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The Texan Star: The Story of a Great Fight for Liberty, a novel by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 2. A Hair-Cut

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The optimism of Mr. Austin endured the next morning, but Ned was gloomy. Since it was his habit to be silent, the man did not notice it at first. The breakfast was good, with tortillas, frijoles, other Mexican dishes and coffee, but the boy had no appetite. He merely picked at his food, made a faint effort or two to drink his coffee and finally put the cup back almost full in the saucer. Then Mr. Austin began to observe.

"Are you ill, Ned?" he asked. "Is this imprisonment beginning to tell upon you? I had thought that you were standing it well. Can't you eat?"

"I don't believe I'm hungry," replied the boy, "but there is nothing else the matter with me. I'll be all right, Uncle Steve. Don't you bother about me."

He ate a little breakfast, about one half of the usual amount, and then, asking to be excused, went to the window, where he again stared out at the tiled roofs, the green foliage in the valley of Mexico and the ranges and peaks beyond. He was taking his resolution, and he was carrying it out, but it was hard, very hard. He foresaw that he would have to strengthen his will many, many times. Mr. Austin took no further worry on Ned's account, thinking that he would be all right again in a day or two.

But at the dinner which was brought to them in the middle of the day Ned showed a marked failure of appetite, and Mr. Austin felt real concern. The boy, however, was sure that he would be all right before the day was over.

"It must be the lack of fresh air and exercise," said Mr. Austin. "You can really take exercise in here, Ned. Besides, you said that you were going to escape. If you fall ill you will have no chance at all."

He spoke half in jest, but Ned took him seriously.

"I am not ill, Uncle Steve," he said. "I really feel very well, but I have lost my appetite. Maybe I am getting tired of these Mexican dishes."

"Take exercise! take exercise!" said Mr. Austin with emphasis.

"I think I will," said Ned.

Physical exercise, after all, fitted in with his ideas, and that afternoon he worked hard at all the gymnastic feats possible within the three rooms to which they were confined. De Zavala came in and expressed his astonishment at the athletic feats, which Ned continued with unabated zeal despite his presence.

"Why do you do these things?" he asked in wonder.

"To keep myself strong and healthy. I ought to have begun them sooner. The Mexican air is depressing, and I find that I am losing my appetite."

De Zavala's eyes opened wide while Ned deftly turned a handspring. Then the young American sat down panting, his face flushed with as healthy a color as one could find anywhere.

"You'll have an appetite to-night," said Mr. Austin. But to his great amazement Ned again played with his food, eating only half the usual amount.

"You're surely ill," said Mr. Austin. "I've no doubt de Zavala would allow us to have a physician, and I shall ask him for one."

"Don't do it, Uncle Steve," begged Ned. "There's nothing at all the matter with me, and anyhow I wouldn't want a Mexican doctor fussing over me. I've probably been eating too much."

Mr. Austin was forced to accede. The boy certainly did not look ill, and his appetite was bound to become normal again in a few days. But it did not. As far as Mr. Austin could measure it, Ned was eating less and less. It was obvious that he was thinner. He was also growing much paler, except for a red flush on the cheek bones. Mr. Austin became alarmed, but Ned obstinately refused any help, always asserting with emphasis that he had no ailment of any kind. But the man could see that he had become much lighter, and he wondered at the boy's physical failure. De Zavala, also, expressed his sorrow in sonorous Spanish, but Ned, while thanking them, steadily disclaimed any need of sympathy.

The boy found the days hard, but the nights were harder. For the first time in his life he could not sleep well. He would lie for hours so wide awake that his eyes grew used to the dark, and he could see everything in his room. He was troubled, too, by bad dreams and in many of these dreams he was a living skeleton, wandering about and condemned to live forever without food. More than once he bitterly regretted the resolution he had taken, but having taken it, he would never alter it. His silent, concentrated nature would not let him. Yet he endured undoubted torture day by day. Torture was the only name for it.

"I shall send an application to President Santa Anna to have you allowed a measure of liberty," said Mr. Austin finally. "You are simply pining away here, Edward, my lad. You cannot eat, that is, you eat only a little. I have passed the most tempting and delicate things to you and you always refuse. No boy of your age would do so unless something were very much wrong with his physical system. You have lost many pounds, and if this keeps on I do not know what will happen to you. I shall not ask for more liberty for you, but you must have a doctor at once."

"I do not want any doctor, Uncle Steve," said the boy. "He cannot do me any good, but there is somebody else whom I want."

"Who is he?"

"A barber."

"A barber! Now what good can a barber do you?"

"A great deal. What I crave most in the world is a hair-cut, and only a barber can do that for me. My hair has been growing for more than three months, Uncle Steve, and you've seen how extremely thick it is. Now it is so long, too, that it's falling all about my eyes. Its weight is oppressing my brain. I feel a little touch of fever now and then, and I believe it's this awful hair."

He ran his fingers through the heavy locks until his head seemed to be surrounded with a defense like the quills of a porcupine. Beneath the great bush of hair his gray eyes glowed in a pale, thin face.

"There is a lot of it," said Mr. Austin, surveying him critically, "but it is not usual for anybody in our situation to be worrying about the length and abundance of his hair."

"I'm sure I'd be a lot better if I could get it cut close."

"Well, well, if you are taking it so much to heart we'll see what can be done. You are ill and wasted, Edward, and when one is in that condition a little thing can affect his spirits. De Zavala is a friendly sort of young fellow and through him we will send a request to Colonel Sandoval, the commander of the prisons, that you be allowed to have your hair cut."

"If you please, Uncle Steve," said Ned gratefully.

Mr. Austin was not wrong in his forecast about Lieutenant de Zavala. He showed a full measure of sympathy. Hence a petition to Colonel Martin Sandoval y Dominguez, commander of prisons in the City of Mexico, was drawn up in due form. It stated that one Edward Fulton, a Texan of tender years, now in detention at the capital, was suffering from the excessive growth of hair upon his head. The weight and thickness of said hair had heated his brain and destroyed his appetite. In ordinary cases of physical decline a physician was needed most, but so far as young Edward Fulton was concerned, a barber could render the greatest service.

The petition, duly endorsed and stamped, was forwarded to Colonel Martin Sandoval y Dominguez, and, after being gravely considered by him in the manner befitting a Mexican officer of high rank and pure Spanish descent, received approval. Then he chose among the barbers one Joaquin Menendez, a dark fellow who was not of pure Spanish descent, and sent him to the prison with de Zavala to accomplish the needed task.

"I hope you will be happy now, Edward," said Mr. Austin, when the two Mexicans came. "You are a good boy, but it seems to me that you have been making an undue fuss about your hair."

"I'm quite sure I shall recover fast," said Ned.

It was hard for him to hide his happiness from the others. He felt a thrill of joy every time the steel of the scissors clicked together and a lock of hair fell to the floor. But Joaquin Menendez, the barber, had a Southern temperament and the soul of an artist. It pained him to shear away--"shear away" alone described it--such magnificent hair. It was so thick, so long and so glossy.

"Ah," he said, laying some of the clipped locks across his hand and surveying them sorrowfully, "so great is the pity! What senorita could resist the young senor if these were still growing upon his head!"

"You cut that hair," said Ned with a vicious snap of his teeth, "and cut it close, so close that it will look like the shaven face of a man. I think you will find it so stated in the conditions if you will look at the permit approved in his own handwriting by Colonel Sandoval y Dominguez."

Joaquin Menendez, still the artist, but obedient to the law, heaved a deep sigh, and proceeded with his sad task. Lock by lock the abundant hair fell, until Ned's head stood forth in the shaven likeness of a man's face that he had wished.

"I must tell you," said Mr. Austin, "that it does not become you, but I hope you are satisfied."

"I am satisfied," replied Ned. "I have every cause to be. I know I shall have a stronger appetite to-morrow."

"You are certainly a sensitive boy," said Mr. Austin, looking at him in some wonder. "I did not know that such a thing could influence your feelings and your physical condition so much."

Ned made no reply, but that night he ate supper with a much better appetite than he had shown in many days, bringing words of warm approval and encouragement from Mr. Austin.

An hour or two later, when cheerful good-nights had been exchanged, Ned withdrew to his own little room. He lay down upon his bed, but he was fully clothed and he had no intention of sleep. Instead the boy was transformed. For days he had been walking with a weak and lagging gait. Fever was in his veins. Sometimes he became dizzy, and the walls and floors of the prison swam before him. But now the spirit had taken command of the thin body. Weakness and dizziness were gone. Every vein was infused with strength. Hope was in command, and he no longer doubted that he would succeed.

He rose from the bed and went to the window. The city was silent and the night was dark. Floating clouds hid the moon and stars. The ranges and the city roofs themselves had sunk into the dusk. It seemed to him that all things favored the bold and persevering. And he had been persevering. No one would ever know how he had suffered, what terrific pangs had assailed him. He could not see now how he had done it, and he was quite sure that he could never go through such an ordeal again. The rack would be almost as welcome.

Ned did not know it, but a deep red flush had come into each pale cheek. He removed most of his clothes, and put his head forward between the iron bar and the window sill. The head went through and the shoulders followed. He drew back, breathing a deep and mighty breath of triumph. Yet he had known that it would be so. When he first tried the space he had been only a shade too large for it. Now his head and shoulders would go between, but with nothing to spare. A sheet of paper could not have been slipped in on either side. Yet it was enough. The triumph of self-denial was complete.

He had thought several times of telling Mr. Austin, but he finally decided not to do so. He might seek to interfere. He would put a thousand difficulties in the way, some real and some imaginary. It would save the feelings of both for him to go quietly, and, when Mr. Austin missed him, he would know why and how he had gone.

Ned stood at the window a little while longer, listening. He heard far away the faint rattle of a saber, probably some officer of Santa Anna who was going to a place outside a lattice, the sharp cry of a Mexican upbraiding his lazy mule, and the distant note of a woman singing an old Spanish song. It was as dark as ever, with the clouds rolling over the great valley of Tenochtitlan, which had seen so much of human passion and woe. Ned, brave and resolute as he was, shivered. He was oppressed by the night and the place. It seemed to him, for the moment, that the ghosts of stern Cortez, and of the Aztecs themselves were walking out there.

Then he did a characteristic thing. Folding his arms in front of him he grasped his own elbows and shook himself fiercely. The effort of will and body banished the shapes and illusions, and he went to work with firm hands.

He tore the coverings from his bed into strips, and knotted them together stoutly, trying each knot by tying the strip to the bar, and pulling on it with all his strength. He made his rope at least thirty feet long and then gave it a final test, knot by knot. He judged that it was now near midnight and the skies were still very dark. Inside of a half hour he would be gone--to what? He was seized with an intense yearning to wake up Mr. Austin and tell him good-by. The Texan leader had been so good to him, he would worry so much about him that it was almost heartless to slip away in this manner. But he checked the impulse again, and went swiftly ahead with his work.

He kept on nothing but his underclothing and trousers. The rest he made up into a small package which he tied upon his back. He was sorry that he did not have any weapon. He had been deprived of even his pocket-knife, but he did have a few dollars of Spanish coinage, which he stowed carefully in his trousers pocket. All the while his energy endured despite his wasted form. Hope made a bridge for his weakness.

He let the line out of the window, and his delicate sense told him when it struck against the ground. Six or eight feet were left in his hand, and he tied the end firmly to the bar, knotting it again and again. Then he slipped through the opening and the passage was so close that his ears scraped as they went by. He hung for a few moments on the outside, his feet on the stone sill and his hands clasping the iron bar. He felt sheer and absolute terror. The spires of the cathedral were invisible and only a few far lights showed dimly. It seemed to him that he was suspended over a bottomless pit, and he shivered from head to foot.

But he recalled his courage. Such a black night was best suited to his task. The shivering ceased. Hope ruled once more. He knelt on the stone sill, and, grasping his crude rope with both hands, let himself down from the window. It required almost superhuman exertion to keep himself from dropping sheer away, and the rope burned his palms. But he held on, knowing that he must hold, and the stone wall felt cold to him, as he lay against it, and slid slowly down.

Perhaps his strength, which was more of the mind than of the body, partly gave way under such a severe strain, but he felt pains shooting through his arms, shoulders and chest. His most vivid recollections of the descent were the coldness of the wall against which he lay and the far tinkle of a mandolin which came to him with annoying distinctness. The frequent knots where he had tied the strips together were a help, and whenever he came to one he let his hands rest upon it a moment or two lest he slide down too rapidly.

He had been descending, it seemed to him, fully an hour, and he must have come down a mile, when he heard the rattle of a saber. It was so distinct and so near that it could not be imagination. He looked in the direction of the sound and saw two dark figures in the street. As he stared the two figures shaped themselves into two Mexican officers. Truth, not fancy, told him also that they were not moving. They had seen him escaping and they would come for him! He pressed his body hard against the stone wall, and with his hands resting upon one of the knots clung desperately to the rope. He was hanging in an alley, and the men were on the street at the mouth of it six or seven yards away. They were talking and it must be about him!

He saw them create a light in some manner, and his hands almost slipped from the rope. Then joy flooded back. They were merely lighting cigarettes, and, with a few more words to each other, they walked on. Ned slid slowly down, but when he came to the last knot his strength gave way and he fell. It seemed to him that he was plunging an immeasurable distance through depths of space. Then he struck and with the force of the blow consciousness left him.

When he revived he found himself lying upon a rough stone pavement and it was still dark. He saw above a narrow cleft of somber sky, and something cold and trailing lay across his face. He shivered with repulsion, snatched at it to throw it off, and found that it was his rope. Then he felt of himself cautiously and fearfully, but found that no bones were broken. Nor was he bruised to any degree and now he knew that he could not have fallen more than two or three feet. Perhaps he had struck first upon the little pack which he had fastened upon his back. It reminded him that he was shoeless and coatless and undoing the pack he reclothed himself fully.

He was quite sure that he had not lain there more than a quarter of an hour. Nothing had happened while he was unconscious. It was a dark little alley in the rear of the prison, and the buildings on the other side that abutted upon it were windowless. He walked cautiously to the mouth of the alley, and looked up and down the street. He saw no one, and, pulling his cap down over his eyes, he started instinctively toward the north, because it was to the far north that he wished to go. He was fully aware that he faced great dangers, almost impossibilities. Practically nothing was in his favor, save that he spoke excellent Spanish and also Mexican versions of it.

He went for several hundred yards along the rough and narrow street, and he began to shiver again. Now it was from cold, which often grows intense at night in the great valley of Mexico. Nor was his wasted frame fitted to withstand it. He was assailed also by a fierce hunger. He had carried self-denial to the utmost limit, and nature was crying out against him in a voice that must be heard.

He resolved to risk all and obtain food. Another hundred yards and he saw crouched in an angle of the street an old woman who offered tortillas and frijoles for sale. He went a little nearer, but apprehension almost overcame him. It might be difficult for him to pass for a Mexican and she would give the alarm. But he went yet nearer and stood where he could see her face. It was broad, fat and dark, more Aztec than Spaniard, and then he approached boldly, his speed increased by the appetizing aroma arising from some flat cakes that lay over burning charcoal.

"I will take these, my mother," he said in Mexican, and leaning over he snatched up half a dozen gloriously hot tortillas and frijoles. A cry of indignation and anger was checked at the old woman's lips as two small silver coins slipped from the boy's hands, and tinkled pleasantly together in her own.

Holding his spoils in his hands Ned walked swiftly up the street. He glanced back once, and saw that the old Aztec woman had sunk back into her original position. He had nothing to fear from any alarm by her, and he looked ahead for some especially dark nook in which he could devour the precious food. He saw none, but he caught a glimpse beyond of foliage, and he recalled enough of the city of Mexico to know what it was. It was the Zocalo or garden of the cathedral, the Holy Metropolitan Church of Mexico. Above the foliage he could see the dark walls, and above them he saw the dome, as he had seen it from the window of his prison. Over the dome itself rose a beautiful lantern, in which a light was now burning.

Ned entered the garden which contained many trees, and sat down in the thickest group of them. Then he began to eat. He was as ravenous as any wolf, but he had been cultivating the power of will, and he ate like a gentleman, knowing that to do otherwise would not be good for him. But, tempered by discretion, it was a glorious pursuit. It was almost worth the long period of fasting and suffering, for common Mexican food, bought on the street from an old Aztec woman, to taste so well. Strength flowed back into every vein and muscle. He would not now give way to fears and tremblings which were of the body rather than the mind. He stopped when half of the food was gone, put the remainder in his pocket, and stood up. Fine drops of water struck him in the face. It had begun to rain. And a raw wind was moaning in the valley.

Despite the warm food and his returning strength Ned felt the desperate need of shelter. It was growing colder, too. Even as he stood there the fine rain turned to fine snow. It melted as it fell, but when it struck him about the neck and face it had an uncommonly penetrating power and the chill seemed to go into the bone. He must have shelter. He looked at the dark walls of the cathedral and then at the light in the slender lantern far up above the dome. What more truly a shelter than a church! It had been a sanctuary in the dark ages, and he might use it now as such.

He left the trees and stood for a little while by a stone, one of the 124 which formerly enclosed an atrium. Still seeing nothing and hearing nothing but the whistle of the wind which drove the cold drops of snow under his collar he advanced boldly again, sprang over the iron railing, and came to the walls of the old church, where he stood a moment.

Ned knew that in great Catholic cathedrals, like the one of Mexico, there were always side doors or little wickets used by priests or other high officials of the church, and he was hoping to find one that he could open. He passed half way around the building, feeling cautiously along the cold stone. Once he saw a watchman with sombrero, heavy cloak and lantern. He pressed into a niche, and the watchman went on his automatic way, little thinking that anyone was near.

The boy continued his circuit and presently he found a wooden door, which he could not force. A little further and he came to a second which opened to his pressure. It was so small an entrance that he stooped as he passed in. He shut it carefully behind him, and stood in what was almost total darkness, until his eyes grew used to the gloom.

Then he saw that he was in a vast interior, Doric in architecture, severe and simple. It was in the form of a Latin cross, with fluted columns dividing the aisles from the nave. Above him rose a noble dome.

He could make out nothing more for the present. It was very still, very imposing, and at another time he would have been awed, but now he had found sanctuary. The cold and the snow were shut out and a grateful warmth took their place. He walked down one of the aisles, careful that his footsteps should make no sound. He saw that there were rows of chapels, seven on either side of the church. It occurred to him that he would be safer in one of these rooms and he chose that which seemed to be used the least.

While on this search he passed the main altar in the center of the building. He noticed above the stalls a picture of the Virgin. He was a Protestant, but when he saw it he crossed himself devoutly. Was not her church giving him shelter and refuge from his enemies? He also passed the Altar of the Kings, beneath which now lie the heads of great Mexicans who secured the independence of their country from Spain. He looked a little at these before he entered the chapel of his choice.

It was a small room, lighted scarcely at all by a narrow window, and it contained a few straight wooden pews one of which had been turned about facing the wall. He lay down in his pew, and, even in daylight, he would have been hidden from anyone a yard away. The hard wood was soft to him. He put his cap under his head and stretched himself out. Then, without will, he relaxed completely. Nature could stand no more. His eyes closed and he floated off into the far and happy region of sleep. _

Read next: Chapter 3. Sanctuary

Read previous: Chapter 1. The Prisoners

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