First published in 1966 as EL CAMINO ROJO
I. BUENA VISTA
II. THE SAILING OF THE SANDSHARK
III. THE LLANOS
IV. THE NIGHT OF THE LONG KNIVES
Chapter 1 BUENA VISTA.
The breeze brought a welcome breath of cool air into the Cantina Perez. It played with the mildewed shreds of wallpaper and set them waving apologetically, underscoring the futility of the slowly-turning fan that moaned above our wobbly table. Under the swinging doors I saw discarded papers blowing over the abandoned streetcar tracks and cobblestones of the Avenida. It was going to rain.
The young American looked thoughtful as he watched the flies gathering, attracted by the little oases of spilled beer on the grime-encrusted tabletop.
"So you left the States to find a man's work," I said, waving the flies away from my beer.
"That sums it up." He smiled grimly, swirling the dregs in his glass.
"Well, I've spent a lifetime looking for a man's work and never got more than a partial education. You'll find lots of education here in Buena Vista, but I don't know if you'll find the work you're looking for."
"At least it's better than the States. That place is cracking up." He shook his head in disgust.
"Yes, it's too bad," I said. "It had potential."
"You seem to take it pretty calmly, for an American." He regarded me with a quizzical expression.
"Oh, I've seen a few empires come and go in my time. So will you, if you stick around as long." I drained my glass.
"Maybe. Like another?" He got up and swore, seeing that the chair had torn a hole in his trousers.
"Sure, but this round's on me." I handed him a filthy banknote. "No, don't bother reading the denomination. Just see if Don José will give you any change for it."
He came back to the table with two bottles of warm Pacifico and sat down on the rickety chair, which was waiting to bite another hole in his faded blue jeans.
"Well?" I poured my beer, which began to foam over even though I had tilted the glass.
"No change. Don José says it may be a foreign note, but he's willing to give you credit for the two beers until he washes it."
"Hmm, you'd think he'd trust an old customer."
He looked at me over the edge of his glass. "So how long have you been down here?"
"Oh, not so long. I was here back in 'twenty-seven, when I was almost your age."
"I'm twenty-three," he volunteered.
"I was seventeen."
"Nineteen twenty-seven! Hell, that's a long time ago. What was it like here, then?"
I did my best to remember, trying to recall my first day in Buena Vista. Suddenly the cobwebs were blown away by a loud clap of thunder, and I saw myself, seventeen years old, stepping off the mail boat that had tied up at the Embarcadero.
I'd come down with what money I'd saved from two mind-rotting years in the insurance racket in Frisco. What a dismal life that had been! But now, in the wisdom of my mature years, I was going to change all that. I'd set out to make a career in journalism.
Unfortunately, the newspapers had other ideas, so I figured I'd look for trouble, which was always newsworthy, and become a free-lance correspondent. The nearest trouble which was to be had within the range of my limited funds was here in Buena Vista.
The rich tropical air was intoxicating. That's the first thing I noticed after the wood smoke of the steamer. It made me feel ready for great adventure and confident that I would find it. Approaching the prostrate forms of soldiers on the Embarcadero, I thought I'd encountered the first casualties of the civil war.
My journalistic imagination was black with headlines: 'CAPITAL BESIEGED!' 'TROOPS MASSACRED BY INSURRECTOS!' But on closer examination, I was disappointed to discover that some of the 'corpses' were snoring. They had a funny way of guarding the government's major source of income, the customs house.
I went inside, full of goodwill and charity, that is, until I was confronted by one of those pot-bellied officials with a permanent colic from over-eating. He looked at my passport (an obvious forgery); my suitcase (a trove of contraband); my blank notebooks (secret messages); and became more ill-tempered at discovering nothing incriminating.
"You aren't a missionary, are you?" he scowled, knitting his formidable black eyebrows.
I was tongue-tied. There I was, The Compleat Correspondent, worldly, cynical, jaded, debauched – I'd had a touch of dysentery down river and was still a little queasy. Having practiced my knowing sneer so often that I suspected my face had gone out of joint, I was horrified. A missionary!
"No," I replied, in perfect Spanish.
"Put that down, officious troglodyte!"
I wish I'd said that. I saw my fellow-victim at the other end of the counter, a well-padded woman in fashionable overdress. How she survived the humid heat with that feather boa, I didn't know.
She was engaged in a tug-o-war with another official over a brand new Victrola. The official must have thought it was some new-fangled type of Gatling gun. Seeing that he was attracting adverse attention, he released the instrument, but insisted that the device be demonstrated, taking care to aim its muzzle out the door.
The lady cranked up the machine and vindicated herself by treating us to an aria by Caruso, who was becoming very popular down here, though he'd died some years earlier.
The officials and soldiers, the ones who had awakened, were most reluctant to let her leave. They insisted she play her complete selection of records.
"May I repack my suitcase now?" I asked.
"Yes," said the official, "and be quick about it. I'm a very busy man."
I hurried away from the customs house, considering that I'd got off lightly, thanks to The Great Caruso. A few blocks away from the Embarcadero, I discovered myself in the heart of the capital. Walking through the deserted streets, I was unable to believe that it really was a capital city in the true sense, nor that there was a civil war in full swing. It was midday, and nothing was happening. Nothing. This was my first experience of siesta time.
I stopped in the Cantina Perez for a few beers, and killed time for a couple of hours. The beers were cold because they had ice in those days. Around three o'clock I had a look out the door and saw a few bodies moving about on the Avenida. It was time to seek a Person of Authority, I thought, putting on my expensive Panama and setting it at a jaunty, journalistic angle which guaranteed that it would blow off at the slightest breeze.
As I stepped out of the cantina, I heard bugles. People were gathering on the sidewalks, and faces appeared in windows and doorways. Soon there was no point in trying to negotiate a way through the crowd. There was barely standing room, and so many were dissatisfied with their places in the crowd that there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I was fortunate to gain a vantage point at the edge of the sidewalk where I could hang on to a lamp post to avoid being pushed into the street.
A clatter of hooves, and a squadron of French cuirassiers led by an arrogant-looking Prussian captain came into view, trotting smartly in front of a long column of goose-stepping German infantry whose hobnail boots made a terrible racket on the cobbles. A military band blared an awkward hispanic version of some German march, which was applauded with great enthusiasm by the crowd. The soldiers made no attempt to keep in step, neither with the music nor with each other, and their heads kept bobbing up and down like waves on a choppy sea. They looked quite young and rather wilted under the heavy uniforms and equipment, but the smiles from the 'ladies' on the balconies of the Hotel Internacional made them straighten up and take on expressions of sternness and grave determination.
A battery of horse-drawn artillery brought up the rear, led by a French lieutenant, but this amazing collaboration of the French and German armies proved illusory. Excepting the Prussian and the Frenchman, all the troops were natives.
As the last gun carriage rumbled by, the jubilant crowd poured in behind, followed closely by the city's red and yellow streetcars which had been held up by the parade. I waited, grimly clutching my suitcase and the lamp post, until the crowd began to thin out, then fought my way toward an imposing building at the end of the street opposite the Hotel Internacional.
The Presidential Palace was well-guarded, but no one was at home, so I walked through a serpentine maze of side streets, asking directions from every shoe-shine boy and hot-sauce vendor, until I found myself on the steps of the Ministry of War, trying to explain to a dubious sentry that I wanted to see the District Commander. My atrocious Spanish was more impressive than my logic, but I wore him down, and he led me into a small office where a major was in charge.
"Good afternoon. Be kind enough to state your business, Señor." He looked at me as if I'd been a stray dog.
"I wish to see the District Commander," I said, trying to act all of my seventeen years and then some.
The major's face was shadowed by a lowering cloud of perplexity. "And why do you wish to see the District Commander?"
"I require a permit to travel into the war zone."
"Incredible! On what business?" He reached into a box of lethal-looking cigars.
"I'm a correspondent, a journalist."
He narrowed his eyes and gave forth an evil-smelling puff of smoke which billowed around us. Between fits of coughing, I managed to draw a sheaf of papers from my coat pocket.
"Here are my credentials." I handed them to him with a flourish, as if from long practice.
These were, in fact, a motley collection of personal letters, bills, cancelled steamship tickets and other items having nothing at all to do with journalism. Indeed, the only letter which I had that pertained to my job as news correspondent was one from a San Francisco paper which said that my services were most definitely not required, but this I preferred not to show, just in case someone read English.
The major pretended to read through this mass of rubbish. "Ah, yes. In that case, please come with me."
We went up a flight of stairs and through some heavy wooden doors which opened into a guard-room, passed among some soldiers who were cleaning their equipment, and arrived at another large door which was hurled open by a big man in a bowler hat who nearly trampled us in his hurry to leave. We entered a great, high- ceilinged room and crossed over a wilderness of parquet flooring littered with the busts of national heroes and model cannon. I thought the room was empty until I noticed the general sitting at an ornate desk in one of the corners.
"Yes, who is it?" he said, not taking his eyes from a paper on the desk.
"It is a foreigner, General, who says he is a journalist." The major gave me a dubious glance.
"You are rather young-looking to be a journalist," said the general. "Please sit down."
"What is it you wish? Cigarette?" He offered me a 'Formidable' wrapped in brown paper.
"No thank you. Well, Sir, I need a permit to travel into the war zone."
"Is that all?" He took a cigarette for himself as the major departed.
I saw my first chance for an interview.
"Well, if it wouldn't be too much bother, General, I'd appreciate any information you'd care to give me on the latest developments."
He rose abruptly from his chair. Indicating the map on the wall, he began to pace up and down.
"I am at liberty to tell you only what you probably know already. Officially, there is no civil war, just banditry which government forces have successfully confined to the eastern plains districts. With the recent acquisition of modern arms and foreign advisors, it is a mere matter of time until the bandits are brought to justice."
"What do you estimate as being the strength of these, uh, bandits, General?"
"That is for me to know and for you to find out, if you are a good journalist, that is."
He sat back in his chair and blew a smoke ring up toward the plaster angels on the rococo ceiling. "There is one thing that most strongly advise you not to do, young man."
"I advise you most strongly not to go into the war zone."
"Then it is possible to go there?" I leaned forward in my chair with eagerness.
He shrugged. "Of course. Just as you wish."
The general took a piece of note paper from the blotter and wrote a few rapid lines, finishing the work with his flamboyant signature. A roll of thunder signalled the afternoon downpour.
"You will get wet," he said, handing me the paper, "but you must hurry if you are to catch the evening train. Good luck."
We shook hands and I was out the door like a shot. The soldiers in the guard-room looked up at me in surprise as I brushed past them, and I was in such a hurry that I nearly forgot my suitcase which I had left in the major's office.
Outside, the rain and hail seemed to come down with a special vindictiveness. The streets were several feet deep in water, and my linen suit was soaked in no time. It was quite warm, though, and I managed to navigate to the railroad station without feeling too uncomfortable.
By that time it was dusk, and the rain storm had become a drizzle that gleamed upon the flanks of the steaming locomotives which stood panting in long lines, their headlamps casting a yellow glare over the switch yard. Here and there, the beams caught the shining bayonets of sentries who tramped around the yard in rain- sodden uniforms.
I strode past large crates and boxes which cluttered the loading platform, stepping over rain puddles in a vain attempt to dry my shoes out.
The presence of so many 'no smoking' signs drew my attention to the contents of some of the crates: '30 cm. Granaten, Minenwerfer, 1916, Krupp'; '75 mm., 1917, Hotchkiss'; '5 Gewehr, 1898, Mauser." All very interesting.
"All very interesting, I'm sure!"
I turned and saw the tall Prussian captain whose lean face bore the scars of saber duels.
"Who are you, and what is your business here?" he demanded, prodding me on the chest with his riding crop which he wielded like a foil.
"I'm a journalist."
I reached into the sodden pocket of my coat, and discovered that my papers had congealed into a mass of inky pulp.
"Uh, I'm sorry, but I got caught in the rain and my papers are as you see them."
The Prussian shook his head and glared at me for a moment, then he began to laugh.
"We have rain, and the tracks are washed out. We have mosquitoes, and we all get malaria. We have delays which may cost us this campaign, and now we have a journalist who can't even keep his papers dry! This is ..."
He paused to clean his monocle, using a handkerchief which he kept in the cuff of his left coat sleeve.
"... a tragedy?" I ventured.
"No. The tragedy has been repeated too many times. We have all become buffoons in a comedy. Of course, I am obliged to shoot any unauthorized person found in the station area."
I stepped back in surprise, squarely into the two sentries who had approached us during our peculiar conversation. They encouraged me to go forward, using their rifle butts in the small of my back.
The Prussian stood for a moment, slowly tapping the top of his riding boot with the crop while he measured me up.
He was about to say something when a balding man in shirt- sleeves rushed up to him.
"Capítan, you are wanted in the telegraph office."
The Prussian motioned with his riding crop that we were to stay where we were, and he hurried off with the balding man.
"May I sit down?" I asked.
My two guards made no reply. They only looked at me as if I were the chief of the insurgents, and continued to stand rigidly to attention, side by side, with me sandwiched in between. A water flask was gouging my thigh and two cartridge pouches sought a meeting somewhere near my backbone.
"May I sit down?" This time I said it as clearly as possible.
Again, no reply. Then I realized that these sentries could have been Indians who spoke no Spanish. In any case, they would not speak to me, so I passed the time listening to the faint clicking of the telegraph key in the office and the soporific croaking of the vultures sheltered under the water tower. Rain still dripped from the station roof, and I began to feel sleepy despite my uneasy situation.
The Prussian reappeared, looking very agitated. For awhile he paced up and down on the platform, stopping now and then to look at his watch. I had begun to think he had forgotten me when he suddenly turned in my direction and asked my age.
"Seventeen," I said, too surprised to lie.
"Ach so. Too young for a spy, I should think, not to mention that a good spy would have his papers in order. Perhaps you are merely a bad spy. What is your business here?"
"I'm a journalist."
He brought his riding crop down upon a case of rifles with a resounding whack. "I know that!"
"Oh, I wish to entrain for the war zone."
"And so do I. There have been too many delays already."
A whistle sounded at the far end of the switch yard and a train chugged slowly into view, the yellow light from its headlamp making the wet rails gleam. Two locomotives, their boilers protected by thick steel plates and sandbags, were preceded by a flatcar loaded with rails and a second on which rode a Maxim gun and its crew. The locomotives hissed past us, pulling another flatcar with two French seventy-five millimeter field guns and their limbers. The remainder of the train carried troops, horses, supplies and munitions. It was aswarm with riflemen and observers. Rifle muzzles pointed out the coach windows, and the platforms were packed with so many well-armed troops that the train bristled like a hedgehog.
The French lieutenant who had been with the artillery in the parade stepped onto the station platform from the train as it rumbled to a halt, and saluted the Prussian who returned the greeting with his riding crop.
"Bad news," growled the Prussian. "The telegraph line has gone out between Las Aguas Station and Rio Negro. It may mean that the enemy has encircled General Miranda."
"Or it could mean that the telegraph has simply taken a siesta at our expense," joked the Frenchman, with a shrug of his shoulders.
The Prussian nodded, ignoring the intended humor.
"Yes, if only we knew . . . But we have delayed our reinforcements long enough. This train must get through this week or not at all. We leave as soon as the tenders are filled."
A safety-valve opened and the blast of escaping steam drowned out further conversation. The Prussian took the Frenchman by the arm, and they both disappeared into the telegraph office, returning to the platform once the noise had stopped.
The water spouts rose and tender hatches clanged shut just as the train whistled to get underway. Clouds of steam hissed from the cylinder cocks as the wheels began to turn, slipping at first on the wet rails, then biting in as the train gained momentum.
The Prussian leaped onto the second flatcar that carried the machine gun, and snatched a pair of binoculars from an observer who rode with the gun crew. The Frenchman stepped onto the flatcar with the seventy-fives, and shouted to me as the train passed.
"You're coming with us, aren't you? Well, get on!"
My unwelcome escort stood aside so suddenly that I nearly fell over. I grabbed my suitcase and ran to catch up with the Frenchman. The train was gaining speed, and I barely managed to jump on in time to avoid running off the end of the station platform.
I was received by the guncrews with friendly amusement and no little curiosity. They made a place for me and returned to their game of vingt-et-un which they dealt out laboriously from a deck of sticky cards whose numbers were legible only to those with good imaginations. Steadying myself against one of the limbers, I opened my suitcase, expecting to find all my belongings ruined by the storm. Fortunately, all seemed pretty dry, especially my blank notebooks which would soon be filled with the makings of my journalistic career. I shut the case and turned it to good use by sitting on it.
The flanges sang against the curves as we threaded our way out of the switch yard and found a straight single track which took us through the suburbs and shanty-towns on the outskirts of the city. Hordes of children gaped at us with vacant eyes and chewed on pieces of sugarcane with the absent-mindedness of cattle chewing their cud.
From the air, the city must have looked a paradise with white- walled houses and red-tiled roofs, palm trees caressing all with their shade, but down below the bougainvillia on the balconies, one could see the muddy streets that reeked of garbage and offal, made all the riper with the rain. Stray dogs of the mangiest variety roamed the town, alternately showing their teeth or putting their tails between their legs to suit the occasion. Drunks tottered out of dreary cantinas, trying to focus on us with bleary eyes, and flocks of vultures rose into the air, disturbed by our passage. A crowd of men paid no attention to the train, so intent were they on the result of a cockfight, even though we came near to hitting a few on the fringes of the mob as we swept past.
The stench of the city was soon gone, and the freshness of the rain in the country air was very good. The rain had let up, save for a few occasional drops, but the clouds promised more, and lightning flickered on the horizon. Frogs in the ditches were making a cheerful racket, and bats or nightbirds flitted on important errands. Ahead thundered the two locomotives, smokestacks shooting glowing cinders like twin volcanoes.
I was exhausted, and found a place under one of the tarpaulins which I shared with the guncrew. As I went to sleep, I heard the creaking and straining of the gun against its chain moorings and dimly realized that my head would be crushed if one of those wheels moved even a few inches. I woke up for a short time that night, partly because my feet were cold and wet, and partly because one of my fellows was a virtuoso snorer. I drew my legs under the tarp as well as I could and made the best of things until morning.
That morning we drank hot coffee made by the engine crew, some of whom laced theirs with aguardiente. We took on water at a place called La Cienaga, and sped on at full throttle. I had the enjoyable illusion that I was floating over the green country- side, with only the hard planks of the flatcar to jar me into reality.
We dashed through a jungle which made a green tunnel over the track, and startled brightly-colored macaws and other birds of every color of the rainbow. There were orchids growing on the sides of the railway cuts and hanging from the trees. The jungle smelled strangely of coffee. Soon we came out of the jungle and onto a savanna. The warm sun and lack of food made me drowsy, and I dozed off on top of a limber.
The next thing I knew, I was struggling for breath, trying to fight my way out of warm, slimy water. As I came to my senses I vaguely remembered flying through the air, and when I had finally got my eyes unstuck, I saw that I was standing knee-deep in an algae-covered pool beside the train.
Both locomotives had been derailed and were blowing off steam, their crews nowhere around. A soldier was lying face down in the water, a red stain spreading upon the green surface beside him. It was so dream-like that I shook my head and discovered that my ears were full of water. Once I had cleared them, I became aware of a rapid popping and cracking all around me, interspersed with the buzzing of angry bees.
The Prussian struggled past me in the mud, followed by some bleeding and dishevelled soldiers whose uniforms were caked with mud.
"Follow me, journalist, and you will become a man!" he bellowed.
"But, I'm a correspondent, a non-combatant," I said.
"Do you think the enemy knows or cares? You are with us, and you must fight. If we die, you die."
I struggled to keep up with him, almost losing my shoes in the clinging mud of the ditch. "But we could become prisoners."
"There are no prisoners in this campaign." He pulled me with him.
I stumbled along, passing the Frenchman and some of his crew who were attempting to right one of the seventy-fives which had tumbled into the mud. In the after sections of the train there was terrible confusion. Soldiers were jumping out of coach windows into the ditch, many without rifles or ammunition. Terrified horses were trying to kick their way out of splintered cattle cars. Men would crumple to the ground and not get up. There was a great deal of shouting and loud reports from guns fired by soldiers in the coaches.
We hurried past this pandemonium and came to a boxcar where several soldiers were working frantically to pry open the door. They had already bent several rifle barrels and broken the butts in their attempts when some thoughtful person arrived with a sledgehammer from one of the tenders. Soon we had the door open, and out came two machine-guns and belts of ammunition.
"Quickly!" shouted the Prussian. "Sergeant, take the first Maxim to the head of the train. I shall take the second to the rear, and we will set up a cross-fire. Lieutenant, have your men ready to light the fuses if we are overrun. On no account must this cargo be captured!"
With great effort we pushed, dragged and carried the heavy Maxim along the slippery embankment to the end of the train.
"Can you work this?" asked the Prussian.
"I think so." I said it with more confidence than I felt.
"Good. Remember to press the safety button forward. That's it, the one marked 'Sicher.' Yes, that's right. Now I must see to the troops. Do not bring the gun from behind the carriage until you see the enemy." He strode away, back into the confused and disordered soldiery.
I was left trying to load the Maxim. After the first few attempts I was pretty sure I had it right but I didn't try to fire for fear or giving away our little surprise. A lull in the firing encouraged me to look at the battlefield.
The train had been derailed and had lost any chance of escape from the enemy. Owing to the flatness of the terrain, the enemy had chosen to entrench himself on a low ridge which ran parallel with the rail line, and so was attacking the train from one side only. There was a large expanse of grassy field between the train and the enemy positions, making any attack over such open ground a suicidal proposition. Thus the soldiers were confined to the train not only to protect its valuable cargo of supplies and munitions, but to take advantage of the only defensive position available. Fortunately, the enemy seemed to have no artillery, but even so he was causing havoc among the soldiers with his machine-gun and rifle fire. It looked as if the enemy could trade shots with us as long as he liked, knowing that every man and hour lost would mean fewer reinforcements at the front. At the same time, the lay of the land made him almost invisible to us, so we could not be sure of exacting any casualties from him. In fact, we were virtually ignorant of the enemy's numbers and dispositions.
A ricochet off the coupling above my head turned my mind from fantasied military tactics to the unpleasant situation I was in. There was a good chance of my being wounded or killed, something I had forgotten in the excitement. Another possibility loomed into view in the person of a horseman who galloped unsteadily toward us from the enemy lines.
Some shots were fired by the soldiers until they recognized the rider's uniform as their own. The rider seemed unsure of his direction, and slowed somewhat as he approached the train. Two soldiers leaned out from under one of the coaches and grabbed the reins, leading the horse around my end of the train. As they passed, I noticed blood running down the frightened animal withers. Then I looked at the rider. His eyes had been gouged out and his throat cut, the tongue protruding through the slit as a necktie. I shuddered, seeing that he was still alive.
The cavalryman was freed from the ropes which bound him in the saddle and laid upon the ground by a group of soldiers who crowded around the dying man. Soon there was the muffled sound of a rifle shot, and the soldiers went back to their positions. The rider lay at rest on the trampled ground.
The enemy observed the effect of his message and resumed his hail of fire which was answered by one of the seventy-fives. A geyser of brick-red earth rose beyond the ridge, and a dull explosion boomed. Another shell exploded directly on top of the ridgeline, and another on the military crest. Small figures in straw hats could be seen scurrying back over the top of the ridge, accompanied by the cheers of the soldiers. Another shell burst beyond the ridge, raising a column of red dust and black smoke which drifted lazily in the rising wind of afternoon. Save for the squawking of vultures and the cries of the wounded, all was silent. I could even hear the grass rustling in the breeze.
Suddenly, there were hundreds of horsemen swarming over the ridge. They came directly toward us for a moment, then changed directions, splitting into two groups which made for each end of the train.
The Maxim was so heavy that it took me some time to maneuver it around the coach. At last I had it on the track and feverishly set about cocking and aiming it,
Rifle fire from the train brought down scores of horsemen, but was failing to prevent them from achieving their objective. I slammed in the first round and pressed the 'Sicher' button. The gun spat out three rounds and jammed. Traversing had twisted the ammunition belt.
"Venga!" I shouted to a young soldier who had just run out of rifle ammunition.
I showed him how to guide the belt so it would not jam the gun. At first I fired low, merely kicking up lots of dirt, until I found the range of the first group of horsemen. They seemed to melt into the ground, horses and men disappearing into the grass. The groups spread out, making more difficult targets. I managed to fire in bursts to conserve ammunition, and was able to thin out those groups of horsemen considerably, but they kept coming.
I was deafened by the noise of the Maxim, my nose filled with guncotton fumes, my nerves numbed by the recoil. I cursed my helper for letting the gun jam, until I realized the belt was used up. The first horsemen were barely fifty yards away as I tried to reload. My hands were unsteady and my fingers so numb that I knew I would not be in time. I felt a slap on my back. It was the Prussian.
"You are loading incorrectly. Don't be in such a hurry."
I looked around and saw some twenty or so of the soldiers standing as if for inspection.
"Fuego!" commanded the Prussian, but these men had no rifles. Instead, they hurled stick grenades in unison. The ground erupted in front of the horsemen, but even as they wheeled their mounts, the second barrage landed among them. By the time I was ready to fire at the nearest group, there were only a few pitiful horses hobbling around, but another wave was swooping in to engulf us.
I opened fire and time seemed to stand still. Horses rearing, riders sprawling, groups of lancers disappearing in shell bursts, never to reappear, grenades crashing; I was as abstracted from the battle as I would have been seeing a painting of it in a museum. The gun was no longer a weapon which I used. It was a machine, and I was an integral part of its mechanism. I was not angry at the charging horsemen, nor was I afraid. I simply made sure they went down.
Suddenly, there were no more horsemen. I stopped firing and stood up, weakly clutching the side of the coach for support, my ears ringing, throat dry. I looked over the field and saw that the horsemen had become rag dolls. They carpeted the meadow in grotesque poses. Only the horses looked natural, as if they had fallen asleep. Here and there, someone or something moved, but that was an exception. I noticed blood on my coatsleeve and discovered a gash on my arm. I hadn't felt a thing.
There was a commotion behind me, and I looked in the direction in which a soldier was pointing. A dozen horsemen were galloping hard at us from the rear. The soldiers were amazed, to be attacked by a dozen horsemen. Clearly, the enemy had gone mad.
The Prussian drew his pistol and took steady aim, emptying a saddle with every shot, until his magazine was used up, but still they came, the last two. He picked up a rifle and killed the first, but when he drew hack the bolt for the second shot, he found the magazine empty. At such close range, there was no way to save him from the lance of the second horseman.
There was no need to save the Prussian, anyway. He stepped aside, parried the lance with the rifle barrel, and in a graceful but deadly pirouette, dashed out the horseman's brains. The blow from the rifle butt raised the lancer out of his saddle and cart- wheeled him into the mud, leaving the riderless horse to gallop away toward the gathering rain clouds on the horizon. The lance had torn the Prussian's coatsleeve, but that was all. Some of the soldiers cheered.
They had little affection for him, but a lot of respect. To the soldiers, the Prussian captain was a kind of war god, a hard task-master who spared neither the men nor himself. In fact, he spared the men much more than himself, but he was raised in a harder school than they. The soldiers had never seen this combination of cool, directed ferocity and apparent disdain for danger. Some said that he was really the angel of death disguised in a blue uniform, and not human at all. He only ate and slept, they said, to keep up appearances. But human or not, they reasoned that it was best to stay on his good side.
I had my own ideas about the captain. I had never before seen the leadership principle demonstrated in such a forceful manner. Here was a man who ruled himself, and quite naturally ruled other, less willful men. It was his driving power, his will, that drove each man to do his best. Without him, this unit would have fallen apart, and every man and boy, including myself, would now be lying in the grass or the mud of the ditch. By driving us ruthlessly, he had saved us. Maybe the enemy's lancers understood and decided that this man must be killed at any cost. Otherwise why the last, determined effort by twelve men against overwhelming numbers? I considered this as I walked back toward the locomotives in search of my suitcase.
The train was a scene of hurried activity. Dead horses were butchered for rations and cooking fires lit in advance of the rain which was soon to come. I passed a group of soldiers who were kindling their fire with dynamite shavings. The smell of coffee made me realize that I was very hungry.
There was plenty of fresh horse meat to go around, and I accepted a well-done chunk which was skewered on a rifle cleaning rod. I was ravenous, and nearly broke a tooth on a piece of shrapnel embedded in the meat. A dead soldier's canteen yielded some aguardiente which took the powder taste out of my mouth. I resumed my stroll, chewing cautiously, and discovered my suitcase beside a pile of artillery shells. Aside from some scratches, it was intact and perfectly dry.
Hearing lewd shouts and catcalls, I looked up to see the Frenchman, assisted by some of the soldiers, achieve a precarious perch upon one of the telegraph poles. The soldiers thought this was very funny, though I could not appreciate the finer points of their rabelaisian humor. I watched the lieutenant as he spliced a telegraph key into the line. The capital was about to receive some news.
A young soldier came running up to us. "Señor, the captain invites you to accompany him!" He motioned that I was to follow, and in a great hurry, led me up the embankment.
We clambered over the derailed artillery flatcar. One of the guns, the one which remained on the car, was still aimed out over the charnel field, the barrel at maximum deflection. The gunners had fired over open sights during the last desperate rush, and now the gun pointed, like the finger of death, to heaps of broken bodies which fanned out as if they had been spewed from the muzzle of the gun itself. A plainsman's lance was firmly imbedded in the wooden flooring of the flatcar. That was how near they had come. On the other side of the embankment the Prussian and a native lieutenant were waiting with horses. Accompanied by a few of the cavalrymen, we mounted up and went off to do a quick reconnaissance of the battlefield. Soon we gained the top of the ridge and looked out over the vast expanse of the Llanos Orientales, the breeding ground of the enemy.
"Plainsmen," said the Prussian, indicating the sandals and peculiar palm leaf hats of some corpses in a trench. "All of the insurgents are from the Llanos. They breed like mosquitoes and fly in to pester the towns. Sometimes they are too much for the townsmen. Then they conquer them and become townsmen themselves. There is no end to it. In all of this struggle they are merely impoverishing the country and providing a market for arms and exercise for foreigners like ourselves. I don't complain. I'm a soldier, and this is my life, but it is obvious these people do not know how to run a country."
"They seem patriotic enough," I said, watching my horse prick its ears at the sound of distant thunder.
"Oh, yes, they love the flags and the parades, and woe to you if you criticize their country, but they cannot make the daily sacrifices nor suffer the constant discipline required to make a country. They are irresponsible, from top to bottom."
"Then they will probably be ruled by others."
"They already are, but they will not know this as long as they can fly their flags and sing their national anthems." Turning in his saddle, he shouted, "Teniente! Detail men to collect all weapons and ammunition. Tell them they can have any valuables on the bodies, but they must bring me the weapons. And Lieutenant, listen carefully: I shall give a gold piece to any man who brings me papers or maps."
The lieutenant saluted, made a smart about turn by rearing his horse, and went back to the train at a gallop.
"Incentive," said the Prussian, wiping his monocle with a clean handkerchief.
We rode back to the train and watched preparations for continuing the journey. The leading flatcar had jumped the track, but had not gone into the ditch as had the second. The rails were unloaded and the wheels put back on the track. Using levers, improvised ramps, blocks and tackle, horses and lots of cursing the two seventy-fives and their limbers were hoisted upon the flatcar, along with all the ammunition that could be placed aboard. Those in charge of the flatcar were taught the use of the handbrake, and hardwood chockblocks were placed fore and aft to insure against a runaway. A team of horses was chosen to pull this rolling munitions exhibit, using a special harness concocted from the combined harness of the limbers. With the loss of our steam power, we were back among the ancients as far as transport was concerned, and no match for them when it came to walking.
"General Miranda must have those guns," said the Prussian. "The real problem is getting them over the bad trails once they leave the railway."
He selected a group of cavalry to screen the line of march. Owing to the casualties among the mounts, there were many cavalrymen without horses. The number of mounted cavalry had to be pared down even more, as every horse was needed to carry supplies and munitions.
There was a lot of grumbling among the cavalrymen, the dandies of the army. Each man felt that the captain was grossly unfair to use his mount as a pack animal. Using any other man's horse was perfectly all right. Thus, I discovered that Latins have no objection to rules so long as exceptions are made for every individual. The Prussian was not amused. He expected his orders to be obeyed without question, whether his subordinates were cavalry darlings or infantry peons.
The festering resentment among the cavalry came to a head when one of the horses balked at carrying two cases of rifle ammunition. A young private who had been helping with the loading had been struck in the face with a cavalryman's riding crop. The indignant cuirassier accused the boy of hurting his animal. A crowd of loafers gathered, eager to fan the flames of rancor.
I saw the young soldier's face was bleeding. He was kneeling, quivering with pain from the blow, the blood oozing through his fingers where he held his cheek.
"Dog of a soldier," spat the cavalryman. "I'll teach you to mistreat my horse." He was playing to the audience.
I noticed how much importance these people vested in their concept of 'dignity,' but I suspected that the cavalry were really upset over the prospect of a tiring walk which would reveal them as pampered weaklings before the lowly infantrymen. The intricacies of Latin machismo were part of a new world for me.
"What is going on here?" bellowed the Prussian. "These pack animals must be loaded immediately. Private, why have you not loaded this horse?"
The boy soldier stood up, trying to control his sobbing. I recognized him as the one who had helped me with the machine-gun. "The gentleman will not permit it, Sir." His effort at military protocol was very touching.
"You have no right to use my horse in this fashion," said the cavalryman, striking a melodramatic pose to reclaim the center of the stage.
"Ach so," said the Prussian. "Would you rather carry these boxes yourself?"
The cavalryman drew his saber, only to find himself staring into the muzzle of the Prussian's Mauser pistol. The shot was no surprise, but it seemed to have that effect upon the cavalryman. His mouth gaped, and his eyes rolled upwards, as if to examine the place where his forehead had been. Overbalanced by his heavy breastplate, he toppled backwards and slid head-first down the trampled grass of the embankment, sinking into the stagnant pool of water in the ditch until only his expensive riding boots showed.
"Finish the loading, Private," said the Prussian. "General Miranda needs your ammunition. The rest of you have work to do as well. Go now, or I'll have you flogged." He cast a steely eye in their direction and assisted the slowest gawkers with the toe of his boot. The taste of his riding crop was not to their liking, either, and they scattered. He had no time for play-acting.
I accompanied him to see how the wounded were being looked after. They were only our wounded, of course. The enemy were left to die on the field where they had fallen. Flies buzzed in swarms, and the smell of blood pervaded the air.
The seriously wounded were made as comfortable as possible and left with a guard of walking wounded who could tend them. They were told that a train would arrive that evening or early next morning to take them back to the capital. For many, it was their last night.
We stopped beside a soldier with a stomach wound. He was moaning for water. The Prussian leaned over to examine the wound and frowned. "There is nothing to be done for this one. It is already turning septic. Take his boots. They are your size."
"Your shoes are ruined. Soon your feet will be sore. Then you will stop, but the column will not stop. The enemy will find you and you will die, just like any straggler in this campaign. You have already seen what happens to stragglers."
I remembered the pitiful remains of the tortured cavalryman and began to remove the dying soldier's boots as gently as possible. When I pulled at the first boot, he seemed to snap out of his delirium. He could have been my age, though the pain of his wound made him appear much older to me as I looked into his drawn face. His fevered eyes looked into mine with stark terror. Now he realized he would die. "No!" he screamed, struggling with me to keep his boots on.
He exhausted his last reserves of strength and lapsed into unconsciousness. As I pulled off the second boot, my hands were clammy with cold sweat and tears were streaming down my face. I said nothing as I changed out of my shoes.
The Prussian rested his hand on my shoulder. "You are very young," he said softly. "Life is hard. If it were not, it would not go on. At least he feels no pain now. Do not concern yourself about him. Dying is quite natural and unavoidable. You saw how he received the knowledge. Just think how you will receive it. Come, you have entered the world of men. There is no turning back."
I nodded, still unable to appreciate the cold comfort of the Prussian's words. I saw the face of the dying youth many nights thereafter.
It came to me that life was so abundant in this tropical zone that all things which were not vigorously alive soon fell prey to other forms of life and perished. A fantastic rate of reproduction insured that what could not endure could be replaced. Like nature, my fellows were indifferent to the creation and destruction of life, and I was already becoming one of them, but I was too tired to care.
With my new boots, I made hurried preparations for the march. I found a haversack, abandoned my suitcase, and wrapped my precious notebooks in oiled cloth to keep out the impending rain. I was issued with a Mauser rifle, leather pouches of ammunition and a greatcoat which could double as a blanket. My rations consisted of chunks of thoroughly-roasted horsemeat.
I gathered four canteens, as there was much equipment to choose from, and filled them with hot water from the boiler of one of the locomotives. I saw others filling theirs from the tenders, but had no wish to contract another case of dysentery. One performance was sufficient to make me cautious about what I ate and drank. Knowing thirst would be a problem, I drank as much water as I could hold.
As I passed the wrecked locomotive which had gone nose first into a mined culvert, I reflected that it would take days for another train to pass beyond this point. I saw the Prussian looking over the mess and shaking his head. It must have been as bad as I thought, or even worse.
He motioned for me to join him. "A single track line in marshy country. No way to go around. The train must be rerailed, car by car and towed back to the nearest siding, then the locomotives. Ach, I'm afraid this one is unsalvageable. See, its frame is twisted. Then the culvert must be repaired. New pilings must be driven."
"It almost sounds worse than it looks," I said, leaning against the brakewheel of the overturned flatcar. It seemed quite comfortable, standing ankle-deep in the stinking mud, using the wrecked flatcar as a backrest. I wondered if I were ever going to be my old self again. As it happened, I never had time to find out.
The Prussian appeared satisfied with the progress of the loading, and stooped to pick up a lump of coal which had spilled from the tender of the wrecked locomotive. He examined the dark, bituminous facets as a seer might examine a crystal ball.
I broke in upon his thoughts. "This flatcar was the one you were on, wasn't it?"
He said nothing at first, his mind far away. "Yes ... All of us managed to jump, but the machine-gun was put out of action."
"What happened to the engine crew?"
"They jumped too, but they chose the wrong side. You will find them lying in the field." He threw the lump of coal, scattering some vultures that were quarrelling over a heap of entrails.
I winced. "No thank you. I've seen enough corpses for one day."
"That is only one aspect of war. In fact, it is probably the least important aspect. Good military strategists can attain their ends without producing mountains of corpses."
"You sound like a humanitarian, Captain, if you'll pardon my presumption."
"Not at all. Modern warfare is very expensive. The cost of producing one corpse in battle is astronomically higher than in ancient times, but this is to overlook the major problems of war."
"What are those?"
"War is most complex in its economic aspects. Time, distance, supplies present problems alongside of which the problems of strategy and maneuver become insignificant. Today's contretemps remind me of the Turkish campaign in the Hejaz." He scanned the darkening horizon with his binoculars.
"How is that?" I shifted my feet in the mud.
"An army dangling on the end of a railway is never in a comfortable position, as my colleagues of the Turkish-Fourth in Medina soon discovered."
"What did they do about it?"
"Nothing. Medina is a holy city, and was of great political importance to the Turkish Empire, though I maintained that it was of even greater advantage, both militarily and politically, were it abandoned to the infidel British."
"How would that have been an advantage?"
"The Turkish Army could have shortened its supply lines and remained a viable force. A holy war could have been proclaimed to drive out the infidel, in due time, of course."
"Did you mention this idea to anyone?"
"Certainly. General von Sanders, the chief of our military mission, was convinced. He had seen the danger at the outset."
"Why wasn't anything done, then?"
"Ach, the Turks! There was no reasoning with them."
"So what finally happened?"
"The railway was cut so often that no attack could be mounted against the British from Medina. The original spearhead, the Fourth Army, became a mere garrison whose very numbers sapped its efficiency, even in a defensive role. Starvation reduced the army to virtual prisoners in the city. They finished the rats and were eating the palm trees when the British attacked and put an end to their misery. Only a handful returned to our lines. A whole army lost without a fight, and they dearly wanted to fight, believe me."
"Aren't we in much the same predicament?"
"By no means. The enemy is not using guerrilla tactics, as you have just had the opportunity to see. He is determined to take and hold territory. Thus we can close with him before our supplies are exhausted and defeat him decisively."
"And what if he uses guerrilla tactics?"
"As long as his guerrilla activities are not supported by a foreign power, he will get nowhere. He only becomes a nuisance in such a context as this."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"Let us say that you wished to take over this country. Recruits, weapons, munitions, supplies and transport are not to be found on trees, you know, and without them, the 'gentlemen' in the capital will see no good reason why they should simply hand over to you, whatever your shining ideals may be."
"No, I guess not."
"Suppose that you have managed to acquire a certain amount of the requisite items which could be used to induce the 'gentlemen' of the government to retire. You've never enough, of course. Would you use them? If so, how would you use them?"
"I might wait until I had enough."
"And in the meantime you might be betrayed by informers."
"Well, I might use what I had in limited engagements, sniping here, blowing up things there, always hit and run."
"And run you would, because you would be well-chased, usually by men better fed, equipped and mounted than you. Assuming you did not receive outside assistance, do you see anything but attrition in this process? If you survived indefinitely, you would only succeed in impoverishing the country."
"I could gain popular support."
"Only if you could convince people that the government was more rapacious, corrupt and incompetent than you."
"It could go on for years."
"Generations, provided that in your running around you did not become so isolated from the populace as to cut off your source of recruits. There would be every chance that, in your desperate attempts to survive, your means of living would gradually eclipse your original objectives and you would become just one more bandit tribe living in the backlands."
"In that case, there would be no use in carrying on the struggle."
"Or, you might try to concentrate your forces and mount one all-out attack on the government forces, relying on the element of surprise."
"But isn't that what the enemy has tried to do?"
"Yes, but there is never any guarantee of success, no matter what prescription is used for wresting power away from those who wish to retain it. The enemy has tried one recipe, and as a consequence, I believe we have hurt him badly today."
"And what about ourselves?" I looked over at the bedraggled assemblage of men and animals.
"Look around you. Do you see any of the enemy forces standing, ready to fight?"
"Look again at our soldiers. They are tired, but they are on their feet, and they are going to fight."
We formed up in a long, thin line upon the railroad track which provided the only firm footing for miles in the marshy pastureland of the area. Our few mounted cavalry formed a screen to the front and on either flank. To make up for the disadvantage of our disposition, the two Maxims were posted at the front and rear of the column, and packed upon the horses in such a way that they could be put into action at the first sign of trouble.
I looked up and saw a bird of prey hanging motionless in the last blaze of sunset. The shadows lengthened on the llanos and the horizon spawned dark thunderclouds which were sweeping our way.
The Prussian, mounted upon a fine-looking roan, raised his hand, and the bugler sounded 'forward march.' The rain began as we went up the line, leaving the vultures in command of the battlefield. My long march had begun.
I was very proud that the Prussian had left me in charge of the rear Maxim gun, although he probably wouldn't have if there had been anyone else left with the ability to use it. His relief column had been pieced together so hurriedly that I wondered how many of the soldiers knew which end of a rifle was which.
The rain was cool and refreshing and dripped off the brass cooling jacket of the Maxim, wetting the harness straps that held it in place. Soon the leather began to stretch.
"We must stop for a moment, Señor. The straps will soon give way," said my assistant, the young soldier who had been slashed by the cavalryman's whip. The blood on his cheek had stopped flowing, and he seemed to have forgotten about it. Perhaps he was used to such treatment.
I drew on the reins and stopped the pack horse, holding her steady while the boy tightened the straps.
"Please help me," he said.
Still holding the reins, I put my shoulder under the gun and raised it so the slack could be taken out of the harness. The weight was appalling. I wondered how I had managed to drag the gun and its mount onto the railroad line that day. The boy worked rapidly, his lips pursed in concentration as he made sure the knots were tight and would not slip.
"Not too tight," I said. "We may need this in a hurry, you know."
"Oh, yes." He smiled. With his dark eyes, smooth face and long lashes, he reminded me of a girl.
I gave the mare a flick of the reins, and we resumed our walk through the steady drizzle.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"How is that?"
"Federico. How old are you, Juan?"
He could have been younger, but it was nice having someone nearly my age calling me 'sir.'
"How long have you been in the army?"
"Since last month."
"Do you like it?"
"Sometimes, but I am beginning to miss my mother."
"Do you live in the capital?"
"Yes, in Barrio Plamenco."
I had heard that was one of the poorer quarters of the city.
"How many in your family?"
"You're not sure?"
"Only that there is always another. That is why I have joined the army. With my pay I can help my mother and my brothers and sisters. Is that why you joined the army?"
"No. I'm not a soldier. I'm a journalist."
His eyes widened in appreciation. "Oh, that means you can read and write. But how is it that you know how to use this?" He pointed to the Maxim.
"My father taught me. He was an officer in the California State Militia."
"He was a general?"
"No, a dentist." I tried to explain that duty in the militia was only part time, but I only succeeded in confusing him.
"What does your father do?" I asked, to change the subject.
"I don't know. He went away a long time ago. I hate him."
"I hate him for what he did to my mother. He made her very unhappy. Fortunately, I have many uncles who come to visit, and they help to take care of her."
"Oh." I gave him a dubious glance.
"Still, it must be nice to have a father. You are very lucky."
"I was, but my father died a year ago."
"No! How did that happen?"
"He caught pneumonia."
"A very bad sickness." I licked my lips and tasted the raindrops, salty with my own perspiration. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Juan shiver. "Do you feel cold?"
I put the back of my hand on his forehead. He was feverish. "You must take my coat. This rain is very bad for you."
"No, Federico. You will need it yourself."
"No, I won't. You need it now. I don't want you to catch pneumonia. It is very easy to catch, you know."
He made no further protest as I unrolled my greatcoat, put it over his shoulders and buttoned it for him. With his equipment and cartridge pouches bulging underneath, he looked like a walking circus tent, or like someone who was sneaking a few friends into the circus without paying.
Except for the incessant lightning, the rainswept night was pitch black. The wind blew the torrent almost horizontally, the cold drops drenching us thoroughly. Sleep was worth more to us now than gold, but the only way we could withstand the chill was to keep moving. There was no sleep for anyone that night. I plodded on, the patient horse beside me providing an illusion of warmth, even though I could not get very close because of my equipment. As I led the animal, I chewed some of my ration meat. No one felt like speaking, and if one had, his words would have been swept away in the wind-driven rain.
I felt Juan's forehead again and was glad to see that his fever had gone. Maybe it was caused by the cut on his cheek. He smiled impishly and placed an icy hand on the back of my neck. I gave a start and began to laugh. Somehow, the night had become more bearable.
We welcomed the sunrise. For hours I smelled the damp horses and wet uniforms ahead, but soon we were all dry. It was now the turn of the blazing sun to put us to the test. By eleven o'clock we were sweltering. Some of us began to long for the afternoon rainstorm. Soon we would be grateful for the chill of the night, forgetting our tooth-chattering discomfort. We were such a forgetful species, I thought, but without this amazing ability to forget, we probably wouldn't carry on.
Suddenly, we were all down upon the steaming railroad ties. A rifle had cracked in the distance. We strained our eyes for signs of the sniper, but all we saw were the grass and scrub trees of the savanna. Cautiously, I got up and began undoing the straps which held the machine-gun mount. Juan had already unloaded a box of belted ammunition by the time we heard the order to move out. We loaded up and plodded onward, at first throwing fearful glances to the flanks and rear, but later, with the heat and exhaustion, we lost our vigilance and with heads bowed, saw only the rough-hewed ties passing slowly beneath our halting feet.
Several hours had passed when we heard the invisible rifleman again. One of our men was killed. We stopped, gazed at the monotonous savanna and went on. By this time we were so tired we would have been utterly indifferent to a hail of bullets.
That afternoon we made a halt, ate more horsemeat, and rested for an hour. There was no time to kindle fires for coffee and little dry wood to be found in any case, since this was the rainy season. Reluctantly we got up and resumed the march.
Sweating so much, we soon began to suffer the keen thirst and exhaustion which come from loss of salt. The Prussian, seeing numbers of the men collapse or near collapse, ordered a halt by late afternoon, and we made camp for the night.
We had fires going before the rain started, were issued rations of salt, and drank great quantities of coffee made with water drawn from pools beside the railroad embankment. Strict orders were given that the troops were to answer the calls of nature on one side of the line and draw water from the other. The soldiers did not know why they were to do this, but the Prussian gave them his usual encouragement to do so.
The boiling of the water and the flavor of coffee disguised the taste of the algae, though it didn't remove all of the scum. I had drained my canteens during the day, and now refilled them with this coffee-flavored soup. Several times I had seen soldiers drink the water beside the embankment, and I was sorely tempted to do the same, mosquito larvae and all, but held back, knowing the soldiers were immune to most of the waterborne infections and that I was not. It was an exercise of willpower that I never regretted.
Mercifully the rain stopped, and raised our hopes for a dry night. It was not as cold as the previous night, so sleeping on the damp ground was not so bad, even though the occasional frog might jump on one's face.
In addition to the usual sentries, teams of men were posted with the horses to protect the precious animals from vampire bats which had decimated the cattle in the area. We were fortunate in one way, there were so many men and so few animals that Juan and I weren't called for sentry duty.
We shared my greatcoat which was not much good as a blanket, but helped to retain some of the warmth of our huddled bodies. In a few minutes I was sound asleep, just as if I had been in the softest bed of the Hotel Internacional. No thoughts of vampires or even the occasional shots of the sniper could keep me awake that night. For all I cared, they could have been on the moon.
Toward morning I had a nightmare about the dying soldier. Somehow I felt responsible for his death. I saw his eyes, full of pain, fear and pleading. We were struggling and I was saying over and over that I didn't mean to do it, but he didn't understand. I reached out to touch his face and woke up.
"Federico, Federico! Everything is all right. You were dreaming."
"Juan," I said, or rather, sobbed.
"You are crying."
"Sometimes I cry at night, too," he said, wiping my tears away.
I drew him close and we fell asleep with our arms around one another.
We broke camp at dawn and resumed the trek, feeling rested and even cheerful. Youth has such advantages.
Four days later we left the railroad at the smoldering ruins of Las Aguas Station and entered the stands of trees and rolling country of the sierra foothills. Now the real work began, that of widening and levelling the trail for the passage of the limbers and guns. The toil of manhandling them over the streams and through the narrow canyons was shared by everyone. Ropes were attached to the gun carriages so that teams of soldiers could help the horses drag them over the many obstacles. The Frenchman called the ropes 'prolonges,' a fancy name, but they raised blisters on one's hands all the same.
Trees were felled with axes and machetes and used as bridging material for crossing the many streams that had appeared in the area since the rains. It was no wonder that the last railroad station was called 'Las Aguas,' or 'The Waters,' although most of the freshets would dry up after the rainy season.
I winced, seeing one of the guns slip sideways, nearly toppling into a ravine. The soil was red laterite which baked hard in the dry season and turned to slippery mud in the rain. A few inches below the surface it was brick-hard, and the covering of gruel-like mud made going very treacherous on the slopes where there was no vegetation. Men and horses frequently lost their footing.
A load of shells dropped into a water-filled arroyo along with the unfortunate animal that bore it. The soldiers dragged the struggling horse out of the ravine and laid the exhausted animal upon the muddy bank, while others waded into the water and passed up the spilled shells.
"Its leg is broken," pronounced a corporal, after feeling the horse for signs of injury.
A private responded by smashing the animal in the head with his ride butt. After stunning, he rammed his bayonet between the horse's eyes. The dying horse was set upon by the ravenous soldiers, hungry as pirañas. It was still twitching feebly as they skinned it and hacked off pieces of warm flesh. A soldier sank his face into the blood and noisily sucked it up. I had concluded some time ago that the horses were far more civilized than we were, and was momentarily ashamed at the discovery that my mouth was watering. Maybe our ideas of civilization were more suited to grazing animals than to omnivores.
As I stood watching this gory business, I felt a warm pressure on my foot. It was my own pack horse, placidly licking the encrusted salt off my boot. Even the animals were becoming accustomed to slaughter.
Suddenly a bullet whined, ricocheting off the machine-gun mount strapped to the horse's side. As I hit the ground I thought I had seen the flash of something metallic in a clump of bamboo off to my right. Someone in the column let off a shot in surprise or panic, with no visible effect. I peered at the bamboo, straining to glimpse the metallic flash. It could have been my imagination, maybe a sunbeam glancing off a wet leaf. Horses' hooves clumped and slithered on the adobe mud. I turned to see a native lieutenant with a few cavalry.
"Hola, Teniente!" I called.
He rode toward me. "What is it?"
"I saw something in that stand of bamboo."
"I'll call the captain." He spurred his horse.
The Prussian came in a few moments, accompanied by a flying squad of sharpshooters and regular infantry with light equipment. The skirmishers went out in a pincer movement as the Prussian observed the bamboo through his binoculars.
"Do you wish to see?" He offered me the field-glasses.
"Thank you." I made a minor adjustment and focussed on the bamboo. A tattered man came running out, running toward us, soldiers at his heels. He faltered and collapsed behind a bush. The soldiers raised their bayonets and thrust downward. Soon they were with us, displaying a pair of human ears and an extra rifle.
"He was impatient," said the Prussian. "The trees made him come too close."
"Federico!" It was Juan. He was pale, and weakly supported himself by clutching the harness straps of our pack horse. I caught him just as he began to slump to the ground. There was a large bloodstain spreading over his shirtfront and trousers. I laid him down and opened his shirt. From what I could see, with all the blood flowing, there was a jagged wound in his side. The ricochet had done it.
"We cannot save him," said the Prussian.
I shook my head in disbelief.
"You must leave him now. The column is moving on. There may be more enemy forces in this area, and we must not straggle. Do you hear me?"
I nodded and looked down at Juan.
"Federico." He reached out to me.
"I shall carry him," I said.
"You love him, don't you?" said the Prussian.
I looked into the captain's expressionless blue eyes. "Yes!" I shouted.
I removed Juan's equipment and lifted him in my arms. Without a word the Prussian took the reins of the pack horse and walked ahead of us.
"You will not leave me, Federico," Juan murmured.
"No." I pressed my cheek to his.
"I am cold." His voice grew fainter.
He couldn't hear me. Gently I laid him on the damp ground beside a thorn bush. His eyes were closed and he had the faintest trace of a smile on his smudged face. A lock of black hair fell down over his forehead.
"You see, Juan, I haven't deserted you."
The Prussian thrust his pistol into my hand, "Here, if you want to join your friend, use it."
I stared at the Mauser, then turned the muzzle toward me and looked into the inscrutable blackness of the barrel.
"No," I said, returning the pistol.
"All right." He thumped me on the back. "Let's go!"
He gave me the reins and walked beside me until we reached the rear of the column, both of us singing some German song about a hunter in a beautiful green forest. The soldiers thought we had gone mad with the heat. The next few days, I threw myself into the work, seeking the solace of exhaustion.
As it grew dark on the ninth day, I heard or imagined I heard gunfire booming sporadically in the distance, and as we continued our advance, the sounds became unmistakable. A battle was taking place somewhere ahead of us. The column quickened its pace.
General Miranda's headquarters was being attacked, but we had no idea of the distance we had to go. The foothills echoed the gunfire and soon it seemed to come from every direction.
Around midnight, we found ourselves on a road of sorts. True enough, it was more like a streambed, but compared to the way we had come, it was like a royal highway. Cavalry scouts rode ahead, straining to see something in the cloudy night.
Suddenly, I heard the crash of a ragged volley. A bugle blared off-key, and there was cheering. A rifle shot flashed in the trees and the column returned the fire, but ceased on orders of the officers. There was no more firing from the woods. The cheering grew louder as we advanced. Soon the column was surrounded by a jubilant mass of soldiers. We had broken the siege of Las Aguas. Coming to a halt, most of us collapsed beside the road and slept where we fell.
I woke up sooner than I had intended when a horse began licking the perspiration from my face. It must have been the middle of the day. The sun was blazing down. For a moment I lay still, listening to the ring of machetes chopping firewood, the bray of mules, the jingle of harness and equipment and the desultory conversations of nearby soldiers. The aroma of coffee dispelled further thoughts of sleep, and I found a stream where I washed and put on a clean shirt. Looking in my pocket mirror, I was disappointed to see that I still didn't need a shave.
After a cup of delicious coffee, brewed in a German gasmask tin, and a chunk of roasted horsemeat which I warmed over a fire, I gathered my notebooks and walked up the path to the hacienda where General Miranda had his headquarters. It looked very much like a castle from the foot of the hill, complete with a white tower which rose out of the central patio. Haciendas in the backlands were like sugar cubes to the swarms of bandit flies, so they were fortified out of necessity rather than romantic taste.
I was startled by the roar of an internal combustion engine Looking around, I saw a yellow biplane soar over the palmettos on a nearby ridge. Soldiers cheered and waved their caps as the plane swooped down over the tents and earthworks, and I could see the pilot was smiling, though his features were otherwise masked by his goggles and aviator's helmet. If he hadn't looked so friendly, the twin machine-guns at his front cockpit would have given me a scare. I waved my battered Panama hat.
He dipped his wings to salute us and rose almost vertically into the air, stalled, and dove straight down, coming out in a tight loop. Making no attempt to right his plane, he flew off over the horizon, upsidedown. I stared after him in amazement.
The frantic yells of a dispatch rider caused me to tear my eyes from the horizon, and I jumped off the narrow path, just avoiding being trampled as the rider swept by.
In a slightly shaken state I arrived at the main gate of the hacienda and was admitted by two sentries. Passing a machine-gun emplacement and some lounging soldiers, I entered the patio. A fountain splashed exuberantly, refreshing the horses and men who drank from its green waters. Sentries paced along the walls and women chattered as they prepared the afternoon meal. My hobnails rang upon ancient tiles which had been plundered from some Moorish palace in Spain. Crossing the patio, I came to the tower entrance which was guarded by two more sentries. They allowed me in with no questions. I followed the many telephone lines which led through a maze of crowded rooms and corridors until I found General Miranda.
He was in a vortex of confusion, but seemed to maintain a regal calm, standing imperturbably at a large map table, flanked by staff officers who apparently held contradictory points of view. They stabbed their fingers at the man and vied for his attention, all speaking at once. Added to their babble was the frantic ringing of telephones in the next room, combined with the rapid clicking of a telegraph instrument. Messengers came and left so frequently that I began to believe there was some kind of competition going on, the rules of which I could not understand.
On the outskirts of this confusion stood two soldiers in charge of a machine-gun which was aimed out one of the tower loopholes. Casually, they smoked their cigarettes and looked quite unconcerned. I imagined they felt superior to the staff officers who rushed about like insects trapped in a burning box.
Gradually the room became quieter and I found a chair. Most of the staff officers had received their orders and had left on various missions. The messengers seemed sated with outgoing dispatches and the telephones calmed down. Only the telegraph key clicked on persistently. It was so quiet I could hear the rumble of artillery or thunder in the distance. Ignoring me, the general lit a cigarette and studied the map.
Then the door burst open, and in came the big man in the bowler hat. I remembered him from the District Commander's office in the capital. He looked like a person who was always in a hurry, in whose path conspirators placed doors and other obstacles with the sole purpose of wasting his valuable time. He removed a paper from his briefcase as he strode over to the map table and handed it to the general with no introductions. The general read the paper and appended it with a long statement which he signed and returned to the man with the bowler who left as suddenly as he had come. Except for the two soldiers, General Miranda and I were alone.
"It may interest you to know," he said in English, "that I suspect that man of being a spy. It appears that he may have an unfortunate accident very soon, but I really know nothing about this matter, you understand."
The general dropped his cigarette on the floor and ground it out with the heel of his riding boot. He drew a fine gold pocket watch from his tunic and looked at the time with studied nonchalance. From the patio came the crack of a rifle which made lonely echoes among the walls of the hacienda and was soon joined by the rumble of thunder or artillery in the distance. The general looked satisfied and returned the watch to his pocket.
I returned to my blank notebook and my bitten pencil, the sum total of my journalistic efforts. Here I was, in the brain center of the campaign, but I was helpless. The general and his staff refused point blank to make any comments about the military situation. I was mystified by the few sentences I could make out on the telegraph. The map before me had no place names, only numerical and alphabetical designations. My experience of the war so far had not provided the stuff with which to make a newspaper article, as my jaded editors would likely reject a battle story which had simply popped out of context. I relapsed into chewing my pencil.
The soldier had already said something before I realized he was speaking to me.
"Yes, what is it?" I looked up from my doodles.
"Captain von Mannerheim's compliments, Señor. He has sent me to tell you that your horse is waiting outside."
I rose from my feeble efforts at composition and followed him, leaving my pencil and notebooks forgotten on the chair.
Thunder rolled off somewhere in the distance, and the rain splattered with less vehemence upon the shining cobbles outside the cantina. Don José lit the hurricane lanterns, the electric lights having failed in the storm. The smell of kerosene complemented the cantina's musty aroma of stale beer and mildewed wallpaper,
"So you forgot your notebooks," said the young American. "Did you go back for them?"
"No," I said. "I would have made a lousy journalist anyway. For example, I don't even know your name, and we've been sharing our life stories most of the afternoon."
"Charles," he said, shaking my hand.
"Fred. You intend to be here long?"
"If you don't find work here, are you going back to the States?"
He gave me a bleak look. "Go back? To what, a ruined career? A job with the C.I.A.? I'd do nearly anything not to go back."
"Sounds as if you've had some differences of opinion with the backroom boys who run the U.S. Well, to up-date Mr. Fields, I'd say that any man accused of treason by those crooks can't be all bad."
He smiled. "So what do you do for a living?"
"As little as possible. I'm a tropical tramp."
"A tropical tramp. You see, first you've got to become proper tramp."
"No, it isn't. You think I mean a bum or down-and-outer. Those aren't tramps."
"Okay, so you qualify as a tramp and then you hit the tropics."
"Ah, but that doesn't make you a tropical tramp."
"No. You need more qualifications."
"Like you've got to learn the lingo they speak here, and you have to travel around these parts for a couple of years."
"So then I become a tropical tramp. Then what?"
"Then you start working to qualify for the next grade."
"The next grade?"
"Right. If you show diligence and pass all the exams, you may qualify as a Typical Tropical Tramp."
It did me good to see him laugh.
A whistle sounded moist and clear in the evening air.
"Well, that's my boat. I'm off." I finished my beer.
"You going up or down river?" asked Charles, handing me my old suitcase.
"Down, then back to the States for a visit. I've got some business to wind up."
"I'll carry your suitcase and see you off, then, if you don't mind."
"Thanks, much obliged." I gave it back to him."
The rain was gentle, but soaking, so I hailed a victoria which had just let off a passenger at the door of the cantina. "Al embarcadero, Señor, y rápido, por favor," I said, prodding the driver with a handful of coins.
We got in. The driver gave the two nags a flick of his coach- whip and we proceeded smartly through the gleaming cobbled streets, the rain pelting pleasantly upon the cloth top of the carriage.
"This is travelling in style," said Charles.
"And it's quiet, smokeless, and saves foreign exchange."
"If I could live at my own pace, this would be my speed."
"Same here. Most things people do don't really justify so much hurry, anyway." I slouched comfortably in the seat.
"You know, I've got a strange feeling I've seen you someplace before."
"Me? I doubt it. You know the old Chinese saying, 'all Caucasian look alike.'"
"I'm pretty sure I have, all the same."
"Stop here, Driver! Charles, this is where you get out." The driver pulled on the reins and brought the carriage to a halt.
"I don't understand." Charles' eyes widened.
"You want a job, don't you?"
"Well, just step right out and knock on number thirty-eight over there, and if you are what you say you are, you'll be gainfully employed.
"Well, I ..."
"If you're trying to thank me, don't. You may be getting a lot more than you bargained for. All right, the steamer is waiting. Out you go. Déle, hombre!"
The driver whipped up the horses and we lurched away. From the rear window I watched him as we drove down the narrow street. He stood in the rain, looking bewildered at first and undecided. Then he seemed to make his mind up. I saw him turn and stride toward the black door numbered thirty-eight.
"Arrives at quick decisions and follows them through with determination." That was Charles, all right. I had read his dossier.