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Who Goes There? by Rowland W. Cater

 

The world is but a huge playground, after all; and just as the sympathy of those who witness a fight between two boys—one of whom is a big fellow and a reputed bully, while the other is a plucky youngster but one-half his opponent's size—invariably goes with the smaller and weaker combatant, so it is even amongst nations. Thus, early in the past century, when the tiny States of Spanish America were keenly struggling with the mother-country in their endeavour to cast off the Spanish yoke, practically the whole world wished them the success which eventually crowned their efforts.

It seems ridiculous to call them "tiny" States when the smallest of those of which we are treating—the Republics of Central America—could find room for all the counties of Wales; while, if we were able to set down the whole of England upon the largest, we should find not only that it fitted in comfortably, but that the foreign State would yet have a goodly slice of land to spare—sufficient, at any rate, to accommodate three or four cities of the size of London. I call them tiny, therefore, solely because they are such when compared with other countries on the American Continent, such as Canada, the United States, and Brazil.

During the years 1820 and 1821 a very keen spirit of independence was manifested in those regions, and by 1823 the last link of the rusty chain which had bound those colonies to Spain was snapped altogether beyond repair; and then, for a time, Central America became part of the State of Mexico. One by one, however, the colonies withdrew, and in 1824 the independent Republic of Central America was formed, which, in its turn, was dissolved; and ever since the States have been continually at war—either with their neighbours or amongst themselves.

It is these incessant wars and revolutions which have given the country its present rather bad name, and have convinced those who happened to sympathise with the inhabitants when they were fighting for their independence that, after all, they had fared better even under the lame government of Spain than they have done under their own.

The present-day native of Central America can scarcely be said to be an improvement on the inhabitant of 1824. He still retains the fire and ire of the Spaniard in his blood—in fact, he is nothing short of an unfortunate mixture of the fiery Spaniard and the extremely restless Indian. Small wonder, then, that "peace" is quite a luxury in those parts, and that revolutions break out periodically.

In Nicaragua—the country with which my tale is concerned—this is especially the case. One year passed without a revolution is a rarity; and I have gone through certainly not less than four such outbreaks. While the trouble exists it is decidedly inconvenient and uncomfortable for the foreigner, but the real danger is often sadly exaggerated. During one of these disturbances, nevertheless, I narrowly escaped coming into serious conflict with the authorities—and all through a boyish freak, which at any time would have been boyish, but amounted almost to madness when played in the very heart of a town under martial law. When I first set foot on Central American soil, however, my majority was still many months ahead of me, and I had not yet done with that period of puerile frivolity through which most youths have to pass. Thus I will offer no other excuse, but will merely relate what took place.

A pig—a common or garden pig—was at the bottom of it all. The natives are very fond of pork indeed, and nearly every household boasts of at least one porker, which is allowed the entire run of the house and looked upon almost as "one of the family." The air in the town where I was staying at the time had suddenly thickened with rumours of war; and it was a well-known fact that some thousands of men were ready to shoulder their rifles at a given signal and, with a few well-tried veterans at their head, to make a mad and murderous rush upon anything and everything belonging to the Government.

In such cases nothing is too bad for either party, excepting perhaps interference with foreigners, whom, owing to one or two severe lessons received of late years, the natives have now learned to respect. Fusillades in the centre of a town, a sudden charge with the bayonet in a thronged market-place, the unexpected firing of a mine, and similar proofs of the "patriotism" of one party or the other, may be expected at any moment; and although pretending to inclusion in the list of civilised nations, either party will spurn the idea of notice or warning previous to the bombardment of a town. Every one is on the alert, and the tension is trying indeed if it happens to be one's first "revolution."

Bloodthirsty natives, speaking scarcely above a whisper, may be seen in small groups at almost every street corner, and in such quarters of the town where reside known sympathisers with the attacking party much military movement is noticeable. Every few hundred yards are stationed pickets of gendarmes or barefooted soldados; and after dusk, no matter who you be or what your errand, you stand every chance of a bullet should you fail to give prompt satisfaction on being challenged with the usual quien vive?

And so it was on the occasion to which I have alluded. Everybody's nerves were strung up to a painful pitch, and any unusual noise—any sound, almost, above a half-smothered cough—would bring fifty or sixty reckless gendarmes, with fixed bayonets, to the spot in a very brief interval. It was generally looked upon as certain that an assault upon the town—in which one half the inhabitants were willing, nay, even anxious to join—would commence before morning; and an ominous silence prevailed.

Then it was that my "little joke" or scheme was hatched. I was indulging in a quiet game of "cannons" on a small French billiard-table in my hotel, and during the game had been several times annoyed by the proprietor's favourite pig, which insisted every now and then on strolling beneath the table, to emerge on the other side quite unexpectedly and bump heavily against my legs just as I was squaring for some difficult shot. The brute had done this at least four times, with the result that my opponent was many points to the good. I had often licked him at the same game before, so the reader must not imagine that I am merely excusing my own play—it was the pig's fault, without a doubt, and I was beginning to lose my temper.

"I'll teach that pig a lesson when the game is over," I remarked to my opponent; and, in effect, I had soon put away my cue, and, cornering the porker, fastened a piece of cord to his hind trotter. A large empty biscuit-tin and a bunch of Chinese crackers did the rest—the tin being secured to the other end of the line and the crackers nestling snugly inside the tin.

The natives who stood around watching these preparations evidently foresaw certain results which my boyish vision failed to reach, for they whispered and laughed to one another, and at intervals, rubbing their hands together with glee, would exclaim, "A good joke." "Eh! a good joke, you see!"

The whole town was startled a few minutes later by the uproar, and the shouts and laughter of those who witnessed the porker's departure from the hotel.

Lighting the tiny fuse attached to the crackers, I put them back again into the tin, and a kick at the latter was sufficient to startle the hog off at a gallop down the street.

The slight pull on his hind leg caused by the weight of the tin evidently annoyed him, and, wishing to get away from it, he ran the faster.

Boom! boom! The biscuit-tin swung from side to side at every pace, and each time it struck the ground with a noisy report which in itself was sufficient to arouse the already alarmed town.

Then, the fuse having burned down, the crackers commenced business. Bang! bang! Burr-rr—bang! Burr-rr—bang-bang-BANG! they went, the vibrations of the tin adding volume to each detonation; and it would be difficult indeed to imagine a better imitation of a distant fusillade. The frightened hog only went the faster.

I was running behind, endeavouring to keep up with the pig, for I did not wish to lose any of the fun; but he soon out-distanced me, although I was fortunate enough to be within ear-shot when the crackers gave their final kick.

Bang! bang! Burr—rr—bang! Bang! BANG!

Then began the fun. The inhabitants crowded to their doors to inquire in which direction the attack on the town had commenced, and the military were tearing hither and thither, like so many madmen. Big generals in their shirt-sleeves galloped through the streets on little horses, collecting their men; pieces of artillery were rushed out of the barracks and held in readiness; scouts went out to reconnoitre in every conceivable direction, and the military band, playing all the national airs within their ken, paraded the public square, halting every now and then so that an officer might read to the public the Commandante's orders to the effect that all the inhabitants must remain indoors under pain of all sorts of outrageous and impossible penalties.

In view of the latter, however, I deemed it wise to give up my chase and return to my hotel, there to await developments; and as I retraced my steps cries of El enemigo! El enemigo! hailed me at almost every pace. Hundreds of questions as to the whereabouts of the attacking forces were hurled at me as I went, but I dared not stop to respond, or without a doubt I should have betrayed myself. At the onset, boylike, I had considered this a "splendid joke," but now the alarm was so widespread that I did not know whether to feel startled by the result or flattered to think I had succeeded in putting an entire town in an uproar.

I thought of the pleasure that would be experienced by the ordinary "romp" at home were he able to make so vast an impression with his everyday practical jokes; and it was to me a matter of tremendous wonder that a harmless biscuit-tin, a common or garden firework, and a "domestic" pig could possibly combine to cause such intense excitement.

With very great difficulty I managed to pass the various pickets stationed along the streets, being detained by each one for cross-examination; and ere I reached my hotel I was overtaken by half a company of soldados returning to barracks with a prisoner. Then my conscience began to prick me.

"This has gone rather too far," I thought. "I did not intend to do any one an injury, but only desired to teach that wretched porker a lesson." In fact, I felt distinctly uncomfortable as I trudged along, and somewhat alarmed at this new turn of events; and I resolved that in the future I would look ahead before attempting even the commonest practical joke.

When I reached the spot where the next picket was stationed, I was surprised to find that the men failed to challenge me. I was getting quite used to the "Who goes there?" which had met me at every street corner, and the absence of it in this case made me somewhat suspicious. The explanation was not long in coming. I found them all in fits of laughter; and, availing myself of the opportunity which their mirth afforded me, I made inquiries as to the name of the prisoner who had been marched past me a few minutes ago. My question provoked more mirth, but I eventually secured the information, which had the effect of adding my mirth to theirs, for I learned that the prisoner was—a pig with a tin tied to his leg.

This pig, I was informed, was the cause of the whole alarm. There was no attack—in fact, there was no enemy near enough to the town, as yet, to indulge in an assault. All was a practical joke—some one had let this pig loose with a biscuit-tin tied to his leg, and this had started the alarm. The porker had been run down and lassoed by the military on the outskirts of the town, so that it was all over now—excepting that the authorities were looking for the perpetrator, or the originator of the scare.

Realising now the extent of my folly, I, who hitherto had been laughing up my sleeve at the discomfiture and alarm of others, was in my turn genuinely alarmed, and all the way back to my hotel I was wondering as to what would be my best course of action—foreseeing, whichever way I turned for a solution, visions of heavy fines, probable imprisonment, and possible banishment from the country altogether.

On reaching the hotel I was hailed by many of those who had witnessed "the start," and consequently knew my connection with the affair. They soon posted me as to what had happened during my absence.

Ere the pig and myself had been gone five minutes, a picket of soldiers made a rush upon the hotel, went inside, and, closing every exit, informed the occupants that every one must consider himself under arrest until the real originator of the "scare" was discovered. The officer remarked that he knew for a fact that the matter began there, and although the pig had not yet been caught it had been recognised as "belonging to the proprietor's family."

Then, to the surprise of every one concerned, a certain Colonel Moyal, a native keenly opposed to the Government and a suspected revolutionist, stepped forward and declared that he had carried the whole thing through from beginning to end, so was prepared to take the consequences.

Needless to say, my champion was arrested and marched off to the Cabildo; and I was informed that the plucky fellow had done this to shield me, merely to keep me out of trouble because he had taken a fancy to me.

Not for this, however, would I let him remain in his unenviable position. It did not take me long to resolve that, to be honourable, I must myself bear the consequences of my own folly; and in a very short time afterward I was interviewing the Commandante. That official, in whose favour I had long since made it my business to firmly establish myself, informed me that it was then too late at night to take any evidence, or, in fact, to move at all in the matter; but that he would attend to me at eight o'clock next morning.

The following day at the appointed hour I waited on him, told him I was the real culprit, secured the colonel's release, paid a fine of a few dollars, and by nine o'clock was back again in my hotel; and when I sat down with the Colonel that night to a special cena to which I had invited him—intending in some measure to prove to him my gratitude for his generosity and esteem—I made a rather boyish speech in which I regretted tremendously the Colonel's having passed an exceedingly uncomfortable night in prison on my account, and my inability to release him the night before.

Moyal, to my intense surprise, replied that he had to thank me for the opportunity I had given him. "Of course," said he, "I should not like to see you in trouble, and would have done anything in my power to keep you out of it, but I must admit that my motive was not the generous one that has been attributed to me. It was a rather selfish motive, you see, between you and me. I am a moving spirit in this revolution which is brewing, and I have important business with the Government soldiers inside the Cabildo. In the ordinary course, since I am known as a revolutionist, I cannot possibly get into open or secret communication with them—so of course I had to get arrested, and you gave me that chance!"

I was about to ask him, boylike, whether he was successful in his mission, when he added, "The only pity is that you didn't let me stay there a bit longer—but you were not to know, so I appreciate your promptness."

However, I had reason to believe afterwards that he had not succeeded in his object, which, I have no doubt, was to "buy" all the soldados over to his side, for up to this day the political party to which the Colonel belonged is out of power, though it has repeatedly made efforts to get in.