Ch 3: Wounded - Captured - Released

My sojourn in Santa Clara was soon brought to a close. Passing too near the forts on the Sagua Railroad with a small cavalry escort, we were fired on ineffectively. We started to detour, leaving the road for open country to pass forts below, when a volley was poured in right behind us. A patrol, examining the line for dynamite, had waited our approach from cover. We turned hastily to gallop to shelter, and four more volleys broke out as the soldiers emptied their magazines. The bullets passed overhead, mewing like angry kittens, some unpleasantly close. Hastily dismounting, and tying our horses in a thicket, we crept back to a sheltering bank and returned the fire. The Spaniards were barely two hundred yards distant, but they held to cover and we could see nothing. There were probably twenty of them, and we were thirteen all told.
   Perez, the tall mulatto lieutenant, suggested that we should mount and give the gringos "al machete:" but we had eaten little for a week, and our men were not so brave. We could not break cover and retreat without becoming exposed, and the enemy was in the same predicament. To make matters worse, the rumble of an approaching train told us of new foes. It drew up cautiously a short distance away, and the armoured cars spat fire; but the shots sang high, and not even a horse was killed. I admit feeling apprehensive of the issue; not so the Cubans. The practico crept through the long grass and fired shots from two directions, crawling back as the enemy aimed at the smoke. Then to our front, the light blue forms of the patrol could be seen, stooping as they made for the shelter of the train. Bang! Bang! went our last cartridges: the young lieutenant stood up for a moment as he ran, then fell on his face. His men retreated to the train, taking the body of the poor fellow with them. His death I have ever lamented, though he had first opened fire upon us.
   A muttered exclamation from Perez sent us scurrying for our horses, regardless of the volleys from the cars. Riding toward us on our flank came the cavalry from Esperanza, summoned by signal from the forts. When they saw our small party, they spread fan-shape as if to overwhelm us. Following the guide, we clattered down a narrow trail, rounded a hill, and headed for the woods. We had a good start, our horses were fresh, and we felt safe as we forded a stream and crossed the valley leading to cover; but the soldiers had swarmed upon the cars to watch our flight, and as we rode into clear view below them, Pah! Pah! Pah! rang their Mausers, and the bullets spattered round with an angry Psit! As we neared the woods, the practico fell over his pommel dead, a hot iron ran into my leg, and my horse, galloping wildly, staggered, and came down on me with a crash. Dazed and stunned, I lay dimly conscious of the clatter of hoofs and cries of the enemy as they charged down upon us. Then a Cuban trooper, hurriedly dismounting, lifted me in front of a comrade, cut the girth of my dead horse with his machete, and carried my saddle and effects into the trees. Others lifted the practico's body over his saddle, and we were soon in the woods safe from pursuit. The Cubans gave a derisive yell as the Spaniards drew up on the edge of the thicket, fearful of an ambuscade. Dodging from tree to tree, Perez emptied my revolver and a Mauser carbine into their ranks, and they soon wheeled about, and rode off balked of their prey.
   With my feet stuck out and my spurs pressed home, a bullet had struck my shin, gone through my calf, and killed my horse beside passing through the front and side of my heavy riding-boot and a thick saddle flap. But with all its penetrative powers, the nickel bullet makes a merciful wound: treated with cigar ash, and with only a shirt cuff tied round it with grass, mine soon healed save for a fester where the tibia was nicked.
   Fever followed the wound, and I found it absolutely necessary to make an attempt to reach a town and obtain food and rest. Three weeks later I crawled through the long grass toward the barricade at Cruces, waiting by the wires until the Havana train arrived, that the advent of a stranger in the town might be attributed to the railway. In the manigua I always carried a cloth coat, white collar, cravat, and cap in my saddle pack. By donning these I was de rigueur for the city. Still I was unshaven, my hair long, my face cadaverous and sunburnt, and Nemesis was following. The grass was long near the forts. I crept between them successfully, and squirmed painfully under the barbed wire barricade. To escape observation I was forced to drag myself along the ground under the lowest strands: the spikes, lacerating my back, inflicted deep gashes whose scars will long remain. Only the dread of discovery held back my cry of agony, but finally I passed the entanglement, creeping on through the weeds until I reached the zona. A woman, a ragged reconcentrada whom I did not fear, was searching for boniatos as I crossed the field. She eyed me curiously, and I suppose notified the guards. I walked erect toward the freight depot, and sauntered down the railed path to the main street. "Safe at last" was the thought that lightened my step. Fata obstant!
   Two guardia civil came clattering down the street behind me: they eyed me a moment, then said their officer wished to confer with me. A supreme effort for self-control failed obviously. In execrable Spanish I muttered that I had not the honour of his acquaintance. Then a celador came up on foot, panting with exertion. "Senor, where have you come from?" Ere I could frame a reply three footguards arrived. I was taken down the railroad track, and tumbled unceremoniously into the little stone fort guarding the level crossing which here goes over a deep ditch. I struggled and protested at first, but a blow in the ribs quieted me. I was thoroughly searched, my British passport scrutinised and returned. Luckily I had nothing incriminating but a tiny rebel pass, which I surreptitiously swallowed, and I was soon left in peace.
   A grating admitted air and light, and some large-eyed Cuban children stared at the prisoner within. Two pretty senoritas happened along, strolling in the cool of the day. They gazed up curiously yet sympathetically; one said, "Pobre joven (poor young man)." The sentry, grinning jocosely, remarked, "Americano! Tomorrow he is dead!" Cheering news, indeed, but I by no means believed they would kill me. Captured in the field, death was sure; but in the towns people may talk, and irregularities with a foreigner cause complications. However, the girls believed it; their eyes filled with tears as they passed on: evidently they had a rebel brother or lover who might one day share the fate. It grew dark: the guards were gambling round a fire at the back of the fort and cooking their rancho; I stood disconsolate, peering into the gathering darkness, and shaking at the strongly wrought bars for a chance of escape, when someone approached.
   "Hush, Senor, for the love of God! You looked hungry! Here is food and wine." I then recognised one of the sympathetic girls of the afternoon. She handed me tiny loaves and a piece of meat. Some luscious plantains were next pushed through the grating: the bottle of wine would not pass. "Leave it: they will catch you!" I cried apprehensively. "Drink!" she replied, as she pushed the neck through the bars, tilting the bottle so the liquid poured down my parched throat. When I pressed the little hand with effusive thanks, she whispered, "Todo por Cuba," and was gone. Perhaps it was Dutch courage: but the wine infused new life into my trembling limbs, the food also proved delicious after my menu of roots and unripe fruit in the manigua. I have never been able to trace my little Samaritan. God bless her! If my plight were not so ill as she feared, her ministration cheered me none the less. I lay on the dirty floor, and forgetting my dangers and smarting back, slept soundly.
   The sweet notes of "Diana" from the bugles awoke me at daybreak, and a band played before the tumbledown Casino as a bedraggled column, that had stayed the night in town, re-formed and marched wearily on its way. Then the officer of the day arrived to see the rebel.
   I fear I gave but a surly nod to his courteous "Buenos dias!" but ignoring my rudeness, he began to chat affably enough. He spoke in broken English, and we later became good friends. The young Spaniard talked wistfully of his home: then we found mutual acquaintances, for he was from the Canary Islands, and I even remembered his father's place, a large dry-goods store near the Cathedral in Las Palmas. Not once did he question me, nor even refer to my plight: and we parted as comrades.
   Around half an hour later he threw open the door and ushered in the portly commandante. By the latter's cordial greeting, I divined that my friend had interceded for me. "You are not a Yankee: you are English, I see!" said the major, as he glanced at my passport. "Now, sir, I ought to keep you till my colonel arrives, but there is nothing against you. Next time do not take country walks without a permit. It is not allowed. There is a train for Cienfuegos in ten minutes." I took the train.
   I was thankful for my escape a few days later, when the local sheet printed a story of a Negro who had either deserted or been captured at Esperanza. To save himself he made a full confession of all that had occurred, and much that had never occurred, in the field: but I was the central figure of his fiction, being made responsible also for the death of the unfortunate officer in the skirmish. My entry into Cruces he duly reported, but knew nothing of my capture and release. Furthermore the paper added that this miscreant was El Inglesito who had recently been defaming Spain and her brave army. Certain articles of mine that would have passed notice in New York had created interest in London, where the Cuban situation was less known. Some despatches also had been intercepted en route, and Weyler, ever anxious to stifle news direct from the field, had ordered a watch to be set for the writer. Fortunately my name was not known, but Cienfuegos was not a desirable residence just then: the commandante at Cruces might think better of his laxity. I needed rest also; so returned to the United States to recuperate.
   Feeling secure from recognition, with the loss of my hirsute appendages and a change from ragged clothes, I entered Havana openly by steamer three weeks later, to rest in that city, and witness the situation from the Spanish lines.

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