At the time Johnnie O’Reilly set out for Matanzas the war—a war without battle, without victory, without defeat—had settled into a grim contest of endurance. In the east, where the Insurrectos were practically supreme, there was food of a sort, but beyond the Jucaro-Moron trocha—the old one of Campos’s building—the country was sick. Immediately west of it, in that district which the Cubans called Las Villas, the land lay dying, while the entire provinces of Matanzas, Habana, and Pinar del Rio were practically dead. These three were skeletons, picked bare of flesh by Weyler’s beak.
The Jucaro-Moron trocha had been greatly strengthened since Campos’s day. It followed the line of the transinsular railway. Dotted at every quarter of a mile along the grade were little forts connected by telephone and telegraph lines. Between these fortinas were sentry stations of logs or railroad ties. The jungle on either side of the right-of-way had been cleared, and from the remaining stumps and posts and fallen tree-trunks hung a maze of barbed wire through which a man could scarcely crawl, even in daylight. Eyes were keen, rifles were ready, challenges were sharp, and countersigns were quickly given on the Jucaro-Moron trocha.
In O’Reilly’s party there were three men besides himself—the ever-faithful Jacket, a wrinkled old Camagueyan who knew the bridle trails of his province as a fox knows the tracks to its lair, and a silent guajiro from farther west, detailed to accompany the expedition because of his wide acquaintance with the devastated districts. Both guides, having crossed the trocha more than once, affected to scorn its terrors, and their easy confidence reassured O’Reilly in spite of Esteban’s parting admonition.
The American had not dreamed of taking Jacket along, but when he came to announce his departure the boy had flatly refused to be left behind. Jacket, in fact, had taken the matter entirely into his own hands and had appealed directly to General Gomez. To his general the boy had explained tearfully that patriotism was a rare and an admirable quality, but that his love of country was not half so strong or so sacred as his affection for Johnnie O’Reilly. Having attached himself to the American for better or for worse, no human power could serve to detach him, so he asserted. He threatened, moreover, that if he were compelled to suffer his benefactor to go alone into the west he would lay down his arms and permit General Gomez to free Cuba as best he could. Cuba could go to Hades, so far as Jacket was concerned—he would not lift a finger to save it. Strangely enough, Jacket’s threat of defection had not appalled General Gomez. In fact, with a dyspeptic gruffness characteristic of him Gomez had ordered the boy off, under penalty of a sound spanking. But Jacket had a will of his own, likewise a temper. He greeted this unfeeling refusal with a noisy outburst of mingled rage, grief, and defiance. Stamping