“No—I—Oh, they’d tear me limb from limb!”
Branch turned his head from side to side in desperation. He wet his lips. “It’s the youngest one I ever had anything to do with. Maybe it isn’t used to cow’s milk,” he ventured.
“Unfortunately that is the only kind I can offer it. Take care of it until I find some way of notifying its people.”
O’Reilly had looked on at his friend’s embarrassment with malicious enjoyment, but, realizing that Branch would undoubtedly try to foist upon him the responsibility of caring for the baby, he slipped away and rode over to where Captain Judson was engaged in making a litter upon which to carry the sick prisoner they had rescued from the jail. When he had apprised the artilleryman of what Branch had found in his roll of purloined bedding the latter smiled broadly.
“Serves him right,” Judson chuckled. “We’ll make him sit up nights with it. Maybe it’ll improve his disposition.” More seriously he explained: “This chap here is all in. I’m afraid we aren’t going to get him through.”
Following Judson’s glance, O’Reilly beheld an emaciated figure lying in the shade of a near-by guava-bush. The man was clad in filthy rags, his face was dirty and overgrown with a month’s beard; a pair of restless eyes stared unblinkingly at the brazen sky. His lips were moving; from them issued a steady patter of words, but otherwise he showed no sign of life.
“You said he was starving.” Johnnie dismounted and lent Judson a hand with his task.
“That’s what I thought at first, but he’s sick. I suppose it’s that damned dungeon fever.”
“Then we’d better look after him ourselves. These Cubans are mighty careless, you know. We can swing him between our horses, and—”
Judson looked up to discover that Johnnie was poised rigidly, his mouth open, his hands halted in midair. The sick man’s voice had risen, and O’Reilly, with a peculiar expression of amazement upon his face, was straining his ears to hear what he said.
“Eh? What’s the matter?” Judson inquired.
For a moment O’Reilly remained frozen in his attitude, then without a word he strode to the sufferer. He bent forward, staring into the vacant, upturned face. A cry burst from his throat, a cry that was like a sob, and, kneeling, he gathered the frail, filthy figure into his arms.
“Esteban!” he cried. “Esteban! This is O’Reilly. O’Rail-ye! Don’t you know me? O’Reilly, your friend, your brother! For God’s sake, tell me what they’ve done to you! Look at me, Esteban! Look at me! Look at me! Oh, Esteban!”
Such eagerness, such thankfulness, such passionate pity were in his friend’s hoarse voice that Judson drew closer. He noticed that the faintest flame of reason flickered for an instant in the sick man’s hollow eyes; then they began to rove again, and the same rustling whisper recommenced. Judson had heard something of O’Reilly’s story; he had heard mention of Esteban and Rosa Varona; he stood, therefore, in silent wonderment, listening to the incoherent words that poured from his friend’s lips. O’Reilly held the boy tenderly in his arms; tears rolled down his cheeks as he implored Esteban to hear and to heed him.