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The Cave In The Side Of Coron

Source: Anting-anting Stories

A "barong" is a Moro native's favourite weapon. With one deft whirl,
and then a downward slash of the keen steel blade he can cleave the
skull of an opponent from crown to teeth, or cut an arm clean from
the shoulder socket.

When I was sent with a squad of brave men from my company to
reconnoitre from Mt. Halcon, in the Island of Mindoro, and the force
was ambushed, the way I saw the men meet death will always make me
hate a Moro. Why I was spared, then, and bound, instead of being
killed like the men, I could not imagine. Later I knew.

The Moros had no business to be on Mindoro, anyway. Their home was in
Mindanao, far to the south, but three hundred years of Spanish attempt
to rule them had left them still an untamed people, and the war between
the two races had been endless. Each year when the southwest monsoons
had blown, the Moro war-proas had gone northward carrying murder
and pillage wherever they had appeared. When the Spanish were not
too much occupied elsewhere they fitted out retaliatory expeditions
which left effects of little permanence. That year the Moros had
found not Spaniards but a small force of American troops, sent south
from Manila, and from them had cut off my little scouting squad. It
made no difference to them that we were of another nation. They cared
nothing for a change in rulers. We were white, and Christians; that
was enough. We were to be slain.

The leader of the Moros was a tall old man with glittering eyes set
in a gloomy face. I watched him as I lay bound on the deck of one of
the war-proas; for, fearing attack I suppose, soon after my capture
the sails had been spread and the fleet of boats turned to the south.

"Feed him" the chief had said, when night came on, and pointed to
me with his foot. I thought then I had been saved from death for
slavery, and deemed that the worst fate possible, I did not know the
Moro nature.

On the afternoon of the fifth day out, we passed Busuanga and
approached a small rocky island which I afterwards learned was
Coron. So far as could be seen no human habitation was near, and far
to the south stretched the unbroken waters of the Sulu Sea. The chief
gave an order in the Moro tongue, and a black and yellow flag was run
up to the mast head. In response to the signal all the proas of the
fleet joined us in a little bay at the end of the island, and dropped
anchor. At one side of the bay it would be possible to land and climb
from there to the top of the island, from which, everywhere else,
as far as I could see, a sheer cliff came down three hundred feet to
where the waves beat against the jagged rocks at its base.

The smaller boats which had been towed behind the larger craft were
cast off and brought alongside the chief's proa. I was lifted into
one and rowed to a place where we could land. My feet had been untied,
but my hands were still fastened behind my back. Two Moros grasped me
by the arms and guided me between them. They would not let me turn
my head, but I could hear the voices of men following us. The chief
led the way. He did not speak or pause until we had reached the level
summit of the island. When he did speak it was in Spanish, which he
had learned that I understood. We were halted on the very edge of
the precipice. Far down below the little fleet of war-proas floated
lightly on the water, the black and yellow signal still fluttering
from the flag ship. I could see now that the men that had come up the
path behind me had brought a quantity of ropes. Perhaps there were
thirty men in all. I wondered what they were going to do with me,
but had decided that any fate was better than to be a Moro slave.

"Men of Mindanao," said the chief, "you know our errand. You know how
often men of our band have been captured by the white men of the north
to lie in prisons there, where death comes so slowly that a 'barong'
blow would be paradise. The few that have crept back to us, weak,
hollow-eyed and trembling, have only come to show us what it meant
to starve, and then have died. The sky is just, and gives us once
and again a white man to whom we may show that the prophet's words
'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' are just. Give the white
dog his due."

Two men grasped me and wound a stout rope, coil after coil, about me
from my neck to my feet, until I was as helpless as a swathed Egyptian
mummy. One end of another rope was fastened in a slip-noose about my
body, and a dozen of the men, sitting well back from the edge of the
cliff and bracing themselves one against another, paid out the rope.

The chief himself, touching me with his foot as he would have touched
some unclean thing, rolled me over the brink of the precipice. The
sharp rocks cut my face until the blood came, but that meant little
to a man who expected to be dropped upon rocks just as sharp three
hundred feet beneath him.

Slowly I was lowered down the face of the cliff until, perhaps twenty
feet down, I found to my surprise that my descent had ceased, and that
I was dangling before the mouth of a cave of considerable size. While
I swung there, wondering what would happen next, the end of a rope
ladder flung down from above dropped across the opening in the side of
the cliff, and a moment later two agile Moros climbed down the ladder
and from it entered the cave. From where they stood it was easy for
them to reach out and haul me in after them, as a bale of merchandise
swinging from a hoisting pulley is hauled in through a window.

Loosening the slip-knot they fastened into it the rope which had been
coiled about my body, and giving it a jerk as a signal the whole was
drawn up out of sight. Then, binding my feet again, they laid me on
the hard rock near the mouth of the cave, and climbed nimbly back as
they had come. The rope ladder was drawn up, and I was left alone.

I was to be left there to starve. That was what the chief's "eye for
an eye and a tooth for a tooth" had meant.

From where they had left me I could see the proas at anchor, and see
the rocky point on which we had landed. That night they built a fire
on the rocks where I could see it; and feasted there with songs and
dancing. Whenever the wind freshened, the smell of the broiling fish
came up to where I was, and I understood then why it was that I had
not been fed that day as usual on the deck of the war-proa. I began to
realise something of the depths of cruelty of the Moro nature. "Began,"
I say, for I found out later that even then I did not measure it all.

In the morning the proas were still at anchor, and during the day and
night there was more feasting. Sometime that day I freed my hands. I
found that the thongs had been nearly cut. Evidently the men who
left me had meant that I should free myself. It was easy then to
untie the rope which bound my ankles, but weak as I was from hunger,
and cramped from being so long bound, it was some time before I could
bear my weight upon my feet. When I could it was the morning of the
second day of my imprisonment and the third that I had been without
food. The men below were sleeping after their carouse, stretched out
on the decks of the proas. A sentinel on the rocky point poked the
smouldering embers of the fire and raking out some overdone fragments
of fish made a breakfast from them and pitched the bones into the
sea. Only those who have lived three days without food can understand
how delicious even those cast-off fish bones looked to me. I walked
away from the mouth of the cave to be where I could not see the man
eat. The daylight enabled me to explore the interior of the cave
more thoroughly than I had been able to do before. From a crevice,
far within, a tiny thread of water trickled down the rock. It was too
thin to be called a stream, and was dried up entirely by the air before
it reached the mouth of the cave, but I found that I could press my
hand against the rock and after a long time gather water enough to
moisten my lips and throat. For even that I was thankful. At least
I should not die of thirst.

Still farther in the cave I found a pile of something lying on the
floor. I could not see in the dark there what it was, but brought
a double handful out to the light. It was a fragment of a military
uniform wrapped loosely around some human bones. Dangling from
the cloth was a corroded button on which I could still discern the
insignia of Spain. I flung the horrid relics as far out from the cave
as my weak strength would let me, and sank down, wondering how long
it would be until the bones and uniform of a soldier of the United
States would lie rotting there beside those of a soldier of Spain.

A shout from below aroused me. A Moro had seen the fragments of cloth
fluttering down and had greeted them. The men had landed on the rocky
point again, and a party of them were coming up the path. Slung on
a pole carried over the shoulders of two of them was a piece of fish
net, through the meshes of which I could see a dozen cocoanuts.

There was food; delicious food! And they were bringing it to me! I
understood it all now. They had not meant to starve me, but only
to torture me before they took me on to slavery. How good that
was. Slavery did not seem hard to me now. Slavery was better than
starvation. Oh I would work gladly enough, no matter how hard the task,
if I could only have food.

The men had passed out of sight, now, climbing upward, and by and by
I heard them talking above me. I leaned as far out from the mouth
of the cave as in my weakness I dared, and looked up. Yes, I was
right. The bag of cocoanuts was being lowered to me. I could see the
black face of the Moro who was directing the operation, peering over
the edge of the cliff. I sank down, too weak to stand. I thought I
must save what little strength I had to break a nut against the rock,
when they reached me.

I could see the bottom of the fish net bag. Now it was even with
the cave. I could reach it if it was only a little nearer. Why did
not those foolish Moros swing it nearer? I leaned out from the cave
again to try and signal to them.

What was this I saw? Not one, but twenty black faces grinning down at
me with devilish cruelty. And the bag of food that I had waited for,
hung by a rope from the end of the pole pushed out from the rock above,
swung lazily around and around just beyond my reach. I made a frantic
effort to grasp it, and barely saved myself from falling headlong. The
fiendish laughter of the men above was answered by a chorus of shouts
from below. I looked down. From the decks of the proas and from about
the fire on shore, where another feast was beginning, the Moro men
were watching me.

Then I understood for the first time the depths of Moro cruelty. I
was to be baited there until, crazed by hunger, I flung myself to an
awful death upon the rocks below. I wondered how many men, perhaps
braver soldiers than I, had gone down there before me.

I would not. If die I must, I would at least cheat those gibbering
fiends of their show. I would die as that other man had done, far
in the cave and out of sight. I dragged myself in, drank from the
little stream of water, and lay down. I must have slept, or lain in
a stupor for several hours, since, when I recovered myself again,
it was late afternoon.

From where I lay I could see the bag of cocoanuts swing in the
breeze. Perhaps it had blown nearer and I could reach it. I dragged
myself out to the mouth of the cave again. It was just as far away
as ever, and I too weak now to try to reach it. After a time I began
to realise that there was no noise from the revelers below. I looked
down. The bay was empty. The proas had gone, the men gone with them,
and not a breath of smoke rising from the ashes showed where their
fires had been. They must have put out their fires. Dimly I wondered
why. Anyway I had cheated them of their game. They had become
discouraged, waiting to see me die, and had gone.

These thoughts were passing weakly through my mind, when suddenly I
saw something which made me stand up, weak as I was. Far out across
the Strait of Mindoro a streamer of black smoke showed against the
sky. My eyes followed it to where a gray hull rested on the water. It
was one of our gunboats bound from Ilo Ilo back to Manila. I shouted,
faintly, forgetting that miles of space lay between her and myself. I
knew when I stopped to think that she was going from me. Even if she
had come near Coron she had passed while I lay asleep.

That was why the proas had gone. They had seen the streak of smoke,
and slipping behind the island of Coron had gone around Culion,
and so on, home.

I must have slept for some time after that, for when I was next
conscious of anything it was the forenoon of another day, and the cave
was flooded with the bright light of noon. I did not suffer anything
now. That seemed to have passed. I lay quite easy, and wondered what
it was that had aroused me. After a while I could tell. It was the
ceaseless twittering of a flock of birds which were flying in and
out of the cave. They had not been there before, nor had I seen them
about. They must have come during the night. I thought if I could catch
one I would eat it, but I decided it was useless to try to catch them,
they darted about so swiftly. By and by I felt sure that this was so,
for I could see that the birds were swallows, and there came into my
mind a vivid picture of the high beams of my father's barn, away in
Vermont, when I was a boy, and the barn swallows flashing like arrows
through the star-shaped openings far up in the gable ends.

Two of the birds had lighted on the wall opposite me, clinging to the
rock. I wondered what they were doing there. Perhaps I could catch
them. I would try. I found that I could rise, and that I was much
stronger than I had thought. Even a hope of food seemed to give me
strength. I crept towards the birds and put out my hand. The birds
flew, and dodging me swept out into the sunlight. I was near enough
the side of the cave now to see what they had been doing. Fastened
to the rock was the beginning of what was to be a nest.

Once, years before that, I had been the guest of honor at a ten
course Chinese dinner. After the tiny China cups of fiery liquor,
which was the first course, had been drunk, the servant brought on
what looked to me like fine white sponges boiled in chicken broth. My
host told me that this was birds' nest soup, the most famous dish of
China, made of material worth its weight in gold. It came back to
me now that he had added that the best nests were gathered in the
Philippine Islands. Little did I imagine then what that scrap of
table conversation might one day mean to me.

I pulled the nest down and ate it. It looked like white glue, and
tasted like beef jelly. I looked for another, and found it and ate
it. There were no more. I drank my fill of water, when I could get it,
which took some time, and then I lay down and went to sleep. I felt as
if I had eaten a full meal. When I woke I could almost have danced,
I felt so strong and well again. In my new strength I even tried to
reach the bag of cocoanuts, but they hung just as far off as ever,
and that was so far no breeze quite swung them within my reach. No
matter! While I had slept, the birds had been at work, and half a
dozen half-formed nests were glued to the rocks in easy reach. They
grew like mushrooms in the night. I pulled down two and ate them. For
dinner I had two more, and one for supper.

After that I had no cause to suffer, so far as food and water were
concerned. When the birds built faster than my immediate wants
required, I tore the completed nests down before the builders could
spoil them, and stored them away. The birds twittered and scolded,
but began to build again.

How long this would have lasted I do not know, but one morning when I
woke and came to the mouth of the cave to look out, I saw that in the
night a Chinese junk, with broad latteen sails, had dropped anchor
in the bay below.

The shout of joy I gave came near being my ruin, for when the
Chinese sailors heard it, and looked up to see a white faced figure
gesticulating wildly in a hole in the front of the cliff, so far above
them they thought, quite reasonably enough, that they had discovered
the door to the home of the evil one himself, and that one of his
ministers was trying to entice them to enter. Fortunately they could
not flee until the anchor was raised and the sails unfurled, and
before this was done their curiosity and common sense combined had
conquered their fear. The leader of the expedition, I learned later,
had been to Coron before, and now, lighting a few joss sticks as a
precaution, in case I did prove to be an evil spirit, he climbed
to the top of the cliff where he could talk with me. He had seen
Moro fish nets and proa masts before, and he knew the Moro nature,
so it did not take long to make him understand my story, nor much
longer for him to effect my release, for these Chinese nest-hunting
expeditions go fitted with all manner of rock scaling machinery in
the way of rope ladders, slings and baskets.

I was very kindly treated on board the junk through all the month the
party stayed there gathering nests, but when the men came to know
my story, and learned how for two weeks I had lived on nothing but
swallows' nests, worth their weight in gold, remember, they used to
look at me, some of them, in a way which made me almost wonder if
sometime when I was asleep they might not kill me, as the farmer's
wife killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

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Previous: The Anting-anting Of Captain Von Tollig

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