O’Reilly knew that although Matanzas was a prison and a pesthole, a girl like Rosa would suffer therein perils infinitely worse than imprisonment or disease. It was a thought he could not bear to dwell upon.
Signs of life began to appear now, the travelers passed small garden-patches and occasional cultivated fields; they encountered loaded carts bound into the city, and once they hid themselves while a column of mounted troops went by.
O’Reilly stopped to pass the time of day with a wrinkled cartman whose dejected oxen were resting.
“Going into the city, are you?” the fellow inquired. “Starved out, I suppose. Well, it’s as pleasant to starve in one place as another.”
Jacket helped himself to a stalk of cane from the load and began to strip it with his teeth.
“Will the soldiers allow us to enter?” Johnnie inquired.
“Of course. Why not?” The old man laughed mirthlessly; then his voice changed. “Go back,” he said, “go back and die in the fields. Matanzas stinks of rotting corpses. Go back where the air is clean.” He swung his long lash over the oxen, they leaned against the load, and the cart creaked dismally on its way.
It is never difficult to enter a trap, and Matanzas was precisely that. There were soldiers everywhere, but beyond an indifferent challenge at the outer blockhouse, a perfunctory question or two, Narciso and Juan Villar experienced no trouble whatever in passing the lines. Discipline, never strict at best, was extremely lax at the brick fortinas along the roads, and, since these two refugees were too poor to warrant search, they were waved onward by the sentries. They obeyed silently; in aimless bewilderment they shuffled along toward the heart of the city. Almost before they realized it they had run the gauntlet and had joined that army of misery, fifteen thousand strong. The hand of Spain had closed over them.
“Look!” Jacket clutched at O’Reilly and pointed a shaking finger. “More beggars! Cristo! And those little children!” The boy tried to laugh, but his voice cracked nervously. “Are they children, or gourds with legs under them?”
O’Reilly looked, then turned his eyes away. He and Jacket had reached the heart of Matanzas and were facing the public square, the Plaza de la Libertad it was called. O’Reilly knew the place well; every building that flanked it was familiar to him, from the vast, rambling Governor’s Palace to the ornate Casino Espanol and the Grand Hotel, and time was when he had been a welcome visitor at all of them. But things were different now. Gone were the customary crowds of well-dressed, well-fed citizens; gone the rows of carriages which at this hour of the day were wont to circle the Plaza laden with the aristocracy of the city; gone was that air of cheerfulness and substance which had lent distinction