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answered; and three men, mounted upon mules, crashed through the tropic tangle to within a dozen yards of the river's bank. There they dismounted; and one, unbuckling his belt, struck each mule a violent blow with his sword scabbard, so that they, with a fling of heels, dashed back again into the forest.
Those were strange-looking men to be conveying beef and provisions. One was a large and exceedingly active man, of striking presence. He was of the purest Spanish type, with curling, graybesprinkled, dark hair, blue, sparkling eyes, and the pronounced air of a caballero grande. The other two were small, brown-faced men, wearing white military uniforms, high riding boots and swords. The clothes of all were drenched, bespattered and rent by the thicket. Some stress of circumstance must have driven them, diable à quatre, through flood, mire and jungle.
“0-hé! Señor Almirante," called the large man. “Send to us your boat.”
The dory was lowered, and Felipe, with one of the Caribs, rowed toward the left bank.
The large man stood near the water's brink, waist deep in the curling vines. As he gazed upon the scarecrow figure in the stern of the dory a sprightly interest beamed upon his mobile face.
Months of wageless and thankless service had dimmed the admiral's splendour. His red trousers were patched and ragged. Most of the bright buttons and yellow braid were gone from his jacket. The visor of his cap was torn, and depended almost to his eyes. The admiral's feet were bare.
“Dcar admiral,” cried the large man, and his voice was like a blast from a horn, “I kiss your hands. I knew we could build upon your fidelity. You had our despatch — from General Martinez. A little nearer with your boat, dear Admiral. Upon these devils of shifting vines we stand with the smallest security.”
Felipe regarded him with a stolid face.
“Provisions and beef for the barracks at Alforan,” he quoted.
"No fault of the butchers, Almirante mio, that the beef awaits you not. But you are come in time to save the cattle. Get us aboard your vessel, señor, at once.
You first, caballeros —á priesa! Come back for me.
The boat is too small." The dory conveyed the two officers to the sloop, and returned for the large man.
“Have you so gross a thing as food, good admiral?” he cried, when aboard. “And, perhaps, coffee? Beef and provisions! Nombre de Dios! a
little longer and we could have eaten one of those mules that you, Colonel Rafael, saluted so feelingly with your sword scabbard at parting. Let us have food; and then we will sail - for the barracks at Alforan - no?"
The Caribs prepared a meal, to which the three passengers of El Nacional set themselves with famished delight. About sunset, as was its custom, the breeze veered and swept back from the mountains, cool and steady, bringing a taste of the stagnant lagoons and mangrove swamps that guttered the lowlands. The mainsail of the sloop was hoisted and swelled to it, and at that moment they heard shouts and a waxing clamour from the bosky profundities of the shore.
“The butchers, my dear admiral,” said the large man, smiling, “too late for the slaughter.”
Further than his orders to his crew, the admiral was saying nothing. The topsail and jib were spread, and the sloop glided out of the estuary. The large man and his companions had bestowed themselves with what comfort they could about the bare deck. Belike, the thing big in their minds had been their departure from that critical shore; and now that the hazard was so far reduced their thoughts were loosed to the consideration of further deliver
ance. But when they saw the sloop turn and fly up coast again they relaxed, satisfied with the course the admiral had taken.
The large man sat at ease, his spirited blue eye engaged in the contemplation of the navy's commander. He was trying to estimate this sombre and fantastic lad, whose impenetrable stolidity puzzled him. Himself a fugitive, his life sought, and chafing under the smart, of defeat and failure, it was characteristic of him to transfer instantly his interest to the study of a thing new to him. It was like him, too, to have conceived and risked all upon this last desperate and madcap scheme — this message to a poor, crazed fanatico cruising about with his grotesque uniform and his farcical title.
But his companions had been at their wits' end; escape had seemed incredible; and now he was pleased with the success of the plan they had called crack-brained and precarious.
The brief, tropic twilight seemed to slide swiftly into the pearly splendour of a moonlit night. And now the lights of Coralio appeared, distributed against the darkening shore to their right. The admiral stood, silent, at the tiller; the Caribs, like black panthers, held the sheets, leaping noiselessly at his short commands. The three passengers were watch
ing intently the sca before them, and when at length they came in sight of the bulk of a steamer lying a mile out from the town, with her lights radiating deep into the water, they held a sudden voluble and closeheaded converse. The sloop was speeding as if to strike midway between ship and shore.
The large man suddenly separated from his companions and approached the scarecrow at the helm.
“My dear admiral,” he said, “the government has been exceedingly remiss. I feel all the shame for it that only its ignorance of your devoted service has prevented it from sustaining. An inexcusable oversight has been made. A vessel, a uniform and a crew worthy of your fidelity shall be furnished you. But just now, dear admiral, there is business of moment afoot. The steamer lying there is the Salvador. I and my friends desire to be conveyed to her, where we are sent on the government's business. Do us the favour to shape your course accordingly."
Without replying, the admiral gave a sharp command, and put the tiller hard to port. El Nacional swerved, and headed straight as an arrow's course for the shore.
“Do me the favour," said the large man, a trifle restively, “to acknowledge, at least, that you catch the sound of my words.” It was possible that the