None of the four ever knew what gave the alarm. Their first intimation of discovery came with a startling “Quien vive?” hurled at them from somewhere at their backs.
An instant and the challenge was followed by a Mauser shot. Other reports rang out as the sentry emptied his rifle in their direction.
“So! They are shooting-bats,” Hilario grunted.
Antonio swung about and cocked his Remington, but the other spoke sharply. “Fool! If you shoot they will see the fire and riddle us. A curse on the spider that spun this web!”
It was a test of courage to crouch among the charred stumps, enmeshed in that cruel tangle of wire, while the night was stabbed by daggers of fire and while the trocha awoke to the wild alarm. From somewhere in the distance came a shouted command and the sound of running feet, suddenly putting an end to further inaction. Antonio began to hack viciously with his machete, in an effort to aid Hilario’s labors. The sound of his sturdy blows betrayed the party’s whereabouts so clearly that finally the older man could restrain himself no longer.
“Give it to them, compadres; it is a game that we can play.”
O’Reilly had been gripping his rifle tensely, his heart in his throat, his pulses pounding. As near a panic as he had ever been, he found, oddly enough, that the mere act of throwing his weapon to his shoulder and firing it calmed him. The kick of the gun subdued his excitement and cleared his brain. He surprised himself by directing Jacket in a cool, authoritative voice, to shoot low. When he had emptied the magazine he led two of the horses forward. Then, grasping his own machete, he joined in clearing a pathway.
It seemed an interminable time ere they extricated themselves from the trap, but finally they succeeded and gained the welcome shelter of the woods, pausing inside its shelter to cut the muffles from their horses’ feet. By this time the defenders of the trocha were pouring volley after volley at random into the night.
Hilario sucked the cuts in his horny palms and spat forth the blood.
“If Gomez had the ammunition these fools are wasting he would free Cuba in no time.”
Now that the skirmish was over, Jacket began to boast of his part in it.
“Ha! Perhaps they’ll know better than to show themselves the next time I come this way,” said he. “You saw me, didn’t you? Well, I made a few Spanish widows to-night.”
“Not many, I’m afraid,” O’Reilly laughed.
“Oh, believe me, I’m an old hand at this sort of thing. I shoot just as well at night as I do in the daytime.” This was literally true, and when no one disputed his assertion Jacket proceeded further in praise of himself, only to break off with a wordless cry of dismay.
“What’s the matter?” Johnnie inquired.
“Look! Behold me!” wailed the hero. “I have left the half of my beautiful trousers on that barbed wire!”