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   Chapter 14 A DASH FOR LIBERTY

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 25277

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Desperate indeed was the position in which Hal and Gerald found themselves, and well might their usually exuberant spirits be damped, and their stock of courage ooze away at the dark prospect before them. Even as they sat there in their cell, the Spanish colonel who had interviewed them was probably dispatching his telegram to Havana; and how would it read? "We have captured two Americans, who are probably spies. They entered the town undetected, and when discovered and called upon to surrender, showed resistance, injuring an officer. They finally fell into our hands, and were found to be bearing arms. What shall we do with them?"

That in all probability would be the message, and it wanted little imagination to sketch the answer. Across the wires would flash the words, "Shoot them."

Hal sat down upon a stone bench beneath a grated window, and thought the matter out. Then he rose to his feet, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, stared out into the night. It was as black as ink, and at first only myriads of stars shone through the iron bars. But on casting his eyes downward, he saw other and bigger spots of light, while the reflection from them trailed towards him across a sheet of water that rippled slightly.

"The harbor!" he exclaimed. "The entrance to the shipping basin of Santiago. Never before did I feel so much like a bird in a cage. Look at those vessels, Gerald! They are just what we were in search of, and now they lie so close below our feet, and yet, for all that, so hopelessly far away. But we will not be beaten. I said that we must escape, and we will! I tell you that we will, however great the difficulty. Come here, old boy, and see what you can from the window; then we'll sit down and discuss the matter."

Gerald promptly stepped beside his friend, and, clasping the iron bars, thrust his head as far through them as possible.

"Hallo! What's this?" he cried. "Hal, they've turned the old searchlight on again."

He moved to one side to make room for Hal, who at once resumed his place at the window and gazed out. Away to the left a bright beam of light was stabbing the darkness from the far inland edge of the harbor. It swept steadily to the right, illuminating the sphere upon which it fell so clearly that everything within it was visible for a moment, then disappeared, while a fresh scene flashed into view, only in its turn to give place to another. They followed the broad beam as it fell upon harbor and town, and then upon the open country. In a few minutes it had reached the entrance to the harbor, and, shooting like a bar of silver beneath the Morro Castle, and under the very feet of the prisoners, lit up the swelling ocean beyond, by chance falling upon one of the ugly torpedo boats which Hal had seen that morning.

"That just shows what kind of a chance we should have had," said Gerald, nodding towards the craft.

"I don't know that I agree with you," Hal answered thoughtfully. "We know that she is there, and with all lights dowsed we might easily slip by her."

"But you speak as though we were already on a ship," exclaimed Gerald. "Of course, it is out of the question."

Hal did not reply, but followed the searchlight with the closest attention. It moved from the harbor mouth, searching every corner and crevice of the rocks as it swept inland again. Soon it passed over a landing jetty and illuminated a small launch which was lying moored alongside.

"See that?" exclaimed Hal, seizing Gerald by the shoulder to attract his attention.

"What? The launch?"

"Yes, old chap; it will do for us."

"But hold on! Look here, Hal, what the dickens are you talking about?" Gerald asked, as if in some doubt as to Hal's condition of mind. "Man alive, we are prisoners-jailbirds in the Morro Castle!"

"Quite so; and to-morrow, if we are still here, we shall be prisoners who are about to die. Listen to me, Gerald. We have but one life apiece, and may as well make a fight for it. If we are worsted, where will be the difference? It can mean nothing worse in the end, for what sentence can be more severe than that of death? I am determined to get out of this, for life is very dear, and I mean to cling to mine. Sit down while I talk to you. There, don't interrupt me till I have finished, then you can tell me exactly what you think. Now, the position is plain and straightforward. We must escape if we wish to live. Look round the cell and say if it is possible to break these bars, or knock a hole through walls, ceiling, or floor. It is out of the question, and so also is the door. Then we must turn to the jailer. I had my eyes well open when we came in here, and I noticed that the man was new at the work. He could not find the key, and fumbled at the lock. If he is strange to prison life, he may well be less suspicious of his charges, and less expectant of danger. Now, we will do our best to collar him, and I've an idea how it is to be done. You will lie there and pretend to be ill. Just groan and kick up a fuss to your heart's content, while I knock and kick at the door, and shout for the jailer. Then, when he comes in, and, as will be natural, goes across the cell to look at you, I'll jump on him, and with your help we'll tie him up and gag him. Follow, old chap?"

"By Jove! Follow? Ra-a-ather! Of course I do; and, what's more, I'm ready for the game. After all, as you said, capture for the second time can bring no worse penalty."

"That done," continued Hal calmly, "we must use our wits to get out of the castle. We've blankets to make into ropes, and I suggest that we begin to tear them into strips at once, for we shall want something for the jailer. Once away from the castle, we'll sneak down to the launch, and get up steam. Probably she is deserted at night, but, in any case, it is scarcely likely that more than one man will be aboard. He would have to be dealt with of course, and then we'd just slip our moorings and make a dash for the sea. There, now, what have you to say?"

"Say? Why, that I am with you through thick and thin," exclaimed Gerald, in tones of enthusiasm. "If we only manage to get through we shall have had an adventure to remember and talk about to the end of our lives."

"That's so," Hal agreed. "But now for the blankets."

Sitting side by side on the stone seat, they soon tore them into long strips, which they twisted and knotted together, and afterwards wound in lengths round their waists. Then they set apart a few pieces as lashings for their prospective prisoner, and fashioned a rough gag.

"That's finished," remarked Hal with satisfaction. "And now for the other part."

"Hush! Someone is coming along the passage," whispered Gerald. "There, I can hear footsteps plainly."

Hal darted to the door, and, listening eagerly, distinguished a distant step, evidently of some heavily shod foot which was slowly coming nearer.

"Quick! Onto the bench and sham that you are ill," he cried, turning to Gerald. "I believe the jailer is going to pay us a visit."

This, in fact, was the case, for scarcely had Gerald thrown himself upon the low bench of stone, and commenced to give vent to the most heartrending groans, when heavy boots came to a halt outside the cell, and a key was heard grating in the lock. Then the door swung open, and the soldier who had admitted them when they first arrived at the castle entered, bearing on his arm a basket which contained a bottle of native wine and some bread and meat. He stopped in the middle of the cell, and looked wonderingly at Gerald.

"What's amiss? What ails the lad?" he asked in Spanish.

"Oh, I've such pain. Help me," groaned Gerald, in quavering tones.

Curious to learn what was the matter, the jailer placed his basket on the floor, and, crossing the bench, bent over Gerald. In an instant the prisoner, who had been in seeming agony before, had thrown his arms round the man's neck, drawing his face so tightly against his chest that he could not utter a sound, and was almost stifled. Then Hal sprang across the cell, and, with a hasty hitch, secured the jailer's arms behind his back. To bind his legs was a different matter, however, for he fought like a wild cat, and, wrenching his head free, gave vent to a loud shout. But he did not repeat it, for, conscious that their lives depended on the man's silence, Hal grasped him by the hair, and brought his head against the stonework with a bang.

"That should keep him quiet," he said, with a gasp. "Now for the gag."

Gerald had it ready, and before very long their prisoner lay on the floor, bound hand and foot, and incapable of speech.

"The first scene is ended satisfactorily," said Hal, eying him with no little pleasure; "and now for the second. Get hold of that basket, old man; grub will be welcome later on. I'll make free with the bundle of keys which the fellow carried. Now, out we go."

They gave another backward glance to see that the man was securely bound, and then stepped into the corridor, closing the door gently after them.

"Where now?" whispered Gerald.

"Follow me. We'll take the road that we know," was Hal's answer, "Keep close, and whatever you do, don't make a sound. If anyone runs up against us, go for him like the wind, and hammer him into silence. We have a chance before us that must not be lost."

He at once stepped forward, and gaining the stairs, descended cautiously. No one was in the lower gallery, nor on the second flight of steps, and the two escaping prisoners reached the door of the castle without hearing so much as a sound. It was locked, and many anxious moments were expended ere the right key could be found. Then the ponderous door swung open slowly, and they emerged into the castle yard, round which many lights were flashing from the windows of the soldiers' quarters. Taking Gerald by the hand, Hal led him to the darkest corner, where they crouched, listening for any noise, and wondering whether the jailer's cry had been heard, and the alarm given. But not a sound disturbed the silence, save the stamp of a distant sentry plodding up and down upon his lonely beat, and coughing occasionally as the cool night air entered his lungs.

"All seems well," whispered Hal; "and no one heard the cry, or we should have had the soldiers after us already. Let us get out of this yard, and down to the harbor."

It was easier to propose than to accomplish, for no doubt, sentries were stationed on the walls. The yard itself was situated on the steep side of a hill, leading upward from the town to the castle, and, crouching where they were, Hal and Gerald could look along the roofs of many of the tiny houses which stood inside the walls, into the streets of Santiago. Suddenly the revolving searchlight turned once more in their direction, and in rushing behind a projecting buttress to escape it, Hal tripped over a bucket, and fell headlong, sending it clattering over the stones.

Instantly there was a loud challenge from the sentry, to which no answer was given. Then, as they crouched in the shadow, they heard first one and then some twenty soldiers clatter from the house close to which they were lying, and run into the square.

"What was that noise?" the sentry demanded in Spanish. "Who caused the racket over in yonder corner?"

"Where? In what part?" asked one of the men.

"Close beside your quarters. The searchlight swept round, and suddenly a bucket or something of the sort was kicked. Go and look for me, one of you."

"They are coming to search here," said Gerald. "What shall we do?"

"Make a bolt into their own quarters," Hal answered promptly. "We escaped in that way before, and may well do so again."

He started to his feet, and, creeping along beside the wall, peeped in at an open window. The room was empty, and only faintly illuminated by a flickering tallow candle. Hal at once climbed in, and assisted Gerald to follow. Then they crept to the door, and, seeing no one, ran upstairs to the rooms above, which were also vacant.

"We shall have to clear from here," said Hal, looking round at the row of rough pallets which evidently served the soldiers for beds. "What about the roof? Perhaps we can reach it this way."

He ran into a room at the back of the building, and, climbing on to a window-sill, stretched his arm above his head. It was too short by a couple of feet, and the gutter looked hopelessly out of reach. Suddenly, however, he thought of the latticed shutter, and grasping the battens, and digging his feet in between those below, hoisted himself up. A moment later he had one hand on

the iron gutter, and after that had no difficulty in clambering on the roof, which ascended at an easy slope.

"Hand up the grub, Gerald," he said, leaning over the edge and lowering his voice to a gentle whisper. "That's it. Let go; I've got hold of the handle. Now, up you come."

Gerald was as active as a monkey, and quickly climbed to Hal's side, when the two scrambled along the roof till they arrived at a part where the coping formed with the sloping tiles a deep angle; and here they lay full length, settling themselves into the narrow space, and taking particular pains to make sure that no part of their dress was projecting over the top. Down below in the yard there was the clatter of many feet as the soldiers ran round the building. Then the same voice that had answered the questions of the sentry was heard again, calling loudly.

"There is a bucket lying over here," the man cried, "but we can see no trace of anyone. Are you sure you are not mistaken?"

"I distinctly heard someone fall," was the answer. "Idiot! Do you think that I could make an error when it occurred so close at hand? Am I not on duty? One would think that I was a log by the way in which you talk. Mistaken, indeed! How do you know that it is not those beggarly prisoners whom we are to waste powder upon to-morrow morning? Perhaps it is they, and while you chatter and tell your comrade that he does not do his duty, they may be escaping."

The sentry bellowed out his words, and snorted with indignation, for his feelings were evidently hurt at such an accusation. But the other man was not to be subdued.

"Escaping? Ridiculous, Santo!" he cried. "They were locked in the cell. I was one of the guard, and saw it with my own eyes. Perhaps you will tell me next that these American spies are capable of flying through a locked door!"

"I tell you that I am sure that someone is attempting to get away from the castle, and I believe it to be the two prisoners who came here this evening," the sentry answered angrily. "Give the alarm, comrade, and hurry off to make sure of the matter. Do not let the cause of our country suffer because we cannot agree."

The soldier in the yard below grumbled; but, urged on by his comrades, who seemed to agree with the sentry, he hastened to the castle, and Hal and his companion heard him running up the flight of stone steps.

"Now there will be a fine hullabaloo," said the former quietly. "I vote we stick closely in this hiding-place, and do not allow ourselves to be scared by all the noise and fuss which they are bound to kick up. Once the escape is discovered the alarm will fly all over the town, and search-parties will be about. We are their first prisoners, and you may be sure they will not allow us to slip through their fingers without a struggle. But no one will think of looking for us here, and we have the great advantage of lying in a hollow to which the searchlight cannot penetrate. Half a minute, though. I'll just take a look over the side, and see where we are."

He raised his head cautiously, and, carefully keeping well away from the stone coping, took a good look over the side.

"Good luck!" he exclaimed, with some show of excitement, suddenly sinking to his place again. "If only we can find some means of fastening our ropes, we can drop directly over the wall. Keep where you are, Gerald, while I see what can be done."

He rose to his knees, and crept up the sloping roof to something which looked in the darkness like a chimney-stack. It proved to be what he thought, and in a twinkling he produced the end of the rope, made from torn-up blankets, which he had wound round his waist. Making a big loop in it, he slipped it over the brick-work and descended again.

"There," he said, with an excited chuckle, "I've fixed the rope, so that if our presence here is suspected we shall have a chance for freedom. Hush! What is that fellow saying?"

It was the soldier again, who, emerging from the castle at this moment, ran down the steps in such a hurry as to lose his balance and roll over and over into the yard. He picked himself up with an oath, and rushed towards the sentry.

"The prisoners have escaped!" he shouted, in high falsetto. "When I came to the cell the door was not locked, and inside Alberto lay insensible, and bound hand and foot. Quick! Ring the alarm bell, one of you."

A few moments later the deep notes were booming out over the town and castle, ringing the alarm so that all in Santiago should be on the look-out. That notice of it was taken was at once evident, for the change was wonderful. Shouts suddenly rang out from all quarters; and, as if thrown into a state of uncontrollable excitement by the commotion, the searchlight fluttered here and there, now flashing into the sky, and next moment burying its broad shaft of dazzling light in the deep waters of the harbor.

Then an officer ran hastily from his quarters in the castle, and called upon the soldiers to fall in.

"Get to your ranks at once," he cried, "and let each sergeant take his section and search a portion of the castle. Quick! There will be trouble if these prisoners get clear away."

Crouching in their hiding-place, Hal and Gerald listened eagerly, and heard the search-parties hurrying to and fro. One actually came into the very house on the roof of which they were lying.

"What is the use of searching here?" they heard one of the men grumble. "It is folly to expect to find them in our own quarters, for we only descended a few seconds before the alarm was given. Take us somewhere else, sergeant, for we shall be wasting our time and breath here."

They went away at once, and the two prisoners breathed more freely.

"We are safe now," said Hal, with a sigh of relief; "but we shall have to lie here as quiet as mice till the din dies down. Can you swim, Gerald?"

"Yes, rather! But why?"

"Because the best and safest way to reach the launch will be to slip down from here into the water, and strike straight for the jetty alongside which she is moored. We shall have to keep to the harbor, too; for to get on the landing-stage or to attempt to walk along it would result in certain capture. It's going to be a most trying undertaking, I can tell you, old man."

They lapsed into silence, and for two hours lay in the gutter listening to the noises which came from every side. But, little by little, the sounds of shouting in the distance and the hubbub in the courtyard of the castle died down, and finally the town regained its accustomed quietness. Even the searchlight seemed to have recovered its equanimity, for it now revolved smoothly, occasionally, however, darting to some particular spot as some fresh alarm was sounded.

"All is clear beneath us, and I fancy we had better be starting," said Hal at length. "We have a great deal before us, and we must not forget that before many hours have passed dawn will be breaking. But a fellow can't do much on an empty stomach, so I vote that we tuck in at the grub. Then we shall feel more inclined for the job, and can set out for the launch with courage raised to the highest."

It was a good suggestion, and Gerald, who was nothing loath, and, indeed, longing for something to eat, dragged the basket forward and placed it between them, while Hal searched for his knife. There was a mug lying beside the bottle, and he at once made preparations to quench his thirst. Placing his hat upon the roof, he put the bottle in it, and with a sharp blow knocked the neck in two, the glass making no sound as it fell upon the cloth. Then they divided the meat, and set to work to devour it eagerly, for both were famishing.

"There's just one thing to discuss before we start," said Hal. "Shall we stick to the plan we have prepared, or shall we make back to the hacienda? For my part, I say no. Decidedly no! In the first place, we should run a far greater risk of discovery, for we should have to pass through the town, and get through the pickets who patrol the side that faces the open country. You may be sure that they are wide awake; and, indeed, that is the side on which they will be looking out, for who would expect escaping prisoners to make out to sea? The idea would appear ridiculous to the average man, and it is the very improbability that will help us most. Then we have to remember another very important point. It is known that we hail from the hacienda, and what will be more natural after our escape than for Eldorado to be favored by a visit from Spanish troops? If we were foolish enough to return, we should certainly be captured and hauled back to Santiago, when little chance would be allowed us to make a second attempt to escape."

"You're like a lawyer, old boy," Gerald whispered in reply. "I quite see your point, and I say too, go for the launch tooth and nail, and clear from the harbor. It is our only chance, and with luck, such as we have already had to-night, we shall manage it beautifully."

"Then we stick to the old plan. Shall I go over the side first, or will you? Perhaps I'd better, for I am the heavier."

He crawled to the rope and, taking the coiled-up end in his hand, flung it over the coping. Then, having very cautiously raised his head, and inspected his surroundings as well as the darkness would permit, he squeezed Gerald's hand and lowered himself over the wall. It was an uncanny sensation to be swinging there in the open, uncertain of the drop beneath, and ignorant as to whether the rope was long enough to reach to the bottom. But Hal scarcely gave the matter more than a thought, for his attention was riveted upon the searchlight which had passed a few moments before. If only it kept steadily upon its course, they would both be down by the water's edge and in hiding from it before it came round again. But supposing it commenced its vagaries, and began to flit to and fro, as if suspecting the presence of the fugitives, and eager to atone for its previous defeat by discovering them? Well, there was no ordering its movements, and they must just take their chance and hope for the best; but in any case they had already gone so far towards the liberty which they loved, and which meant life to them, that they would not give in without a struggle.

Suddenly Hal's feet struck the ground, and he at once relinquished his hold of the rope and lay down upon the grass, listening for Gerald's descent. Almost before he expected him he was down by his side. They shook hands heartily, and then stole down the steep face of the hill which led to the harbor.

"Come in here; this will do for us," said Hal in a whisper, drawing his companion into the shadow of a boat which suddenly barred their way, and which was propped up on its side.

They crept right into it, and lay there, full length, waiting with fluttering hearts for the searchlight to pass. At last it came, seeming to the lads, in their highly strung condition, to pause inquiringly, as it lit upon the boat.

Did the man who worked it suspect that they were there? Would he give another alarm at once and would the tolling of that castle bell, which sounded so dismally like a funeral knell, boom out over the town and set hundreds of eager trackers after the spies? Where could they fly then? The harbor? No, that would not do. Then where?

The thoughts buzzed through their heads, and the questions remained unanswered. But each crept still closer into his shelter, pressing against the planks as though that would add to his safety. And all the while their hearts beat a rapid tattoo against their ribs, for they were conscious that discovery at this moment would blight all their hopes of escape. But they were frightening themselves unnecessarily, for the beam sped on its way without an instant's halt, flashing across the water, and resting for the space of a few seconds upon the launch towards which they were about to swim.

"Now for it, Gerald," said Hal shortly. "Off with your coat and boots."

They kicked the latter off, and, rapidly divesting themselves of the former, stole down to the water's edge. Fifty yards away the beam of light was sweeping across the surface of the water, and steadily increasing the distance between them, leaving all but that part upon which it fell obscured in dense and impenetrable darkness. Nothing, in fact, could have been more opportune for Hal and his friend. They slid gently into the harbor, to find themselves in deep water at once. Then they threw themselves forward, and struck out boldly for the distant quay, in the wake of the revolving light.

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