Chapter 15. In the Secret Chamber
 

The escaping party groped its way along the passage in the wall, down a rough, narrow flight of stone steps to a second tunnel, and along this underground way for several hundred yards. Since he was the only one familiar with the path they were traversing, the governor took the lead and guided the others. At a distance of perhaps an eighth of a mile from the palace the tunnel forked. Without hesitation, Megales kept to the right. A stone's throw beyond this point of divergence there began to be apparent a perceptible descent which terminated in a stone wall that blocked completely the way.

Megales reached up and put his weight on a rope suspended from the roof. Slowly the solid masonry swung on a pivot, leaving room on either side for a person to squeeze through. The governor found it a tight fit, as did also Gabilonda.

"I was more slender last time I passed through there. It has been several years since then," said the governor, giving his daughter a hand to assist her through.

They found themselves in a small chamber fitted up as a living room in a simple way. There were three plain chairs, a bed, a table, and a dresser, as well as a cooking stove.

"This must be close to the prison. We have been coming in that direction all the time. It is strange that it could be so near and I not know of it," said the warden, looking around curiously.

Megales smiled. "I am the only person alive that knew of the existence of this room or of the secret passage until half an hour ago. I had it built a few years since by Yaquis when I was warden of the prison. The other end, the one opening from the palace, I had finished after I became governor."

"But surely the men who built it know of its existence."

Again Megales smiled. "I thought you knew me better, Carlo. The Yaquis who built this were condemned raiders. I postponed their execution a few months while they were working on this. It was a convenience both to them and to me."

"And is also a convenience to me," smiled Carlo, who was beginning to recover from his terror.

"But I don't quite understand yet how we are to get out of here except by going back the way we came," said Gabilonda.

"Which for some of us might prove a dangerously unhealthy journey. True, colonel, and therefore one to be avoided." Megales stepped to the wall, spanned with his fingers a space from the floor above a joint in the masonry, and pressed against the concrete. Inch by inch the wall fell back and opened into a lower corridor of the prison, the very one indeed which led to the cell in which Bucky and his love were imprisoned. Cautiously the Spaniard's glance traveled down the passage to see it was empty before he opened the panel door more than enough to look through. Then he beckoned to Gabilonda. "Behold, doubting Thomas!"

The warden gasped. "And I never knew it, never had a suspicion of it."

"But this only brings us from one prison to another," objected the general. "We might be penned in here as well as at the castle."

"Even that contingency has been provided for. You noticed, perhaps, where the tunnel forked. The left branch runs down to the river-wash, and by ten minutes' digging with the tools lying there one can force an exit."

"Your excellency is certainly a wonder, and all this done without arousing the least suspicion of anybody," admired the warden.

"The wise man, my dear colonel, prepares for emergencies; the fool trusts to his luck," replied the governor dryly.

"Are we to stay here for the present, colonel?" broke in the governor's daughter. "And can you furnish accommodations for the rest of us if we stay all night, as I expect we must?"

"My dear senorita, I have accommodations and to spare. But the trouble is that your presence would become known. I should be the happiest' man alive to put my all at the accommodation of Chihuahua's fairest daughter. But if it should get out that you are here--" Gabilonda stopped to shrug his fat shoulders at the prospect.

"We shall have to stay here, or, at least, in the lower tier of cells. I'm sorry, Carmencita, but there is no other course compatible with safety," decided Megales promptly.

The warden's face cleared. "That is really not a point for me to decide, governor. This young American, O'Connor, is now in charge of the prison. I must release him at once, and shall then bring him here to confer with you as to means of safety."

Bucky's eyes opened wide when Gabilonda and Megales came alone and without a lantern to his cell. In the darkness it was impossible to recognize them, but once within the closed cell the warden produced a dark lantern from under his coat.

"Circumstances have arisen that make the utmost vigilance necessary," explained the warden. "I may begin my explanations by congratulating you and your young friend. Let me offer a thousand felicitations. Neither of you are any longer prisoners."

If he expected either of them to fall on his neck and weep tears of gratitude at his pompous announcement, the colonel was disappointed. From the darkness where the ranger's little partner sat on the bed came a deep sigh of relief, but O'Connor did not wink an eyelash.

"I may conclude, then, that Mike O'Halloran has been getting in his work?" was his cool reply.

"Exactly, senor. He is the man on horseback and I travel afoot," smiled Megales.

Bucky looked him over coolly from head to foot. "Still I can't quite understand why your ex-excellency does me the honor of a personal visit."

"Because, senor, in the course of human events Providence has seen fit to reverse our positions. I am now your prisoner and you my jailer," explained Megales, and urbanely added a whimsical question. "Shall you have me hanged at dawn?"

"It would be a pleasure, and, I reckon, a duty too. But I can't promise till I've seen Mike. Do some more explaining, colonel. I want to know all about the round-up O'Halloran is boss of. Did he make a right good gather?"

The subtleties of American humor baffled the little Mexican, but he appreciated the main drift of the ranger's query, and narrated with much gesticulation the story of the coup that O'Halloran had pulled off in capturing the government leaders.

"It was an exceedingly neat piece of strategy," its victim admitted. "I would give a good deal to have the privilege of hanging your red-headed friend, but since that is denied me, I must be grateful he does not take a fancy to hang me."

"In case he doesn't, your excellency," was Bucky's addendum.

"I understand he has decided to deport me," retorted Megales lightly. "It is perhaps better politics, on the whole, better even than a knife in the back."

"Unless rumor is a lying jade, you should be a good judge of that, governor," said the American, eyeing him sternly.

Megales shrugged. "One of the penalties of fame is that one gets credit for much he does not deserve. There was your immortal General Lincoln, a wit so famous in your country that every good story is fathered upon him, I understand. So with your humble servant. Let a man accomplish his vendetta upon the body of an enemy, and behold! the world cries: 'A victim of Megales.'"

"Still, if you deserve your reputation as much as our immortal General Lincoln deserves his, the world may be pardoned for an occasional error." O'Connor turned to the warden. "What does he mean by saying that he is my prisoner? Have you a message for me from O'Halloran, colonel?"

"It is his desire, senor, that, pending the present uncertain state of public opinion, you accept the command of the prison and hold safe all persons detained here, including his excellency and General Carlo. He desired me to assure you that as soon as is possible he will arrive to confer with you in person."

"Good enough, and are you a prisoner, too, colonel?"

"I did not so understand Senor O'Halloran."

"If you're not you have to earn your grub and lodgings. I'll appoint you my deputy, colonel. And, first off, my orders are to lock up his excellency and General Carlo in this cell till morning."

"The cell, Senor O'Connor, is damp and badly ventilated," protested Gabilonda.

"I know that a heap better than you do, colonel," said Bucky dryly. "But if it was good enough for me and my pardner, here, I reckon it's good enough for them. Anyhow, we'll let them try it, won't we, Frank;"

"If you think best, Bucky."

"You bet I do."

"And what about the governor's daughter?" asked Gabilonda.

"You don't say! Is she a guest of this tavern?"

The colonel explained how they had reached the prison and the circumstances that had led to their hurried flight, while the ranger whistled the air of a cowboy song, his mind busy with this new phase of the case.

"She's one of these here Spanish blue-blooded senoritas used to guitar serenades under her window. Now, what would you do with her in a jail, Bucky?" he asked himself, in humorous dismay; but even as he reflected on it his roving eye fell on his friend. "The very thing. I'll take Curly Haid in to her and let them fall in love with each other. You're liable to be some busy, Bucky, and shy on leisure to entertain a lady, let alone two."

And so he arranged it. Leaving the former governor and General Carlo in the cell just vacated by them, Frances and he accompanied Gabilonda to the secret room behind the corridor wall.

All three parties to the introduction that followed acknowledged secretly to a surprise. Miss Carmencita had expected the friend of big, rough, homely O'Halloran to resemble him in kind, at least. Instead, she looked on a bronzed young Apollo of the saddle with something of that same lithe grace she knew and loved in Juan Valdez. And the shy boy beside him--why, the darling was sweet enough to kiss. The big, brown, helpless eyes, the blushing, soft cheeks, the crop of thick, light curls were details of an extraordinarily taking picture. Really, if these two were fair specimens, Americans were not so bad, after all. Which conclusion Juan Valdez's fondness for that race may have helped in part to form.

But if the young Spanish girl found a little current of pleasure in her surprise, Bucky and his friend were aware of the same sensation. All the charm of her race seemed summed up in Carmencita Megales. She was of blue blood, every feature and motion told that. The fine, easy set of her head, the fire in the dark, heavy-lashed eyes, the sweep of dusky chin and cheek and throat certified the same story. She had, too, that coquettish hint of uncertainty, that charm of mystery so fatal in its lure to questing man. Even physically the contradiction of sex attracted. Slender and lissom as a fawn, she was yet a creature of exquisitely rounded curves. Were her eyes brown or black or--in the sunlight--touched with a gleam of copper? There was always uncertainty. But much more was there fire, a quality that seemed to flash out from her inner self. She was a child of whims, a victim of her moods. Yet in her, too, was a passionate loyalty that made fickleness impossible. She knew how to love and how to hate, and, despite her impulses, was capable of surrender complete and irrevocable.

All of this Bucky did not read in that first moment of meeting, but the shrewd judgment behind the level blue eyes came to an appraisal roughly just. Before she had spoken three sentences he knew she had all her sex's reputed capacity for injustice as well as its characteristic flashes of generosity.

"Are you one of the men who have rebelled against my father and attempted to murder him?" she flashed.

"I'm the man he condemned to be hanged tomorrow morning at dawn for helping Juan Valdez take the guns," retorted Bucky, with a laugh.

"You are his enemy, and, therefore, mine."

"I'm a friend of Michael O'Halloran, who stood between him and the mob that wanted to kill him."

"Who first plotted against him and seduced his officers to betray him," she quickly replied.

"I reckon, ma'am, we better agree to disagree on politics," said Bucky good-naturedly. "We're sure liable to see things different from each other. Castile and Arizona don't look at things with the same eyes."

She looked at him just then with very beautiful and scornful ones, at any rate. "I should hope not."

"You see, we're living in the twentieth century up in the sunburned State," said Bucky, with smiling aplomb.

"Indeed! And we poor Chihuahuans?"

"When I see the ladies I think you're ce'tainly in the golden age, but when I break into your politics, I'm some reminded of that Richard Third fellow in the Shakespeare play."

"Referring, I presume, to my father?" she demanded haughtily.

"In a general way, but eliminating the most objectionable points of the king fellow."

"You're very kind." She interrupted her scorn to ask him where he meant her to sleep.

He glanced over the room. "This might do right here, if we had that bed aired."

"Do you expect to put me in irons?"

"Not right away. Colonel, I'll ask you to go to the office and notify me as soon as Senor O'Halloran arrives." He waited till the colonel had gone before adding: "I'm going to leave this boy with you, senorita, for a while. He'll explain some things to you that I can't. In about an hour I'll be back, perhaps sooner. So long, Curly. Tell the lady your secret." And with that Bucky was out of the room.

"Your secret, child! What does he mean?"

The flame of color that swept into the cheeks of Frances, the appeal in the shamed eyes, held Carmencita's surprised gaze. Then coolly it traveled over the girl and came back to her burning face.

"So that's it, is it?"

But the scorn in her voice was too much for Frances. She had been judged and condemned in that cool stare, and all the woman in her protested at its injustice.

"No, no, no!" she cried, running forward and catching at the other's hand. "I'm not that. You don't understand."

Coldly Carmencita disengaged her hand and wiped it with her kerchief. "I understand enough. Please do not touch me."

"May I not tell you my story?"

"I'll not trouble you. It does not interest me."

"But you will listen?" implored the other.

"I must ask to be excused."

"Then you are a heartless, cruel woman," flamed Frances. "I'm good--as good as you are." The color patched her cheek and ebbed again. "I wouldn't treat a dog as you do me. Oh, cruel, cruel!"

The surprising extravagance of her protest, the despair that rang in the fresh young voice, caught the interest of the Mexican girl. Surely such a heart-broken cry did not consist with guilt. But the facts--when a young and pretty girl masquerades through the country in the garb of a boy with a handsome young man, not much room for doubt is left.

Frances was quick to see that the issue was reopened. "Oh, senorita, it isn't as you think. Do I look like--" She broke off to cover with her hands a face in which the pink and white warred with alternate success. "I ought not to have come. I ought never to have come. I see that now. But I didn't think he would know. You see, I had always passed as a boy when I wanted to."

"A remarkably pretty one, child," said Miss Carmencita, a smile dimpling her cheeks. "But how do you mean that you had passed as a boy?"

Frances explained, giving a rapid sketch of her life with the Hardmans during which she had appeared every night on the stage as a boy without the deception being suspected. She had cultivated the tricks and ways of boys, had tried to dress to carry out the impression, and had always succeeded until she had made the mistake of putting on a gypsy girl's dress a couple of days before.

Carmencita heard her out, but not as a judge. Very early in the story her doubts fled and she succumbed to the mothering instinct in her. She took the American girl in her arms and laughed and cried with her; for her imagination seized on the romance of the story and delighted in its fresh unconventionality. Since she had been born Carmencita's life had been ordered for her with precision by the laws of caste. Her environment wrapped her in so that she must follow a set and beaten path. It was, to be sure, a flower-strewn one, but often she impotently rebelled against its very orderliness. And here in her arms was a victim of that adventurous romance she had always longed so passionately to know. Was it wonder she found it in her heart to both love and envy the subject of it?

"And this young cavalier--the Senor Bucky, is it you call him?--surely you love him, my dear."

"Oh, senorita!" The blushing face was buried on her new friend's shoulder. "You don't know how good he is."

"Then tell me," smiled the other. "And call me Carmencita."

"He is so brave, and patient, and good. I know there was never a man like him."

Miss Carmencita thought of one and demurred silently. "I'm sure this paragon of lovers is at least part of what you say. Does he love you? But I am sure he couldn't help it."

"Sometimes I think he does, but once--" Frances broke off to ask, in a pink flame: "How does a lover act?"

Miss Carmencita's laughter rippled up. "Gracious me, have you never had one before."

"Never."

"Well, he should make verses to you and pretty speeches. He should sing serenades about undying love under your window. Bonbons should bombard you, roses make your rooms a bower. He should be ardent as Romeo, devoted as a knight of old. These be the signs of a true love," she laughed.

Frances' face fell. If these were the tokens of true love, her ranger was none. For not one of the symptoms could fairly be said to fit him. Perhaps, after all, she had given him what he did not want.

"Must he do all that? Must he make verses?" she asked blankly, not being able to associate Bucky with poetasting.

"He must," teased her tormentor, running a saucy eye over her boyish garb. "And why not with so fair a Rosalind for a subject?" She broke off to quote in her pretty, uncertain English, acquired at a convent in the United States, where she had attended school:

 "From the east to western Ind,
  No jewel is like Rosalind.
  Her worth being mounted on the wind,
  Through all the world bears Rosalind.

  All the pictures, fairest lin'd, 
  Are but black to Rosalind.
  Let no face be kept in mind  
  But the fair of Rosalind."

So your Shakespeare has it, does he not?" she asked, reverting again to the Spanish language, in which they had been talking. But swift on the heels of her raillery came repentance. She caught the dispirited girl to her embrace laughingly. "No, no, child! Nonsense ripples from my tongue. These follies are but for a carpet lover. You shall tell me more of your Senor Bucky and I shall make no sport of it."

When Bucky returned at the expiration of the time he had set himself, he found them with their arms twined about each other's waists, whispering the confidences that every girl on the threshold of womanhood has to tell her dearest friend.

"I reckon you like my pardner better than you do me," smiled Bucky to Miss Carmencita.

"A great deal better, sir, but then I know him better."

Bucky's eyes rested for a moment almost tenderly on Frances. "I reckon he is better worth knowing," he said.

"Indeed! And you so brave, and patient, and good?" she mocked.

"Oh! Am I all that?" asked Bucky easily.

"So I have been given to understand."

Out of the corner of his eye O'Connor caught the embarrassed, reproachful look that Frances gave her audacious friend, and he found it easy to fit quotation marks round the admirable qualities that had just been ascribed to him. He guessed himself blushing a deux with his little friend, and also divined Miss Carmencita's roguish merriment at their confusion.

"I am all those things you mentioned and a heap more you forgot to say," claimed the ranger boldly, to relieve the situation. "Only I didn't know for sure that folks had found it out. My mind's a heap easier to know I'm being appreciated proper at last."

Under her long, dark lashes Miss Carmencita looked at him in gentle derision. "I'm of opinion, sir, that you get all the appreciation that is good for you."

Bucky carried the war into the enemy's country. "Which same, I expect, might be said of Chihuahua's most beautiful belle. And, talking of Senor ,Valdez reminds me that I owe a duty to his father, who is confined here. I'll be saying good night ladies."

"It's high time," agreed Miss Megales. "Talking of Senor Valdez, indeed!"

"Good night, Curly Haid."

"Good night, Bucky."

To which, in mocking travesty, added, in English, Miss Carmencita, who seemed to have an acute attack of Shakespeare:

"Good night, good night; parting is such sweet sorrow
 That I shall say good night till
 It be morrow."