cause no good by speaking in this wild manner. Confess at once that you and the boy are spying, for it may very well make your sentence lighter in the end."

He looked at Hal sternly and yet kindly, for in his heart the colonel was an easy-going fellow, and given to mercy if it were possible.

"Come," he said again, in a persuasive voice; "I have sons of your age who play pranks at times, though never one so dangerous and foolhardy as this. Declare to me that you came to the town out of curiosity, and to see what preparations we were making for the Americans."

"Your excellency, we cannot do as you ask," Hal answered firmly. "What I have stated is absolutely true, and if only you will favor me by reading the letter which I have in my pocket, you will be assured of it."

"Give it to me. One of you take it from his coat," said the colonel shortly.

The order was obeyed by José, and the letter handed to the colonel. Instantly he tore the envelope open, and scanned the contents.

"Yes, it is as you stated," he said. "I am more inclined to believe you."

"Pshaw! And you will allow two dangerous spies to escape because they are of the same age as your sons!" exclaimed José d'Arousta. "It is madness! It is folly!"

He had been standing close beside the table, following the interview between Hal and the colonel with the greatest attention; and now, seeing that it had turned in favor of the prisoners, he started forward, and interposed in a way which soon brought him a reprimand.

"Se?or, you forget yourself, and in whose presence you stand!" the colonel cried angrily, turning upon him. "Have a care, Se?or Capitan, for I am your superior, and should you see fit to address me again in such an unbecoming manner, I will place you under arrest. Perhaps it might meet your deserts," he added significantly, "for there are tales told in Santiago of the doings of José d'Arousta and his irregulars. I have even heard it said that they are brigands. Have a care, I tell you, for I might even go so far as to look into this strange accusation as to an attack upon Eldorado."

José had met his match. He turned pale at the colonel's words, and retired from the table looking downcast. But his assurance quickly returned.

"Excellency," he exclaimed, "your pardon if I was too outspoken; but I wish our country all that is well, and therefore I say again that these two men are known to me. They are spies. Everything points to it, se?or. If not, then why should they attempt to escape, particularly when one of them carries a letter, the contents of which will clear them? Depend upon it, that note was there for a set purpose, and to be used only as a last resource. Think of their revolvers, too. Pah! Were I in your place I should give them till dawn, when they should face a corporal's picket, and meet the fate of all who take to the calling of a spy."

He ended an impassioned speech with a glare of hatred at Hal, and then stood closely scrutinizing the colonel's features, to see, if possible, what effect he had made, turning, however, every other moment to look again at Hal, with eyes which even now were beginning to light up with triumph.

As for our hero and his friend, they stood there amongst the soldiers, watching every movement and expression, and wondering vaguely what would be the end of the interview.

"I fear very much that you are right, Se?or José," said the colonel at length. "The evidence is too strong, and shows without a shadow of doubt that the prisoners entered Santiago for one purpose only. It is sad that we should commence the war with an execution; but it cannot be avoided. We must protect ourselves, for if we were to allow these two lads to leave unpunished, others would be encouraged. For spying, death is the penalty. But I will not take the responsibility upon my own shoulders for an act which in my heart I consider to be harsh and unjust. Men should be treated as men; but to apply the same penalties to irresponsible, impetuous lads is cruel in the extreme. Captain Volaga, you will escort the prisoners to the cells in Morro Castle, and arrange for their refreshment. See also that blankets are given them, for the nights are getting cold. Here is a note to the officer in command. Deliver it to him personally. I will now cable to Havana and ask for instructions, but I fear that I can give no hope. Spies, whether men or boys, must meet the same fate."

He rose from his seat, and, with a wave of the hand, signified that the interview was over.

The soldiers at once closed round Hal and Gerald, and, at the officer's order, marched out of the room. Then they halted outside, while José d'Arousta and the injured captain conversed in low tones. Evidently some satisfactory arrangement was come to, for they nodded and smiled in the most pleasant manner, and when parting treated each other to an elaborate salute. Then José approached the prisoners, and, halting in front of them, addressed them in low tones which could not be overheard.

"Se?ores, who could have guessed that in such a short space of time the tables would turn so completely!" he said, with a triumphant smile. "But yesterday I was a prisoner in your hands, under a threat of death; and now you are in a similar condition, with this one difference: I escaped to avenge the insult, while you will live only till to-morrow's sun is up. Think of it! Dream of it! When the dawn comes, and you are led out into the cold, your end will await you. Consideration will be shown, I promise you, for some minutes shall be granted for quiet reflection. And then, Se?or Marchant, if you will but raise your eyes, you will find that the ever-faithful José attends you, and will be ready, should you desire it, to carry your adieus to the fair Se?ora Dora. Believe me, we will weep together for your loss."

He smiled a cruel, vindictive smile, and looked hard at Hal to see what effect the words had had, but only to be disappointed. Not a muscle of the young fellow's face moved as he returned the stare of the Spaniard with one that was as proud and disdainful as it was possible to be. Then his features relaxed, and he smiled.

"The man is a bold villain," he said, with a laugh, turning to Gerald. "When we are surrounded and held by the soldiers, so that he need fear no punishment, he does his utmost to goad us into fury. Come along, old boy; we have better things to do than to listen to such a fellow."

Taking Gerald by the arm, he signified to the sergeant that he was ready, and the order being given to the soldiers, they marched out of the building, leaving José d'Arousta biting his lips with vexation.

A large crowd was waiting outside, hoping to catch sight of the first captives of the war. The news that they were spies, who had entered Santiago in search of information, had been conveyed to them, so that the appearance of the two lads was greeted with a storm of shrill cries.

"Kill them! Shoot them!" the mob shouted, rushing towards the party of soldiers who surrounded Hal and Gerald. But a line of troops drawn up outside the house interposed, and thrust them back. Then, forming up on either side, the Spaniards marched them off to the fortress which stands perched high up on one side of the long entrance to the harbor, and which goes by the name of the Morro Castle. Half an hour later the gates were reached, and they marched in, leaving the crowd outside. Hal and Gerald were led up a long flight of stone steps, through a dark corridor, and afterwards up more stairs. Finally, they came to a gallery, and were halted in front of an iron-studded door, at the keyhole of which a soldier fumbled.

A minute later they were thrust inside and the door was closed upon them with a clang that sent an echo ringing through the old castle.

"And so ends our little adventure," said Hal, seating himself upon a bench. "We came to Santiago with only friendly thoughts in our hearts. We were captured and accused of spying. The population jeered at us, and showed so much hatred that it took a whole regiment to put us in prison. And we are in reality two harmless young fellows. Well, it just settles the matter. Gerald, if we are here to-morrow we shall die. We must escape, and as the Spaniards have declared themselves our enemies, we will do our utmost to thwart them."

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