Segovia believed Funston's plan brilliantly conceived, but only half-baked.
The devil was in the details. Success hinged upon the flawless execution of each step along the way.
The counterfeit correspondence they'd written to El Presidente on rebel stationery had set the stage, but once on the ground, the actions of
the sullen, disputatious Macabebes would be the deciding factor. Segovia
knew the Macs had no use for Tagalogs, often treated their countrymen with
disrespect, sometimes cruelty. Therefore, he began their instruction
in that dialect.
"Soon we will land near the costal village of Casigurian where we will obtain
provisions, and then trek over the mountains to Palanan, the headquarters of
General Emilio Aguinaldo. Our mission is to capture him, thereby forcing
the rebel insurrection to an end." Oil lanterns swayed with the rolling
of the ship. Segovia peered through the dim lamplight. No reaction,
no expressions of surprise or dismay. The Macs didn't care where they
went, Segovia thought, as long as they killed Tagalogs. "Colonel Talplacido
is your commanding officer. From this moment on you will obey his every
word. The punishment for any breech of discipline, however slight, is
death. Is that perfectly clear?" No response.
The Spaniard continued. "The success of our mission depends on an elaborate
ruse. We will pose as one of General Urbano Lacuna's companies previously
operating against the Americans in Nueva Ecija province. Two
months ago, we were ordered to join Aguinaldo's forces at Palanan. Since
then we have journeyed northward to our destination. While crossing
the mountains we ambushed a small detachment of Americans doing survey work
and took prisoners." Segovia paused for a moment to let the information
sink in. But for the drumming of angry waves on the outer hull, silence
in the cargo hold.
He turned his attention to the sweating, ashen-faced Hilario Talplacido wedged
between bulkhead girders for support. A pathetic excuse for a man, he
thought, but the general hadn't given him time to recruit someone more reliable. A
hedonistic coward, at least Segovia knew he could control him. Disliked
and distrusted by everyone, if things went awry, he'd make the perfect scapegoat. "Colonel
Talplacido will now provide further instruction."
The chubby, reluctant conscript stood before his men trembling with fear and
fatigue. He coughed twice and mumbled through dry, swollen lips. "Comrades,
do you see how I clear my throat before speaking? If you want to be
taken for a Tagalog you must do this. Also, when you meet another person
in a village or on the trail you must inquire about his health and the well
being of his family. If the conversation continues, you must ask about
the activities of the village headmen."
At that, one of the Macabebes snorted, said something in his native dialect. The
men around him laughed. Talplacido stiffened and pointed at the man. "Tagalog
only! Abandon now all Macabebe language and mannerisms. It is
exactly that kind of mistake that can compromise our mission. You must
begin now thinking all Tagalogs are your brothers, and you must do more than
just play a role. Until we reach our destination, everyone you meet
is a friend. We are rebel soldiers now. Ask yourselves, how could
we harm anyone sympathetic to the revolution?"
Hearing the sound of his own voice made Talplacido feel better, and he continued,
his words gaining in pitch and tone. "On this mission I am your commander. I
do not think of you as Macabebe scouts, but loyal Americans with the opportunity
to restore order and prosperity to our land. When I speak, when I give
orders, my words are from General Funston directly, and his come from none
other than his excellency President McKinley himself!"
Madre Mia, Segovia murmured. This man is a bigger idiot than
I thought. But then he glanced at the faces of the scouts and saw for
the first time since the briefing had begun, someone had their full attention. He
decided to let Talplacido continue.
"Therefore comrades, unless you wish to suffer the great and terrible wrath
of the President of the United States, do not, by the most innocent slip of
the tongue, the slightest wink or nod, betray our purpose. Your vigilance alone
insures the successful completion of our mission." Finding himself inexplicably
at a temporary loss for words, the portly colonel bowed slightly and surrendered
the floor to Segovia.
The Spaniard stood, ready to speak, when the iron hinges on the cargo hold
door groaned, and a member of the Vicksburg's crew stuck his head
in. "The general wants all you indians on deck now!"