Antonio swung a leg over his saddle, saying: “Come along, amigos; we have fifty leagues ahead of us. The war will be over while we stand here gossiping.”
INTO THE CITY OF DEATH
O’Reilly’s adventures on his swift ride through Las Villas have no part in this story. It is only necessary to say that they were numerous and varied, that O’Reilly experienced excitement aplenty, and that upon more than one occasion he was forced to think and to act quickly in order to avoid a clash with some roving guerrilla band. He had found it imperative at all times to avoid the larger towns, for they, and in fact most of the hamlets, were unsafe; hence the little party was forced to follow back roads and obscure bridle trails. But the two guides were never at a loss; they were resourceful, courageous, and at no time did the American have reason to doubt their faithfulness.
Evidences of the war increased as the journey lengthened. The potreros were lush with grass, but no herds grazed upon them; villages were deserted and guano huts were falling into decay, charred fields growing up to weeds and the ruins of vast centrales showing where the Insurrectos had been at work. This was the sugar country, the heart of Cuba, whence Spain had long drawn her life blood, and from the first it had been the policy of the rebel leaders to destroy the large estates, leaving undamaged only the holdings of those little farmers whose loyalty to the cause of freedom was unquestioned.
Food became a problem immediately after the travelers had crossed the trocha. Such apprehensive families as still lurked in the woods were liberal enough—Antonio, by the way, knew all of them— but they had little to give and, in consequence, O’Reilly’s party learned the taste of wild fruits, berries, and palmetto hearts. Once they managed to kill a small pig, the sole survivor of some obscure country tragedy, but the rest of the time their meat, when there was any, consisted of iguanas—those big, repulsive lizards--and jutias, the Cuban field-rats.
Neither the lizards nor the rats were quite as bad as they looked or sounded; the meat of the former was tender and white, while the latter, although strong, was not unpalatable. To hungry men both were muy sabrosa, as Jacket put it. This was not the boy’s first experience with such a diet; having campaigned before in the west, he was accustomed to the taste of juita, and he told O’Reilly how his troop had once lived so long upon these rats that it became impossible to surprise a Spanish enemy, except by approaching up the wind, as a hunter stalks his game. Jacket gravely assured his friend that the Spaniards could smell him and his brother patriots from a distance of five kilometers—a statement, by the way, which the American by this time was ready to believe.