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

Chapter 7. The Dungeon Under The Sea

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Ned, early the next morning, saw Santa Anna with his brilliant escort ride away toward the capital, while General Cos resumed his march to Vera Cruz. Almonte did not reappear at all, and the boy surmised that he was under orders to join the dictator.

Ned continued on foot among the Tlascalans. Cos offered him no kindness whatever, and his pride would not let him ask for it. But when he looked at his sore and bleeding feet he always thought of the patient burro that he had lost. They marched several more days, and the road dropped down into the lowlands, into the tierra caliente. The air grew thick and hot and Ned, already worn, felt an almost overpowering languor. The vegetation became that of the tropics. Then, passing through marshes and sand dunes, they reached Vera Cruz, the chief port of Mexico, a small, unhealthy city, forming a semicircle about a mile in length about the bay.

Ned saw little of Vera Cruz, as they reached it at nightfall, but the approach through alternations of stagnant marsh and shifting sand affected him most unpleasantly. Offensive odors assailed him and he remembered that this was a stronghold of cholera and yellow fever. He ate rough food with the Tlascalans again, and then Cos sent for him.

"You have reached your home," said the General. "You will occupy the largest and most expensive house in the place, and my men will take you there at once. Do you not thank me?"

"I do not," replied Ned defiantly. Yet he knew that he had much to dread.

"You are an ungrateful young dog of a Texan," said Cos, laughing maliciously, "but I will confer my hospitality upon you, nevertheless. You will go with these men and so I bid you farewell."

Four barefooted soldiers took Ned down through the dirty and evil-smelling streets of the city. He wondered where they were going, but he would not ask. They came presently to the sea and Ned saw before him, about a half mile away, a somber and massive pile rising upon a rocky islet. He knew that it was the great and ancient Castle of San Juan de Ulua. In the night, with only the moon's rays falling upon its walls, it looked massive and forbidding beyond all description. That cold shiver again appeared at the roots of the boy's hair. He knew now the meaning of all this talk of Santa Anna and Cos about their hospitality. He was to be buried in the gloomiest fortress of the New World. It was a fate that might well make one so young shudder many times. But he said not a word in protest. He got silently into a boat with the soldiers, and they were rowed to the rocky islet on which stood the huge castle.

Not much time was wasted on Ned. He was taken before the governor, his name and age were registered, and then two of the prison guards, one going before and the other behind, led him down a narrow and steep stairway. It reminded him of his descent into the pyramid, but here the air seemed damper. They went down many steps and came into a narrow corridor upon which a number of iron doors opened. The guards unlocked one of the doors, pushed Ned in, relocked the door on him, and went away.

Ned staggered from the rude thrust, but, recovering himself stood erect, and tried to accustom his eyes to the half darkness. He stood in a small, square room with walls of hard cement or plaster. The roof of the same material was high, and in the center of it was a round hole, through which came all the air that entered the cell. In a corner was a rude pallet of blankets spread upon grass. There was no window. The place was hideous and lonely beyond the telling. He had not felt this way in the pyramid.

Ned now had suffered more than any boy could stand. He threw himself upon the blanket, and only pride kept him from shedding tears. But he was nevertheless relaxed completely, and his body shook as if in a chill. He lay there a long time. Now and then, he looked up at the walls of his prison, but always their sodden gray looked more hideous than ever. He listened but heard nothing. The stillness was absolute and deadly. It oppressed him. He longed to hear anything that would break it; anything that would bring him into touch with human life and that would drive away the awful feeling of being shut up forever.

The air in the dungeon felt damp to Ned. He was glad of it, because damp meant a touch of freshness, but by and by it became chilly, too. The bed was of two blankets, and, lying on one and drawing the other over him, he sought sleep. He fell after a while into a troubled slumber which was half stupor, and from which he awakened at intervals. At the third awakening he heard a noise. Although his other faculties were deadened partially by mental and physical exhaustion, his hearing was uncommonly acute, concentrating in itself the strength lost by the rest. The sound was peculiar, half a swish and half a roll, and although not loud it remained steady. Ned listened a long time, and then, all at once, he recognized its cause.

He was under the sea, and it was the rolling of the waves over his head that he heard. He was in one of the famous submarine dungeons of the Castle of San Juan de Ulua. This was the hospitality of Cos and Santa Anna, and it was a hospitality that would hold him fast. Never would he take any word of warning to the Texans. Buried under the sea! He shivered all over and a cold sweat broke out upon him.

He lay a long time until some of the terror passed. Then he sat up, and looked at the round hole in the cement ceiling. It was about eight inches in diameter and a considerable stream of fresh air entered there. But the pipe or other channel through which it came must turn to one side, as the sea was directly over his head. He could not reach the hole, and even could he have reached it, he was too large to pass through it. He had merely looked at it in a kind of vague curiosity.

Feeling that every attempt to solve anything would be hopeless, he fell asleep again, and when he awoke a man with a lantern was standing beside him. It was a soldier with his food, the ordinary Mexican fare, and water. Another soldier with a musket stood at the door. There was no possible chance of a dash for liberty. Ned ate and drank hungrily, and asked the soldier questions, but the man replied only in monosyllables or not at all. The boy desisted and finished in silence the meal which might be either breakfast, dinner or supper for all he knew. Then the soldier took the tin dishes, withdrew with his comrade, and the door was locked again.

Ned was left to silence and solitude. But he felt that he must now move about, have action of some kind. He threw himself against the door in an effort to shake it, but it did not move a jot. Then he remembered that he had seen cell doors in a row, and that other prisoners might be on either side of him. He kicked the heavy cement walls, but they were not conductors of sound and no answer came.

He grew tired after a while, but the physical exertion had done him good. The languid blood flowed in a better tide in his veins and his mind became more keen. There must be some way out of this. Youth could not give up hope. It was incredible, impossible that he should remain always here, shut off from that wonderful free world outside. The roll of the sea over his head made reply.

After a while he began to walk around his cell, around and around and around, until his head grew dizzy, and he staggered. Then he would reverse and go around and around and around the other way. He kept this up until he could scarcely stand. He lay down and tried to sleep again. But he must have slept a long time before, and sleep would not come. He lay there on the blankets, staring at the walls and not seeing them, until the soldiers came again with his food. Ned ate and drank in silence. He was resolved not to ask a question, and, when the soldiers departed, not a single word had been spoken.

The next day Ned had fever, the day after that he was worse, and on the third day he became unconscious. Then he passed through a time, the length of which he could not guess, but it was a most singular period. It was crowded with all sorts of strange and shifting scenes, some colored brilliantly, and vivid, others vague and fleeting as moonlight through a cloud. It was wonderful, too, that he should live again through things that he had lived already. He was back with Mr. Austin. He saw the kind and generous face quite plainly and recognized his voice. He saw Benito and Juana, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl; he was on the pyramid and in it, and he saw the silver cone of Orizaba. Then he shifted suddenly back to Texas and the wild border, the Comanche and the buffalo.

His life now appeared to have no order. Time turned backward. Scenes occurred out of their sequence. Often they would appear for a second or third time. It was the most marvelous jumble that ever ran through any kaleidoscope. His brain by and by grew dizzy with the swift interplay of action and color. Then everything floated away and blackness and silence came. Nor could he guess how long this period endured, but when he came out of it he felt an extraordinary weakness and a lassitude that was of both mind and body.

His eyes were only half open and he did not care to open them more. He took no interest in anything. But he became slowly conscious that he had emerged from somewhere out of a vast darkness, and that he had returned to his life in the dungeon under the sea.

His eyes opened fully by automatic process rather than by will, and the heavy dark of the dungeon was grateful then, because they, too, like all the rest of him, were very weak. Yet a little light came in as usual with the fresh air from above, and by and by he lifted one hand and looked at it. It was a strange hand, very white, very thin, with the blue veins standing out from the back.

It was almost the hand of a skeleton. He did not know it. Certainly it did not belong to him. He looked at it wondering, and then he did a strange thing. It was his left hand that he was holding before him. He put his right hand upon it, drew that hand slowly over the fingers, then the palm and along the wrist until he reached his shoulder. It was his hand after all. His languid curiosity satisfied he let the hand drop back by his body. It fell like a stone. After a while he touched his head, and found that his hair was cut closely. It seemed thin, too.

He realized that he had been ill, and very ill indeed he must have been to be so weak. He wondered a little how long it had been since he first lapsed into unconsciousness, and then the wonder ceased. Whether the time had been long or short it did not matter. But he shut his eyes and listened for the last thing that he remembered. He heard it presently, that low roll of the sea. He was quite sure of one thing. He was in the same submarine dungeon of the famous Castle of San Juan de Ulua.

His door was opened, and a man, not a soldier, came in with soup in a tin basin. He uttered a low exclamation, when he saw that Ned was conscious, but he made no explanations. Nor did Ned ask him anything. But he ate the soup with a good appetite, and felt very much stronger. His mind, too, began to wake up. He knew that he was going to get well, but it occurred to him that it might be better for him to conceal his returning strength. With a relaxed watch he would have more chance to escape.

The soup had a soothing effect, and his mind shared with his body in the improvement. It was obvious that they had not intended for him to die or they would not have taken care of him in his illness. The shaven head was proof. But he saw nothing that he could do. He must wait upon the action of his jailers. Having come to this conclusion he lay upon his pallet, and let vague thoughts float through his head as they would.

About three hours after they had brought him his soup he heard a scratching at the keyhole of his door. He was not too languid to be surprised. He did not think it likely that any of his jailers would come back so soon, and heretofore the key had always turned in the lock without noise.

Ned sat up. The scratching continued for a few moments, and the door swung open. A tall, thin figure of a man entered, the door closed behind him, and with some further scratching he locked it. Then the man turned and stared at Ned. Ned stared with equal intentness at him.

The figure that he saw was thin and six feet four; the face that he saw was thin and long. The face was also bleached to an indescribable dead white, the effect of which was heightened by the thick and fiery red hair that crowned a head, broad and shaped finely. His hair even in the dark seemed to be vital, the most vital part of him. Ned fancied that his eyes were blue, although in the dimness he could not tell. But he knew that this was no Mexican. A member of his own race stood before him.

"Well," said Ned.

"Well?" replied the man in a singularly soft and pleasant voice.

"Who are you and what do you want?"

"To the first I am Obed White; to the second I want to talk to you, and I would append as a general observation that I am harmless. Evil to him that would evil do."

"The quotation is wrong," said Ned, smiling faintly. "It is 'evil to him who evil thinks.'"

"Perhaps, but I have improved upon it. I add, for your further information, that I am your nearest neighbor. I occupy the magnificent concrete parlor next door to you, where I live a life of undisturbed ease, but I have concluded at last to visit you, and here I am. How I came I will explain later. But I am glad I am with you. One crowded hour of glorious company is worth a hundred years in a solitary cell. I may have got that a little wrong, too, but it sounds well."

He sat down in Turkish fashion on the floor, folding a pair of extremely long legs beneath him, and regarded Ned with a slow, quizzical smile. For the life of him the boy could not keep from smiling back. With the nearer view he could see now that the eyes were blue and honest.

"You may think I'm a Mexican," continued the man in his mellow, pleasant voice, "but I'm not. I'm a Texan--by the way of Maine. As I told you, I live in the next tomb, the one on the right. I'm a watch, clock and tool maker by trade and a bookworm by taste. Because of the former I've come into your cell, and because of the latter I use the ornate language that you hear. But of both those subjects more further on. Meanwhile, I suppose it's you who have been yelling in here at the top of your voice and disturbing a row of dungeons accustomed to peace and quiet."

"It was probably I, but I don't remember anything about it."

"It's not likely that you would, as I see you've had some one of the seven hundred fevers that are customary along this coast. Yours must have been of the shouting kind, as I heard you clean through the wall, and, once when I was listening at the keyhole, you made a noise like the yell of a charging army."

"You don't mean to say that you've been listening at the keyhole of my cell."

"It's exactly what I mean. You wouldn't come to see your neighbor so he decided to come to see you. Good communications correct evil manners. See this?"

He held up a steel pronged instrument about six inches long.

"This was once a fork, a fork for eating, large and crude, I grant you, but a fork. It took me more than a month to steal it, that is I had to wait for a time when I was sure that the soldier who brought my food was so lazy or so stupid that he would not miss it. I waited another week as an additional precaution, and after that my task was easy. If the best watch, clock and instrument maker in the State of Maine couldn't pick any lock with a fork it was time for him to lie on his back and die. I picked the lock of my own door in a minute the first time by dead reckoning, but it took me a full two minutes to open yours, although I'll relock it in half that time when I go out. Where there's a will there will soon be an open door."

He flourished the fork, the two prongs of which now curved at the end, and grinned broadly. He had a look of health despite the dead whiteness of his face, which Ned now knew was caused by prison pallor. Ned liked him. He liked him for many reasons. He liked him because his eyes were kindly. He liked him because he was one of his own race. He liked him because he was a fellow prisoner, and he liked him above all because this was the first human companionship that he had had in a time that seemed ages.

Obed meanwhile was examining him with scrutinizing eyes. He had heard the voice of fever, but he did not expect to find in the "tomb" next to his own a mere boy.

"How does it happen," he asked, "that one as young as you is a prisoner here in a dungeon with the castle of San Juan de Ulua and the sea on top of him?"

Obed White had the mellowest and most soothing voice that Ned had ever heard. Now it was like that of a father speaking to the sick son whom he loved, and the boy trusted him absolutely.

"I was sent here," he replied, "by Santa Anna and his brother-in-law, Cos, because I knew too much, or rather suspected too much. I was held at the capital with Mr. Austin. We were not treated badly. Santa Anna himself would come to see us and talk of the great good that he was going to do for Texas, but I could not believe him. I was sure instead that he was gathering his forces to crush the Texans. So, I escaped, meaning to go to Texas with a message of warning."

"A wise boy and a brave one," said Obed White with admiration. "You suspected but you kept your counsel. Still waters run slowly, but they run."

Ned told all his story, neglecting scarcely a detail. The feeling that came of human companionship was so strong and his trust was so great that he did not wish to conceal anything.

"You've endured about as much as ought to come to one boy," said Obed White, "and you've gone through all this alone. What you need is a partner. Two heads can do what one can't. Well, I'm your partner. As I'm the older, I suppose I ought to be the senior partner. Do you hereby subscribe to the articles of agreement forming the firm of White & Fulton, submarine engineers, tunnel diggers, jail breakers, or whatever form of occupation will enable us to escape from the castle of San Juan de Ulua?"

"Gladly," said Ned, and he held out a thin, white hand. Obed White seized it, but he remembered not to grasp it too firmly. This boy had been ill a long time, and he was white and very weak. The heart of the man overflowed with pity.

"Good-night, Ned," he said. "I mustn't stay too long, but I'll come again lots of times, and you and I will talk business then. The firm of White & Fulton will soon begin work of the most important kind. Now you watch me unlock that door. They say that pride goeth before a fall, but in this case it is going right through an open door."

Obviously he was proud of his skill as he had a full right to be. He inserted the hooked prongs of the fork in the great keyhole, twisted them about a little, and then the lock turned in its groove.

"Good-by, Ned," said Obed again. "It's time I was back in my own tomb which is just like yours. I hate to lock in a good friend like you, but it must be done."

He disappeared in the hall, the door swung shut and Ned heard the lock slide in the groove again. He was alone once more. The light that had seemed to illuminate his dungeon went with the man, but he left hope behind. Ned would not be alone in the spirit as long as he knew that Obed White was in the cell next to his.

He lay a while, thinking on the chances of fate. They had served him ill, for a long time. Had the turn now come? He did not know it, but it was the human companionship, the friendly voice that had raised such a great hope in his breast. He glided from thought into a peaceful sleep and slept a long time, without dreams or even vague, floating visions. His breath came long and full at regular intervals, and with every beat of his pulse new strength flowed into his body. While he slept nature was hard at work, rebuilding the strong young frame which had yielded only to overpowering circumstances.

Ned ate his breakfast voraciously the next day and wanted more. Dinner also left him hungry, but, carrying out his original plan, he counterfeited weakness, and, before the soldier left, lay down upon the pallet as if he were too languid to care for anything. He disposed of supper in similar fashion, and then waited with a throbbing pulse for the second call from the senior member of the firm of White & Fulton.

After an incredible period of waiting he heard the slight rasping of the fork in the keyhole. Then the door was opened and the older partner entered. Before speaking he carefully relocked the door.

"I believe you're glad to see me," he said to Ned. "You're sitting up. I don't think I ever before saw a boy improve so much in twenty-four hours. I'll just feel your pulse. It will be one of my duties as senior partner to practice medicine for a little while. Yes, it's a strong pulse, a good pulse. You're quite clear of fever. You need nothing now but your strength back again, and we'll wait for that. All things come to him who waits, if he doesn't die of old age first."

His talk was so rapid and cheerful that he seemed fairly to radiate vigor. It was a powerful tonic to Ned who felt so strong that he was prepared to attempt escape at once. But Obed shook his head when he suggested it.

"That strength comes from your feelings," he said. "All that glitters isn't gold or silver or any other precious metal. That false strength would break down under a long and severe test. We'll just wait and plan. For what we're going to undertake you're bound to have every ounce of vigor that you can accumulate."

"You've been able to go out in the hall when you chose, then why haven't you gone away already?" asked Ned.

"I didn't get my key perfected until a few days ago, and then as I heard you yelling in here I decided to find out about you. Two are company; one is none, and so we formed a partnership. Now when the firm acts both partners must act."

Ned did not reply directly. He did not know how to thank him for his generosity.

"Have you explored the hall?" he asked.

"It leads up a narrow stairway, down which I came some time ago when my Mexican brethren decided that I was too much of a Texan patriot. Doubtless you trod the same dark and narrow path. At the head of that is another door which I have not tried, but which I know I can open with this master key of mine. Beyond that I'm ignorant of the territory, but there must be a way out since there was one in. Now, Ned, we must make no mistake. We must not conceal from ourselves that the firm of White & Fulton is confronted by a great task. We must select our time, and have ready for the crisis every particle of strength, courage and quickness that we possess."

Ned knew that he was right, and yet, despite his youth and natural strength, his convalescence was slow. He had passed through too terrible an ordeal to recover entirely in a day or even a week. He would test his strength often and at night Obed White would test it, too, but always he was lacking in some particular. Then Obed would shake his head wisely and say: "Wait."

One night they heard the sea more loudly than ever before. It rolled heavily, just over their heads.

"There must be a great storm on the gulf," said Obed White. "I've lost count of time, but perhaps the period of gales is at hand. If so, I'm not sorry, it'll hide our flight across the water. You'll remember, Ned, that we're a half mile from the mainland."

Fully two weeks passed before they decided that Ned was restored to his old self. Meanwhile they had matured their plan.

"We came in as Texans," said Obed, "but we must go out as Mexicans. There is no other way. It's all simple in the saying, but we've got to be mighty quick in the doing. We must make the change right here in this cell of yours, because, you having been an invalid so long, they're likely to be careless about you."

Ned agreed with him fully, and they began to train their bodies and minds for a supreme effort. They were now able to tell the difference between night and day by the temperature. The air that came through the holes in the ceiling was a little cooler by night, enough for senses trained to preternatural acuteness by long imprisonment to tell it. The guard always came about eight o'clock with Ned's supper and they chose that time for the attempt.

Obed White entered Ned's cell about six o'clock. The boy could scarcely restrain himself and the man's blue eyes were snapping with excitement. But Obed patted Ned on the shoulder.

"We must both keep cool," he said. "The more haste the less likely the deed. The first man comes in with the tray carrying your food. I stand here by the door and he passes by without seeing me. I seize the second, drag him in and slam the door. Then the victory is to the firm of White & Fulton, if it prove to be the stronger. But we'll have surprise in our favor."

They waited patiently. Ned lay upon his pallet. Obed flattened himself against the wall beside the door. Their plan fully arranged, neither now spoke. Overhead they heard the slow roll of the sea, lashed by the waves sweeping in from the gulf. But inside the cell the silence was absolute.

Ned lay in an attitude apparently relaxed. His face was still white. It could not acquire color in that close cell, but he had never felt stronger. A powerful heart pumped vigorous blood through every artery and vein. His muscles had regained their toughness and flexibility, and above all, the intense desire for freedom had keyed him to supreme effort.

Usually he did not hear the soldier's key turn in the lock, but soon he heard it and his heart pumped. He glanced at White, but the gray figure, flattened against the wall, never moved. The door swung open and the soldier, merely a shambling peon, bearing the tray, entered. Behind him according to custom came the second man who stood in the doorway, leaning upon his musket. But he stood there only an instant. A pair of long, powerful arms which must have seemed to him at that moment like the antennae of a devil-fish, reached out, seized him in a fierce grip by either shoulder, and jerked him gun and all into the cell. The door was kicked shut and the grasp of the hands shifted from his shoulders to his throat. He could not cry out although the terrible face that bent over him made his soul start with fear.

The man with the tray heard the noise behind him and turned. Ned sprang like a panther. All the force and energy that he had been concentrating so long were in the leap. The soldier went down as if he had been struck by a cannon ball and his tray and dishes rattled upon him. But he was a wiry fellow and grasping his assailant he struggled fiercely.

"Now stop, my good fellow. Just lie still! That's the way!"

It was Obed White who spoke, and he held the muzzle of a pistol at the man's head. The other soldier lay stunned in the corner. It was from his belt that Obed had snatched the pistol.

"Get up, Ned," said White. "The first step in our escape from the Castle of San Juan de Ulua has been taken. Meanwhile, you lie still, my good fellow; we're not going to hurt you. No, you needn't look at your comrade. I merely compressed his windpipe rather tightly. He'll come to presently. Ned, take that gay red handkerchief out of his pocket and tie his arms. If I were going to be bound I should like for the deed to be done with just such a beautiful piece of cloth. Meanwhile, if you cry out, my friend, I shall have to blow the top of your head off with this pistol. It's not likely that they would hear your cry, but they might hear my pistol shot."

Ned bound the man rapidly and deftly. There was no danger that he would utter a sound, while Obed White held the pistol. Under the circumstances he was satisfied with the status quo. The second man was bound in a similar fashion just as he was reviving, and he, too, was content to yield to like threats. Obed drew a loaded pistol from the first man's belt and handed it, too, to Ned. He also looked rather contemptuously at the musket that the guard by the door had dropped.

"A cheap weapon," he said. "A poor substitute for our American rifle, but we'll take it along, Ned. We may need it. You gather their ammunition while I stand handy with this pistol in case they should burst their bonds."

Ned searched the men, taking all their ammunition, their knives and also the key to the door. Then he and Obed divested the two of their outer clothing and put it upon themselves. Fortunately both soldiers had worn their hats and they pulled them down over their own faces.

"If we don't come into too bright a light, Ned," said White, "you'll pass easily for a Mexican. Mexican plumage makes a Mexican bird. Now how do I look?"

"I could take you for Santa Anna himself," said Ned, elated at their success.

"That promises well. There's another advantage. You speak Spanish and so do I."

"It's lucky that we do."

"And now," said Obed White to the two Mexicans, "we will leave you to the hospitality of Cos and Santa Anna, which my young friend and I have enjoyed so long. We feel that it is time for you to share in it. We're going to lock you in this cell, where you can hear the sea rolling over your head, but you will not stay here forever. It's a long lane that does not come somewhere to a happy ending, and your comrades will find you by to-morrow. Farewell."

He went into the hall and they locked the door. They listened beside it a little while but no sound came from within.

"They dare not cry out," said Obed. "They're afraid we'll come back. Now for the second step in our escape. It's pretty dark here. Those fellows must have known the way mighty well to have come down as they did without a lantern."

"There are other prisoners in these cells," said Ned. "Shouldn't we release them? You can probably open any of the doors with your key."

White shook his head.

"I'm sure that we're the only Texans or Americans in San Juan de Ulua, and we couldn't afford to be wasting time on Mexicans whether revolutionaries or criminals. There would merely be a tumult with every one of us sure to be recaptured."

The two now advanced down the passage, which was low and narrow, walled in with massive stone. It was so dark here that they held each other's hands and felt the way before every footstep.

"I think we're going in the right direction," whispered White, "As I remember it this is the way I came in."

"I'm sure of it," Ned whispered back. "Ah, here are more steps."

They had reached the stairway which led down to the hall of the submarine cells, and still feeling their way they ascended it cautiously. As they rose the air seemed to grow fresher, as if they were nearing the openings by which it entered.

"Those fellows who took our places must have left a lamp or a lantern standing somewhere here at the top of these steps," whispered White. "The man who carried the tray could not have gone down them without a light."

"It's probably here," said Ned, "burned out or blown out by a draught of wind."

He smelled a slight smoke and in a niche carved in the stone he found the lamp. The wick was still smoking a little.

"We'll leave it as it is," said Obed White. "Somebody may relight it for those men when they come back again, but that won't be for several hours yet."

Three more steps and they reached the crest of the flight, where they were confronted by a heavy door of oak, ribbed with iron. Obed gently tried the key that they had seized, but it did not fit.

"They must have banged on the door for it to be opened whenever they came back," said Obed. "Now I shall use my fork which is sure to turn the lock if I take long enough. I wasn't the best watch and key maker in Maine for nothing. If first you don't succeed, then keep on trying till you do."

Ned sat down on the steps while White inserted the fork. He could hear it scratching lightly for a minute and then the bolt slid. The boy rose and the man stepped back by his side.

"Draw your pistol and have it ready," he said, "and I'll do as much with the old musket. We don't know what's on the other side of the door but whatever it is we've got to meet it. Thrice armed is he who hath his weapon leveled."

Ned needed no urging. He drew the pistol and held it ready for instant use. What, in truth, was on the other side of the door? His whole fate and that of his comrade might depend upon the revelation. Obed pushed gently and the door opened without noise three or four inches. A shaft of light from the room fell upon them but they could not yet see into the room. They listened, and, hearing nothing, Obed pushed more boldly. Then they saw before them a large apartment, containing little furniture, but with some faded old uniforms hanging about the walls. Evidently it was used as a barracks for soldiers. At the far end was a door and on the side to the right were two windows.

Ned went to the window and looked out. He saw across a small court a high and blank stone wall, but when he looked upward he saw also a patch of sky. It was a black sky, across which clouds were driving before a whistling wind, but it was the most beautiful sight that he had ever seen. The sky, the free, open sky curving over the beautiful earth, was revealed again to him who had been buried for ages in a dungeon under the sea. He would not go back. In the tremendous uplift of feeling he would willingly choose death first. He beckoned to White who joined him and who looked up without being bid.

"It's out there that we're going," he said. "We'll have to cross a stormy sea before we reach freedom, but Ned, you and I are keyed up just high enough to cross. We'll put it to the touch and win it all. Now for the next door."

The second door was not locked and when they pushed it open they entered a small room, furnished handsomely in the Spanish fashion. A lamp burned on a table, at which an officer sat looking over some papers. He heard the two enter and it was too late for them to retreat, as he turned at once and looked at them, inquiry in his face.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"We are the soldiers who have charge of the two Texans in the cells," replied Obed White boldly. "We have just taken them their food and now we are going back to our quarters."

"I have no doubt that you tell the truth," replied the officer, "but your voice has changed greatly since yesterday. You remember that I gave you an order then about the man White."

"Quite true," replied Obed quickly, raising his musket and taking aim, "and now I'm giving the order back to you. It's a poor rule that won't work first one way and then the other. Just you move or cry out and I shoot. I'd hate to do it, because you're not bad looking, but necessity knows the law of self-preservation."

"You need not worry," said the officer, smiling faintly. "I will not move, nor will I cry out. You have too great an advantage, because I see that your aim is good and your hand steady. I surmise that you are the man White himself."

"None other, and this is my young friend, Edward Fulton, who likes San Juan de Ulua as a castle but not as a hotel. Hence he has decided to go away and so have I. Ned, look at those papers on his desk. You might find among them a pass or two which would be mighty useful to us."

"Do you mind if I light a cigarette?" asked the officer. "You can see that my hands and the cigarettes alike are on the table."

"Go ahead," said Obed hospitably, "but don't waste time."

The officer lighted the cigarette and took a satisfied whiff. Ned searched among the papers, turning them over rapidly.

"Yes, here is a pass!" exclaimed he joyfully, "and here is another and here are two more!"

"Two will be enough," said Obed.

"I'll take this one made out to Joaquin de la Barra for you and one to Diego Fernandez for me. Ah, what are these?"

He held up four papers, looking at them in succession.

"What are they?" asked Obed White.

"Death warrants. They are all for men with Mexican names, and they are signed with the name of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, General-in-chief and President of the Mexican Republic."

The officer took the cigarette from his mouth and sent out a little smoke through his nostrils.

"Yes, they are death warrants," he said. "I was looking over them when you came in, and I was troubled. The men were to have been executed to-morrow."

"Were to have been?" said Ned. Then a look passed between him and the officer. The boy held the death warrants one by one in the flame of the lamp and burned them to ashes.

"I cannot execute a man without a warrant duly signed," said the officer.

"Which being the case, we'd better go or we might have to help at our own executions," said Obed White. "Now you just sit where you are and have a peaceful and happy mind, while we go out and fight with the storm."

The officer said nothing and the two passed swiftly through the far door, stepping into a paved court, and reaching a few yards further a gate of the castle. It was quite dark when they stepped once more into the open world, and both wind and rain lashed them. But wind and rain themselves were a delight to the two who had come from under the sea. Besides, the darker the better.

Two sentinels were at the gate and Ned thrust the passes before their eyes. They merely glanced at the signatures, opened the gate, and in an instant the two were outside the castle of San Juan de Ulua. _

Read next: Chapter 8. The Black Jaguar

Read previous: Chapter 6. The March With Cos

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