Fortunately there was no shortage of food for the horses, and so, despite the necessity of numerous detours, the party made good time. They crossed into Matanzas, pushed on over rolling hills, through sweeping savannas, past empty clearings and deserted villages, to their journey’s end. A fortunate encounter with a rebel partida from General Betancourt’s army enabled them to reach headquarters without loss of time, and one afternoon, worn, ragged and hungry, they dismounted in front of that gallant officer’s hut.
General Betancourt read the letter which O’Reilly handed him, then looked up with a smile.
“So! You are one of Gomez’s Americans, eh? Well, I would never have known it, to look at you; the sun and the wind have made you into a very good Cuban. And your clothes—One might almost mistake you for a Cuban cabinet officer.”
O’Reilly joined in the laughter evoked by this remark. He was quite as tattered as the poorest of Betancourt’s common soldiers; his shoes were broken and disreputable; his cotton trousers, snagged by barbed wire and brambles, and soiled by days in the saddle and nights in the grass, were in desperate need of attention. His beard had grown, too, and his skin, where it was exposed, was burnt to a mahogany brown. Certainly there was nothing about his appearance to bespeak his nationality.
The general continued: “I am directed in this letter to help you in some enterprise. Command me, sir.”
As briefly as possible Johnnie made known the object of his journey. The officer nodded his comprehension, but as he did so a puzzled expression crossed his face.
“Yes, I reported that Miss Varona had gone into the city—I took some pains to find out. Do you have reason to doubt—”
“Not the least, sir.”
“Then—why have you come all this way?”
“I came to find her and to fetch her to her brother.”
“But—you don’t understand. She is actually inside the lines, in Matanzas—a prisoner.”
“Exactly. I intend to go into Matanzas and bring her out.”
General Betancourt drew back, astonished. “My dear man!” he exclaimed. “Are you mad?”
O’Reilly smiled faintly. “Quite probably. All lovers are mildly mad, I believe.”
“Ah! Lovers! I begin to see. But—how do you mean to go about this—this—impossible undertaking?”
“You told me just now that I could pass for a Cuban. Well, I am going to put it to the test. If I once get into the city I shall manage somehow to get out again, and bring her with me.”
“Um-m!” The general appraised O’Reilly speculatively. “No doubt you can get in—it is not so difficult to enter, I believe, and especially to one who speaks the language like a native. But the return—I fear you will find that another matter. Matanzas is a place of pestilence, hunger, despair. No one goes there from choice any more, and no one ever comes out.”