They did not stop until they had gained the fastnesses of the Pan de Matanzas. Here they built a shelter and again took up the problem of living, which was now more difficult than ever.
Asensio would not have been greatly inconvenienced by the change had he been alone, for certain fruits grew wild in the forests, and the earth, where the Spaniards had not trod, was full of roots upon which a creature of his primitive habits could have managed to live. But hampered as he was by two women, one of whom was as delicate as a flower, Asensio found his task extremely difficult. And it grew daily more difficult; for there were other people here in the woods, and, moreover, the country round about was being steadily scoured by the enemy, who had orders to destroy every living, growing thing that was capable of sustaining human life. Stock was butchered and left to rot, trees were cut down, root-fields burned. Weyler’s policy of frightfulness was in full sway, and starvation was driving its reluctant victims into his net. Meanwhile roving bands of guerrillas searched out and killed the stronger and the more tenacious families.
The Pan de Matanzas, so called because of its resemblance to a mighty loaf of bread, became a mockery to the hungry people cowering in its shelter. Bread! Rosa Varona could not remember when she had last tasted such a luxury. Raw cane, cocoanuts, the tasteless fruita bomba, roots, the pith from palm tops, these were her articles of diet, and she did not thrive upon them. She was always more or less hungry. She was ragged, too, and she shivered miserably through the long, chill nights. Rosa could measure the change in her appearance only by studying her reflection from the surface of the spring where she drew water, but she could see that she had become very thin, and she judged that the color had entirely gone from her cheeks. It saddened her, for O’Reilly’s sake.
Time came when Asensio spoke of giving up the struggle and going in. They were gradually starving, he said, and Rosa was ill; the risk of discovery was ever present. It was better to go while they had the strength than slowly but surely to perish here. He had heard that there were twenty thousand reconcentrados in Matanzas; in such a crowd they could easily manage to hide themselves; they would at least be fed along with the others.
No one had told Asensio that the Government was leaving its prisoners to shift for themselves, supplying them with not a pound of food nor a square inch of shelter.
Evangelina at first demurred to this idea, declaring that Rosa would never be allowed to reach the city, since the roads were patrolled by lawless bands of troops. Nevertheless her husband continued to argue. Rosa herself took no part in the discussion, for it did not greatly matter to her whether she stayed or went.
Misery bred desperation at last; Evangelina’s courage failed her, and she allowed herself to be won over. She began her preparations by disguising Rosa. Gathering herbs and berries, she made a stain with which she colored the girl’s face and body, then she sewed a bundle of leaves into the back of Rosa’s waist so that when the latter stooped her shoulders and walked with a stick her appearance of deformity was complete.