“I’m here for my health, too.” The real invalid stared. “I have rheumatism.”
“Going to sweat it out, eh? Well, there’s nothing to do but sweat”—Branch was racked by a coughing spasm that shook his reedy frame—“sweat and cough. Bullets! No mistake about that hospital bark, is there?” When he had regained his breath he said: “See here! I’m going to take a chance with you, for I like your looks. My newspaper work is a bluff: I don’t send enough stuff to keep me alive. I come here to cure my lungs, and—I want you to help me do it.”
O’Reilly stared at the man in surprise. “How can I help you?” he asked.
“By taking me with you.”
“With me? Where?”
“To the Insurrectos, of course.”
The men eyed each other fixedly. “What makes you think—” O’Reilly began.
“Oh, don’t say it! I’ve got a hunch! I don’t know what your game is—probably dynamite: there’s a story that the rebels have sent for some American experts to teach them how to use the stuff, and God knows they need instruction! Anyhow, I can’t swallow that rheumatism talk. I thought you might give me a lift. Take me along, will you?”
“And how would that benefit your cough?” Johnnie inquired, curiously.
Mr. Branch hesitated. “Well, I’ll tell you,” he said, after a moment. “I’m afraid to die this way, by inches, and hours. I’m scared to death.” It seemed impossible that the sick man’s cheeks could further blanch, but they became fairly livid, while a beading of moisture appeared upon his upper lip. “God! You’ve no idea how it gets on a fellow’s nerves to see himself slipping— slipping. I’d like to end it suddenly, like that!” He voiced the last sentence abruptly and snapped his fingers. “I’ve tried to bump off, but—no courage! Funny, isn’t it? Well, the doctors told me another New York winter would put me in a rosewood show-case. I’ve tried Colorado and it’s no good. See? So I decided to join the Cubans and—let a bullet do the trick. I never did like the Spaniards—their cooking is too greasy. Then, too, I’d like to have a thrill before I cash in—taste ‘the salt of life,’ as somebody expressed it. That’s war. It’s the biggest game in the world. What do you think of the idea?”
“Not much,” O’Reilly said, honestly.
“Difference in temperament. I suppose it is a sick fancy, but I’ve got it. Unfortunately, now that I’m here, these Romeos won’t let me get out of town. If you’re what I think you are, give me a hand. I’m a rotten coward, but I’ll fight if the Cubans will take me.”
“Where are the Cubans?”
“Oh, they’re out yonder in the hills. I know all about ’em. Come over to my quarters, and I’ll show you a map, if you’re interested.”
“I am,” said O’Reilly, and, rising, he followed his new acquaintance.
THE SPANISH DOUBLOON