Ch 9: To Havana for Garcia

I was with General Garcia for some weeks in the open and fertile district of the Canto River, close to the Spanish towns of Jiguani and Bayamo. Extra outposts were thrown out around camp, and from a neighbouring loma we frequently watched the columns moving like light coloured snakes over the plain. We could see the heliograph on El Galletta flashing instructions to the army in the field, and thus every move was revealed to the Cubans, who knew the code.
   At daybreak a party of rebel cavalry would sally forth to skirmish, and the thunder of musketry would roll through the trees for hours. At night the horsemen would return, muddy and bedraggled, bringing in perhaps one man wounded, or reporting one killed. I witnessed numerous skirmishes, afterwards locating the Spanish positions by piles of cartridge cases almost uselessly expended, and invariably some Spanish graves. In these so-called battles, the bushwhackers gained the advantage, and the wretched Spanish boys wondered why their officers did not either rout the enemy, or stay safely in the cities. Naturally they had little to gain, the officers everything, in the faked Spanish victories that were daily cabled to Madrid and foisted on the ever-hopeful Spaniards. The cross of San Fernando, so liberally distributed by the Queen Regent as a reward for extraordinary bravery, was seldom if ever deserved by the recipients; not that gallantry in action was an unknown quality, but because the recommendation from the general went usually to the highest bidder.
   General Garcia had selected for his staff chiefly officers educated in the States and I was honoured that, in recognition of my part in freeing Evangelina Cisneros from the Recojidas in Havana; and to afford me some semblance of authority, Garcia gave me a commission as Captain and instructed me to carry despatches to the Americans in Santiago City. It was deemed expedient for me to attempt to reach the capital with General Sanchez, the brave and popular commander of the Barracoa district, and General Demetrius Castillo, who was to assume command of the beleaguered districts of Santiago City.
   We left Garcia, who was preparing to oppose the Spaniards with two thousand men, and made a forced march with two officers of Castillo's command, hoping to pass round the enemy by night. A significant heliograph message, however, announced that all operations were suspended, and the column retired. Captain Maestre was sent forward with an escort to accompany me through the dangerous San Luis district, but he fell sick, and unwilling to delay, I pushed forward alone with a servant and guide. Riding on the camino, we were held up by a ferocious looking cavalry squad, apparently guerillas or bandits. Fight and flight were impossible, and we fearfully threw up our hands, to discover that our assailants were Cuban irregulars, searching for horse thieves.
   At the zona I luckily met Preval, who had just been to secure mail over the barricade at Santa Ana. Colonel Congera selected guides and a fresh escort, and Preval agreed to accompany me over the mountains. We found food very scarce in the mountains, unripe guava alone sustaining us. It was bitterly cold also, especially at night, and the change developed my latent malaria.
   The people in the higher mountains were half-barbarous, Indio-negroes, mixed descendants of those who had fled to the hills to escape cruel taskmasters. Their patois was a curious conglomeration of Spanish, Siboney, and French, and they held a precarious existence. They were in sore straits then, but gave us advice, respect, and chocolate. We rode for miles, continuously up and down, encountering no one save solitary sentinels from the zona, perched on the rocks, watching the movement of the enemy in the strongly invested Sant Ana valley. The Sierras del Cobre rise in vast ridges abruptly from the sea, piled back peak on peak, their sides clothed with impenetrable thicket, jagged with stupendous precipices of volcanic rock overhanging the gloomy ravines far below.

General Garcia and Staff

   At times our trail led through narrow gorges, the rocks rising grimly in solid walls of basalt and ironstone, while in the clefts grew orchids of the rarest kind; veritable treasures for collectors, who can now make the ride. In many places the soil was ferruginous and my compass was useless. The ruddy hue of the ironstone formed a pleasing contrast with the rich emerald of the sparse grass and luxuriant evergreen that filled the gorges; the scenery was magnificent, but we paid little attention to the stupendous panorama at our feet. My mount went dead lame; constant clambering over sharp stones, with precipitous trails and even worse descents, had completely worn out his fore-hoofs. It was impossible to halt, and by this time privations and lack of food had so told upon us that we had not the strength to walk. Then his back gave out, and our trip grew protracted, as I could only spur the faithful beast a few miles each day.
   The season of Las Luvias was over, but we did not escape two frightful storms, during one of which, on March 17th, we nearly lost our lives. It had been a bright day, but toward three o'clock when crossing a most dangerous path high on the mountain-side, the sudden darkening of the sky, and the exhalation of foetid miasma from the valley, foretold an approaching temporal. The sky grew black as ink; we had no place for shelter, and clung against the trail cut in the mountain-side, which rose like a wall above, and dropped in a stupendous ravine below. When the tempest burst in all its fury, we momentarily expected to be hurled into the abyss. The horses snorted in terror, and reared and plunged on the ledge as we crouched beside the rock, holding their bridles. The blackness increased, but the whole heavens became suffused in light, the jet clouds rolled in flame while the rock trembled with the frightful roar of thunder that followed. The scene was wild and magnificent, the rushing wind tore up trees by the~ roots, and whirled them over the peaks, great boulders crashed down, fortunately bounding over our heads, but covering us in a shower of stones.
   My escort, gigantic Negroes of the mountains, lay on their faces, while the white sergeant prayed to the Virgin for deliverance. Leaves, stones, branches, flew by us; thunder roared at brief intervals, bursting, crashing, and re-echoing from peak to peak with the lurid flashes of electric fluid that played around.
   We were in, not under the storm, the black clouds loomed on all sides, rolling together, wrestling and parting, and I trust I may never again witness so magnificent, yet so frightful a spectacle. Twice the earth quaked perceptibly, and a sulphurous smell almost overcame us. The old craters and volcanic peaks seemed to belch fire and smoke as electric clouds hung flaming from the summits. It was as if the seventh angel had sounded, and the thunder and lightning and the great earthquake attending the doom of Babylon had burst forth. We lay speechless with awe, and one realised the infinite weakness and insignificance of mere man when confronted with the stupendous power of the great Unknown. The impressions made upon me during that storm will never be effaced.
   The tempest died out as suddenly as it came, and then we realised our cramped position, and crept painfully onward, our faces bruised, chilled to the bone by our wet clothes. We descended next day into the San Luis Valley, a pass leading into Santiago, and strongly invested by the enemy. We fell in with a Negro Cuban guerilla and obtained a late and unexpected supper. The rebels in reprisal were preparing to raid an adjoining ingenio. I was too weak to ride out to the fight, but from the camp in the foothills could see the brush. The engine-house was strongly invested and every aperture belched fire. A candela soon lit up the scene, revealing the swarthy faces of the Spaniards, and the black visages of their Negro assailants, for save officers there were few white insurgents in Santiago.
   Above the crash of rifles rose the rally "Viva Espana!" mingled with "Viva Cuba y Maceo!" from the bronze-throated Orientals. It was a weird scene, the outhouses were soon blazing, while the flames raced over the cane-field like the surging of rushing water; from the villa rose the frightened screams of women. But the Cuban fire soon slackened, and the fighters came trotting back, reporting the gringoes too strong. They proudly exhibited some prisoners of war, pacificos captured in the lodge, including the milkman of the district. His cans were soon emptied down more needy throats, and the men were liberated. Later three soldiers were brought in. The insurgents were an irregular band, and fearing for the safety of the Spaniards, I hurried down to see what could be done, but the rebels shared their supper with the prisoners, and they were finally sent to Cambote.
   Finding that we could not pass down the valley to the city, we again took to the hills, crossing the Sierras Maestra, rounding midway the Pico Turquino, over ten thousand feet above sea level. On the Gran Piedra we were above the clouds, and while below the day was dull, our eyes rested over an expanse of cloudland resembling snow-covered steppes, with a glorious dome of sunlit sky overhead.
   Passing down the mountain through the vapour was extremely dangerous, and several times my horse jibbed, where the trail gave sharp turns against the side of the rocky precipice. A false step meant certain death, and the sure-footed Cuban mounts seemed bewildered by the mist. A trooper ahead of me had much trouble with his steed. I warned him twice not to use the spur, but his horse stopped dead and he gave it a vicious dig. The frightened beast sprang forward, missed its footing, and horse and rider made a mad plunge into space. Twice the poor fellow screamed, but his fall was unbroken, and he was doubtlessly dead before he reached the gorge below. Saddened with this disaster, sickened by hardships and difficulties, my nerve gave out, and thanks only to Preval did we continue the march that day.
   Our journey was tortuous but, at length, we reached the Ojo del Toro, and finally sighted La Galleta, beyond which lay Santiago City. On March 18th, after another frightful climb, we reached the fringe of mountains on the coast. The sea rolled in, far below us, and from that ridge, the most extensive view in the world, save the vista of Teneriffe, can be obtained. Away to the south, shrouded in the sunlit haze of the Caribbean, lay Jamaica; on the east, toward Maysi, glistened the Windward Passage fringed by the southern Bahamas and Haiti. Westward, Santiago seemed a city of Lilliput, nestling at the foot of the range. Two white gunboats, a Ward liner, and the graceful "Purisima Concepcion" resembled four toy ships in a midget harbour, while a tiny train steamed leisurely out by the head of the bay. Beyond rose the opposite spur of the Sierras that extend to Manzanillo.
   It took us many hours to descend to the beach, and, in constant fear of discovery, we camped in an old coffee mill at Las Guasimas. At daybreak we passed over the Jaragua iron district, owned by the Carnagie Co. Though the insurgents had made no attempt to invest the coast valley and foothills, everything was in ruins, and Weylerism was rampant in the only district in east Cuba where there was positively no excuse for it. Crossing by side trails, we passed the forts and gained the camino leading to Caney. I left the escort near the Rio Aguadores, where we met an American writer, who had just reached the manigua. Giving him my spare equipment, I rode forward to reconnoitre the Spanish lines, and attempt to pass into Santiago city.
   Riding to a bank I was scanning the line of wire and forts a mile beyond, when a clatter of hoofs on the road alarmed me. I sprang into the saddle, and turned my horse toward the thicket; but the half-dead steed staggered painfully, and ere I could urge it forward, a returning party of guerilla cantered round the bend. The bewhiskered leader, who proved to be Colonel Castelli, of Bourbon blood and bloody fame, yelled "Americano, sirrinder!" as if proud of his English. I was paralyzed with terror. A commissioned Captain, with government papers, and for the Yankees, would be no mean capture; and the swarthy faces of these cut-throats, their grim smiles of satisfaction as they drew their machetes and started toward me, and my impending fate, were indelibly photographed on my mind in the brief second of indecision that seemed an hour. Thrice I dug in my cruel spurs, until my exhausted horse quivered with agony; then he stumbled painfully forward. I could feel the machetes of my pursuers uplifted above me in my fright, and flung myself from the saddle, only to realise that a barbed fence had checked the enemy. Retarded by boots and spurs, winged by fear, I raced to cover as they swarmed through the adjacent gap.
   A carbine popped, then a revolver, and as I ducked instinctively, I fell headlong, my satchel of papers flying from me; but I was up and on again instantaneously, and plunged into the thicket. Crawling far into the tangle, I could hear my assailants' voices as they peered into the gaps. Fearful of shots from cover, Spaniards seldom ventured into woods. It was also past their supper-time, and soon their guttural cursing was lost in the distance. I ventured out just before sunset, and found some Cubans by the ford. They stood over the body of my servant, who had gone for water to prepare grass soup before I passed the lines. The poor youth had been captured by those guerilla, and shockingly mutilated before death. His eyes were gouged out, his teeth smashed, and the hacking of the body did not conceal the evidence of unnatural torture that had been inflicted before death. It was too late for me again to seek Preval, who died, poor fellow, from the hardships of the campaign, two weeks after Santiago had fallen, and he had rejoined his girl-wife to enjoy the freedom he had fought to achieve.
   Hungry, faint-hearted, weary, and in an indescribable state of mind, I directed the Cubans to bury the body, and turned toward Santiago. Flanking San Juan, I succeeded in reaching a clump of trees near the city outposts. Sentries were lazily pacing from fort to fort, the evening gun was fired, its echoes reverberating in the hills, as Spain's banner of blood and gold descended from the flagstaff and the buglers sounded the nightly retreat. Officers came from the forts, the piquet and patrols were mustered, and then, gradually, the stillness of night settled over the community. In the Plaza, a stranded American merry-go-round wheezed out "Sweet Rosie O' Grady" continuously, and my beating heart sounded louder than the base drum accompanying the melody. Eight boomed from the cathedral, and the band of the King's Battalion in the Square burst into "El Tambor Mayor."
   The suspense of waiting had been awful, but it was now time to make my attempt to cross the lines. I crawled forward and scaled the first barricade rapidly; the sentry there was chatting with the next post, and I was soon against the wires, and between two forts that loomed up fifty yards apart. The guards lounged round the campfires, cooking their "rancho"; the sentinels whined out Alerta, and continued their chat, and, after vainly trying to compose myself, I started over the barbed Trocha. The posts fortunately protruded several inches above the wires, so, scaling the first fence as a ladder, I was able to step across from strand to strand, grasping each post firmly. Hearing a patrol approaching when all but over, I dropped beneath the tangled meshes, soon to realise that in the night air of the tropics hoof-beats are discernible at a great distance. My alarm was needless, for ten minutes elapsed before the "rounds" of guards passed. Then I crawled out, my hands and legs lacerated and bleeding; but I felt nothing of the barbs. I was over, and content. The road to the city was clear at last.
   It was almost midnight when I crept into Santiago but, within minutes, I realised that I had to immediately leave again. I made my way to a hotel on the wharf where the brothers Barella I knew were good Cubans. They were effusive in welcoming me and, at great risk to their lives, they said that I could stay for the night but that I must leave before first light. The "Parisima Concepcion" fortunately was in harbour, bound for Batabano and, through the good offices of Senor Barbosa, the pilot, I was smuggled on board, and without ticket or permit left the port that evening.
   Senor Barbosa related to me the events that had transpired in the past few days which, in brief, were that, amid rising tension between Spain and America, the USS Maine had been sent to Havana. This was seen as an insult to Spain's integrity and led to the issue of a frenzied, soul-stirring manifesto broadcast throughout the city. Such was the impact of this manifesto that the Insurgents had burnt the Havana Bull Ring, but gay crowds had flocked over the ferries to the "Plaza de los Toros" that day, and pointed derisively to the American battleship, comparing it to their glorious equivalents: Pelayo, Carlos V., and Viscaya. The carnival was at its height when a sudden column of flame shot skywards, followed by a fearful explosion and a general shattering of glass in the few buildings that required it in Havana. The Maine had been blown up with the loss of the two officers and two hundred and sixty four Americans aboard her.
   There was a general jubilation among the rabid Spaniards, and in one notorious restaurant in Lamparilla Street, "Sopa del Maine" appeared on the menu for two days, and the joke was thought exceedingly funny by the habitude.

USS Maine Destroyed

   After landing at Batabano without difficulty, on March 28th, I hurried on to Havana, fearing that it may already be too late to escape from the Island. My despatches were now dangerously compromising; so I dropped off the train in the suburbs, hoping to avoid the spies infesting the main depot.
   War between Spain and American was now certain and imminent and Havana was no longer safe. Americans were flocking from the Capital and, along with all other foreigners in the city, I had to formulate my plans for escape from the island. I considered, and rejected, both the buying of a false passport, and swimming at night to a steamer in the harbour. Colonel Decker, however, was at Key West with the despatch boat "Anita" awaiting the advent of the fleet and, by underground mail, he arranged with me to steam at night to the San Lazaro beach to pick me up. The attempt was to be made on April 1st, but on the previous afternoon I lay resting in a secluded room at El Pasage, sick, worn, and anxious to feel the security of American soil again, when heavy footsteps broke my reverie, and a rough demand was made at the door.
   I glanced hopelessly at the barred window, seized my revolver, only to realise the madness of resistance, and hesitated, trembling, until a second thunderous demand nearly burst the door from its hinges. Colonel Trujillo and his valiant myrmidons entered as if bearding a tiger in his den when I withdrew the bar, but grew wondrous bold when they found no resistance intended. Said the bewhiskered Trujillo, with a malicious grin of recognition, and tone and manner suave, "General Blanco, sir, wishes to hold conversation with you. To a gentleman as yourself it is needless for me to say my sergeant is prepared for resistance; but a coach is in waiting if you care to come quietly." To the coach I went, as one in a dream, forgetting that I was compounding the secrecy of my arrest by such surrender.

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