25. Colonel Bloody Shirt pays a call|
Over six feet, he was dressed completely in black save for a bright red sash
above his waist. He wore a pistol on each hip, and two ammunition belts
crisscrossed his huge chest. His head held high atop a thick, muscular
neck, unsmiling, resolute mouth and dark, penetrating eyes, he paused a moment
and surveyed the environment. Such an impressive man Fagen felt compelled
to stand. "Capitan Fagen," the district commander said proudly, "may
I present Vicente Torres."
Silently, the man stepped forward and extended his hand, his iron grip crushing. His
piercing, cold gaze mesmerized Fagen, and he uttered the first words that came
to mind, "Colonel Bloody Shirt."
A flicker of a smile, Fagen thought the man's face might crack. He'd
amused him, no harm in that, but why did he feel like a mouse in the fangs
of a tomcat? "Capitan Fagen, you're younger than I'd imagined. It
is rare a man achieves infamy at such an early age."
"You're more gracious than I deserve, Colonel Torres. If my rude remark
offended you, I beg your pardon."
Colonel Bloody Shirt scowled. "I took no offense. If I had,
you would already be dead." Then he put a hand on Fagen's shoulder
and smiled, "I ask you, amigo, should either of us be held accountable
for the stories people tell?"
Colonel De Castro poured lemonade and offered some to the rebel leader. Torres
looked at it as though a glassful of maggots, and then turned his attention
back to the American Capitan. "General Sandico sends his regards. Since
you've joined our cause, he scours Colonel De Castro's dispatches for news
of the army's most - how shall I say it - extraordinary freedom fighter."
"I'm sure the General has better things to occupy his time, but when you next
see him, please convey my good wishes."
"You are too modest, Capitan! Why wouldn't the professor-turned-general
have time to study the activities of El Presidente's handpicked
revolutionary? You're not just any other officer, Senor. You
came into our midst bearing quite an influential pedigree. I myself
have met Presidente Aguinaldo only once, and that was at an affair
of state. My relationship with our supreme commander is purely professional. I've
had no opportunity to make friends as you have. Perhaps someday you
and he will allow me to join you for tea and fellowship. We can exchange
views on making war."
Fagen knew his innocent slip of the tongue had placed him on the wrong side
of Colonel Vicente Torres. Unintentional, he was sorry for it and had
apologized. No need for Torres to taunt him. His whole life Fagen
had what was sometimes called a "long fuse." His native tendency to
turn the other cheek had gotten him through some tight situations, but as Ellis
Fairbanks once said, things change, and right then Fagen decided, bloody shirt
or none, if that man wanted a fight, he'd not back away. Colonel De
Castro had gone pale. Their visitor's capacity for violent rages was
legendary. He sensed the danger and took a tentative step forward. "Please,
gentlemen. Let's be seated."
Torres ignored him. The two men faced each other three feet apart,
their eyes locked. Fagen lifted his chin. "I already know your
view of making war, Colonel." Torres blinked, arched a brow. As
forbidding as the man was, he expressed everything through his eyes, and Fagen
found he could read him like a book. "I know it includes robbing and
humiliating innocent American women." Fagen watched him try to recall,
searching his memory, uncertainty momentarily on his face. He decided
to help. "Merilee Shaw."
Fagen saw an array of emotion cross his brow, the man's entire thought process
there to see if a person had the courage to look. Then Torres did the
last thing Fagen expected. His feet shoulder width apart, fists balled
on his hips just above his pistol belt, he took a deep breath, threw his head
back and laughed. Not just a laugh, but an exultant, jubilant roar from
the depths of his iron gut that filled the tent and sounded like barrels rolling
around in a basement. Face to the ceiling, tears in his eyes, his entire
frame convulsed with laughter. "Heaven be praised!"
Colonel De Castro, too afraid to join in and too afraid not to, cleaned his
spectacles, smiled weakly and whispered, "Huzza!"
Still chortling, Torres finally said, " Senor Capitan David Fagen,
You are a delight! Now I know the wellspring of your patriotic zeal! My
journey here is rendered worthwhile. Tell me, what news of Miss Shaw? I
trust she battles with us still from her comfortable apartment in Boston? Quite
an imposing woman, she's possessed of many qualities and virtues I find admirable
in a man."
Fagen couldn't keep up with him. Too unpredictable, his thought patterns
too capricious, mood swings too erratic. Right then Fagen didn't care
who summoned whom. He decided it time to end the interview and get away
from Colonel Bloody Shirt before something popped out of the man no one could
control. "If you're through with me, Colonel Torres, I have my duties
to attend to."
In an instant the man's face turned hard, and the muscles in his neck rippled. "Not
quite through, Senor Capitan. I've brought you a gift."
At that he faced the tent opening and barked an order. Two soldiers
entered dragging the body of a white man, which they dropped roughly at Fagen's
feet. Naked, filthy, his emaciated body was covered head to toe with
bruises and lacerations. His arms lay akimbo in the dirt, broken at
the elbows, the joints black and distended. The fingers of both hands
were bloody and swollen, the nails gone. Large patches of hair had been
ripped from his scalp, and his front teeth were missing. Colonel De
Castro felt for a pulse. "He's alive, but not by much."
Fagen turned him over. Deep bruises around his throat, rope burns. Numerous
ugly penetration marks around the groin, he'd been tattooed. Fagen had
never seen a man so horribly tortured. He pried open an eye, deep blue,
like looking through a hole in the clouds. That's when he recognized
him. He'd been so shocked by the man's pitiable condition, so horrified
by the violence inflicted upon him, it hadn't occurred he might know him. When
he peered into that cold, blue eye and realized who it was, the air went out
of him and a thousand memories flooded in. Captain Baston.
"He said he had information vital to our cause, but he'd only talk to you.
My men did their best to persuade him to tell me. I wanted to - how shall
I say it - spare you this nasty business, but even at this hour he remains
stubborn in his refusal to cooperate. I give him credit for grit,
as the Americans say, but I wash my hands of him. He's yours now to
do with what you wish."
Bloody Shirt gave another order to his men and then followed them out. Pausing
at the door, he turned and glowered down his nose. "One more thing, Senor
Capitan David Fagen. I hear there's a price on your head. Remain
vigilant. There's no end to what some people will do for money."