It was that inhuman order of concentration, the result of which proved to be without parallel in military history—an order which gave its savage author the name of being the arch-fiend of a nation reputed peculiarly cruel. Neither Esteban nor Rosa, however, grasped the full significance of the proclamation; no one could have done so. No eye could have foreseen the merciless butchery of non-combatants, the starvation and death by disease of hordes of helpless men, women, and children herded into the cities. Four hundred thousand Cubans driven from their homes into shelterless prison camps; more than two hundred thousand dead from hunger and disease; a fruitful land laid bare of all that could serve as food, and changed to an ash-gray desolation; gaunt famine from Oriente to Pinar del Rio—that was the sequel to those printed words of “Weyler the Butcher” which Esteban read.
“Eight days! When is the time up?” Rosa inquired.
“Bless you, this is already two weeks old!” her brother told her.
“Why, then, it means that we’ll be shot if we’re caught.”
“Exactly! But we sha’n’t be caught, eh? Let the timid ones take fright at the squeaks of this old black-bird. Let them go into the cities: we shall have the more to eat!” Esteban crumpled the paper in his hand and dropped it. “Meanwhile I shall proceed toward my settlement with Pancho Cueto.” His very careless confidence gave Rosa courage.
WHEN THE WORLD RAN BACKWARD
Esteban went about his plan of destroying Pancho Cueto with youthful energy and zest. First he secured, at some pains, a half-stick of dynamite, a cap and fuse, and a gallon or more of kerosene; then he assembled his followers and led them once again into the San Juan.
This time the ride to La Joya was longer than before, and since every member of the little band was proscribed, Esteban insisted upon the greatest caution. But there was little need of especial care, for the country was already depopulated, as a result of Weyler’s proclamation. Fields were empty, houses silent; no living creatures stirred, except in the tree-tops, and the very birds seemed frightened, subdued. It struck young Varona queerly. It was as if the whole land was in mourning; he saw nothing but blackbirds, somber-hued vultures, dismal Judea-birds with their ebony plumage and yellow beaks. Far up the valley a funeral pall of smoke hung in the sky itself; that was where the Spaniards were burning the houses of those too slow in obeying the order of concentration.
La Joya, however, was still tenanted when early in the evening its rightful owner arrived; the house and some of its outbuildings showed lights. Esteban concealed his men. While the horses cropped and the negroes rested he fitted fuse and cap to his precious piece of dynamite. It was likely, he thought, that Cueto had provided himself with a body-guard, and knowing the plantation house as he did, he had no intention of battering weakly at its stout ironwood door while his quarry took fright and slipped away.