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For Prey and Spoils by  Frederick A. Ober
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OUR REFUGE IN THE DUNGEONS OF THE DEAD

[256] HELP me up, Hump, and be quick about it, too," said Eli, as his head appeared below the opening. "This ere catty-comb's full of skilingtons; but I guess we've got to take up our quarters here for a little bit, leastwise till the roof 's burned up. The air 's mighty close down here; but it ain't so bad as smoke and flame, seems to me. Bad air 's better 'n no air at all, ma'am," he said to the senorita, after I had pulled him out of the hole.

"Now get together all the food you can lay hands on in the space of three minutes, and bring all the jugs of water you can find, and take 'em into that there hole jest as soon's the Lord will let you. For there ain't a minute to [257] spare, lemme tell you, Hump. That roof 'll be down on our heads in a little less 'n no time."

In very sooth, it did not need the earnest warning of our friend to inform the maiden and myself that we were soon to be engulfed in a fiery furance, for the air was hot and the smoke stifling, e'en most to suffocation. The senorita helped us right willingly to remove what of food we needed, and water—the which was stored in large earthen jars called "ollas" by the Spanish—to the hole in the chapel floor, down which once more dropped Eli, to whom I handed what we had gathered. Not a moment too soon, either, did we swiftly follow after, for the smoke and flames filled the great room as we left it and essayed a venture in the dungeon. I seized the maiden by the arms, and gently lowered her to Eli, who took her as if she had been made of glass, and as reverently as if she were an angel, depositing her on a heap of our effects. I then leaped after her, and, with Eli's assistance, drew the marble slab over the aperture, leaving [258] merely a crack open for air. Then we lighted candles and looked around, the senorita and I for the first time viewing the gruesome scene that presented itself to our eyes.

"'T ain't jest the place we would choose to live in all the time," said Eli, noticing our look of dismay; "but it'll serve our pu'pose while the fire lasts, I guess. Plenty of comp'ny, anyhow, and the diff'rence betwixt them and us is that they've got to stay here while we're likely to git away after the fire's gone out." He held his candle high, so that we could sweep our glance along the walls of the dungeon, and revealed a sight that was enough to strike terror to a heart less stout than the senorita's, or even mine, for the walls were lined with grinning, ghastly skeletons, all ranged in rows—the last remains of men who had once lived and moved as we then lived and moved, but now transfixed by death. They were dressed as they must have been when alive, and all were leaning against the walls, kept in place by bands about their [259] crumbling remains. It was a sickening sight, and the maiden turned gasping to me, hiding her head for a space against my shoulder. Then I felt strong enough myself to withstand the sickening sensation that had begun to creep o'er me, for, my strength being necessary to support that frail girl, I summoned it back and felt equal to any emergency.


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HE HELD HIS CANDLE HIGH.

Despite the terrors then encompassing us on every hand, I felt an actual joy to think that this maiden turned to me for comfort and support. It had always been my desire to have a sister, to love and to cherish, and perhaps—thought I at that moment—perhaps this gentle being will supply a sister's place in my heart. I thanked God that He had given me some one to care for, and hoped occasion might arise by which I could prove myself worthy of her confidence.

So absorbed was I in the thought that I was scarcely aroused when a tremendous crash proclaimed that some of the timbers had fallen [260] from the roof. This was followed by a swirl of smoke and cinders, and, the hot air forcing itself into our retreat, we were nearly suffocated. Crash followed crash, until at last all the timbers had fallen in and the walls alone of the chapel were left standing. The heat was terrific, and the blinding smoke that filled the room and penetrated e'en to the dungeon pit, added to our discomfort. We could scarce breathe, but yet dared not remove the slab above us for fear we should be roasted alive; and e'en after the flames had spent their fury and the roar of the fire had subsided we still crouched in our living grave, silent and trembling, fearing to leave it lest perchance those who had set the fire should yet gain entrance to the building and slay us, after all.

"'T ain't very nice here, that's a fact," said Eli, his voice muffled by the noise without; "but it's a blame sight better 'n going out and taking the chances. Them that set the fire may be right after it, to make sure we're dead, so the [261] best thing we can do is play possum's long's we can stand it."

But no one came to disturb us, and, after the heat had subsided somewhat and the smoke had cleared away, Eli and I ventured to lift the slab; though we nearly dropped it back upon our heads, through its being so hot as to burn our fingers withal when we first essayed it. Hot ashes and cinders, too, rained down upon us as we slid it to one side and peered forth; or rather as I did, standing upon Eli's shoulders and looking fearsomely out upon the dismal scene. Nothing met my eye, however, but the bare, smoke-blackened walls and the smouldering rubbish on the floor, so I reported to Eli that I thought we might venture out, at least into the room above. He was of the same opinion, and, after he had assisted me to gain the floor, I reached down and drew the senorita up beside me. Then we both helped our friend out, after he passed up the food and water, neither of which had we touched. A useless labor, all this, one may say; [262] but we knew not what to provide for when we descended into the dungeon, and had to meet all possible emergencies in advance.

So here we were, after having passed through the fiery furnace, after having descended into the chamber of the dead, right back where we had started from, and none the worse for our experience, save for the bad air we had breathed and the shock to our nerves. And I was the gainer, methinks, for I had gained the confidence of the maiden, who, having once given her trust to me, seemed not desirous to withdraw it. That is, she now trusted me without reserve, not questioning my motives, but seeming to believe that I would eventually save her, and finally conduct her to her father and sister. Her trust in me gave me strength, as I have said, and it was a pure delight to look ever and again into her beautiful eyes, seeing there naught but implicit faith and confidence.

The silence continuing for an hour, at least, Eli proposed that we shoot back the bolts of the [263] big door and peer out into the corridor, if even we should not venture farther. The senorita clutched my arm when this was broached, and begged us not to take any unnecessary risks upon ourselves. "Why haste to leave this place?" she asked. "We are surely safe here, even if restrained of our liberty. We have food enough to last a month; we need not go forth yet. Let us stay until all danger is past. But yet—but yet," she added, "there is this chance if we go forth—that we may be of service to such as the pirates may have left suffering from wounds. Oh, I cannot tell what is best. I leave it to you, my friends."

Woman-like, she had begun to beg us to do a thing, and then had changed her mind and feared we might do it.

"Well, ma'am," said Eli, drawing circles in the hot ashes with the end of his wooden leg the while he spake, "it's jest this way, ma'am: If we stay we're jest as safe's we were before and no safer. As you say, we've got plenty to [264] eat and drink; and then ag'in, as you say, we might do a good deal of good by going out and a-hunting up the wounded and suffering. There's two sides to this ere question, and Hump and I'll leave it for you to decide for us."

"I—I would like to succor the suffering, albeit there be such," she replied, sweetly and modestly, "and as far as my life is concerned I am ready to risk it in the endeavor. But it is a poor life, and not worth so much as yours, I weep. Still, if you will go, I go also."

"Spoken like a brave girl," exclaimed Eli. "But, as to the wuth of our lives, the good Lord only knows. I know this: I wish I had as few sins to answer for as you have. Bless your sweet soul, my child, you're like an angel from heaven in your innocence. Ain't she, Hump? Say, boy, ain't she the sweetest, purtiest girl you ever see?"

This outspoken praise from the old man might have been embarrassing had we been in different circumstances; and, as it was, I felt the blood [265] rush to my face as I nodded my head in assent. The senorita blushed rosy red, then the blood left her face almost as quickly as it had mounted to her cheeks. She looked at Eli in some wonder, at first perhaps not comprehending his meaning, then she stole a glance at me, and, seeing my confusion, burst into a laugh. It was the most musical peal of laughter I ever heard, and it was refreshing to my soul, for we had endured so much of sadness of late it seemed there was to be nothing else.

I, too, laughed in sheer happiness, to think that she could so far forget, e'en if for but a moment, the terrible happenings of the past hours, and then Eli, too, caught the infection and joined in. It was but for an instant that the girl allowed herself to be merry, for the next moment there came to her a realizing sense of our true condition, and the tears followed hard after the merriment. Then, seeing the effect her tears had upon me, perchance by my rueful countenance, she smiled through her tears, and it was like [266] sunshine through a shower, or more like the bow of beauty and of promise that God set in the heavens as a token. But whatever the cause of all this, the effect was that of a refreshing shower. The atmosphere was cleared, and henceforth we knew and understood each other better than before.

"Well," said Eli, after all was over, "guess we 'd better make a try of it; hadn't we? We'll all go together, and live and die together. Ain't that it, ma'am?" The senorita nodded her pretty head, gathered her mantilla about her most gracefully, as if going out to church, placed a hand in one of mine, and stood by me quietly, though quivering with suppressed excitement, the while Eli shot back the great bolts, one after another.

"Hold your musquet ready, Hump," he said, warningly. "There might be somebody hiding behind the door. So, when I throw it open, jest you stand ready to shoot, if need be. Look to your flint and priming now; here goes!" With [267] that he threw open the door, and, the senorita having loosened her clasp on my hand, I threw my musget up at "ready" and stood awaiting an attack. But none came. In the corridor, which we could see stretching away before us, by stepping through the doorway and peering around the angle of the wall, nobody was in sight, and the silence of death reigned throughout. We breathed sighs of relief, all of us, and gathering up his arms, consisting of a brace of pistols, a cutlass and a musquet, Eli stumped ahead, insisting, as usual, to lead the van. I followed, with the senorita close behind, and in this order we went forth to see what we could find.

Emerging from the convent doorway, we came into the main street of the city, and there we first saw evidences of the terrible strife that had taken place. The walls of many houses were still spattered with blood, and here and there lay a contorted corpse, while the flocks of carrion crows, circling overhead and waddling [268] through the street, betokened that a ghastly banquet had been prepared for them by the human brutes who had invaded this peaceful place and put its people to the sword.

"Don't you think, ma'am, you 'd better go back and wait for us in the convent?" asked Eli of the senorita.

"Yes, please, do," I also entreated, for I feared, as did Eli, that the scenes which we knew could not but soon be disclosed would cause her infinite pain, and perhaps be more than she could bear. But she shook her head, though her face blanched and her lips were too rigid for her to form a word in reply.

Finally, she whispered: "I must go on with you. The worst, I know, has happened, and we may find our friends and neighbors slain, all of them; but I cannot stay alone." We said no more, but again took up our march for the fort, our hearts almost stilled with apprehension.

I would fain not tell what we found there, but the slain lay in heaps around the walls. [269] And—the most fearsome sight that heaven ever looked upon—there lay the nuns and maidens who had been driven by heartless Morgan to their death. It was like a second massacre of Saint Ursula and her hapless virgins, and I thought the senorita would die of heartbreak as she groped her way about, finding here a friend and there one who had been a companion, amongst the scores who had been so ruthlessly cut down.


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