CHAPTER 71: "THE JAILOR DIES"
Novelization of the JCB strip by Dale R. Broadhurst
A single ray of light broke the midnight darkness of the
subterranean cell. This scant illumination was constant, but other than
a paper-thin crack beneath the blocked-up food hole in the bulky wooden
door and a few dusty cobwebs, the tiny light revealed nothing. The remainder
of the room -- John Carter guessed it was a room of some kind -- was bathed
in inky blackness. He shouted but there were no echoes. He cast bits of
rubbish into the air and tried to tell whether they were striking distant
stone walls or merely bouncing upon the floor. In frustration he gave up
that useless work. Probably it was a cell of no great dimensions, constructed
entirely of steel-hard stone broken by a single entrance with a locked
door. He pushed aside handfuls of decaying garbage and made a place to
sleep in a corner two body lengths from the dim beam.
How many days passed, he could not tell. But if the growth
of his scant beard and other bodily signs could be trusted, the food hole
at the bottom of the wooden door was only opened at intervals of two or
three days each. The slop that arrived through this mysterious means was
a unmentionably disgusting concoction delivered in animal bladders, but
the Earthman downed each portion of the changeless menu of meat stew as
though it might be his last. Slowly his former health and energy returned.
He was heavily chained to the floor and walls but the
bonds were flexible enough and the chains long enough to allow him two
body lengths of movement -- the distance to the near edge of the doorway
and an equal span, in the opposite direction, to his familiar corner. He
was at least able to give his muscles some exercise. The Earthman's only
physical preoccupation in the utter darkness was the monotonous lifting
and lowering of his own body. That effort kept him limber and strong but
not even his alien sinews could break free of those thick steel bonds.
In conversations with friends Captain Carter has said
that this confinement in the basements of Warhoon's royal palace was the
most horrible experience of his entire life. Considering all that the great
swordsman has been through, in years beyond number, survival in that silent
dungeon must have been a terrible thing indeed. Often his thoughts verged
on madness. He would recite every word he knew, in alphabetical order,
and then recite the list again, backwards. He spoke to his shackles, as
though they were living beings. Eventually he plucked out his light beard,
lost count of the food deliveries and could not tell whether he lay there
on that cold stone floor for weeks, months or years. Only his recollections
of a red-skinned Martian maid and the one sweet kiss they had shared provided
any mental comfort -- and that small happiness was broken by the realization
that he did not know whether she had survived her attempted escape from
the same cruel monsters who kept him penned up in his own offal, like a
rat in a hole.
"I've dined on worms and insects I could never recognize
in the daylight," Captain Carter once revealed to Vad Varo of Duhor. "The
place where the Warhoon threw me was filled with little crawling creatures;
cold, sinuous bodies and unseen flying things, whose bites left excruciating
sores -- I learned how to grab and eat them all, unwashed and uncooked.
Perhaps that gave me the strength to stay live. At least it gave me one
more reason to relish the thought of murdering my green jailers in a thousand
His wish regarding the fate of the jailers finally came
to fruition, in a weird sort of way. Somehow the cover to the food hole
became stuck in place and one lazy cell guard began opening the door to
deposit Captain Carter's rare repasts, rather than expending the thought
and energy needed to make the repairs. Each time the green man came he
always advanced with his dim torch a few steps inside the door. In order
to enter the ancient cell the jailer was forced to bend over, for the doorway
had been constructed for a human being of normal size. Whenever the Warhoon
cell-keeper placed the stew-filled bladders on the floor, his ugly green
head was, for a moment, at the same level as his chained captive. And during
that moment, when the green man's head dropped down so low, his ring of
clanking cell keys dangled enticingly from his filthy leather harness,
practically in John Carter's face!
This change in the routine had gone on for half a dozen
time before the Earthman conceived of a plan whereby he might kill the
Warhoon, seize his keys and possibly even escape from the dark prison undetected.
At the jailer's next arrival, just as the fellow stooped down to deliver
the food, he saw his prisoner sprawled on the floor. With open mouth and
eyes rolled back, Carter's body was gasping and floundering as in the last
paroxysms of death!
The green man hesitated. No doubt long years spent in
his occupation had made him wary of any sort of deception. But this was
something new -- if he did not act to save the little man it could mean
trouble with his superiors. He leaned forward to probe at the spastic prisoner
with his smoldering torch, and that was his last act, ere he was united
with his fathers. John Carter swung a heavy chain above his head and crashed
the links with all his strength down upon the jailer's skull. The fellow
slumped to the floor without a sound, stone dead.
Here was a small victory that might lead to freedom! But
the mental strain produced by untold nights in that horrid cell had taken
its toll upon the Earthman's thoughts. His plans were mixed up inside his
brain. The green man had toppled over sideways. His upper body harness
was out of sight and perhaps even out of reach of the closely confined
Earthman. A long time must have passed before he decided what to do next.
And during that lapse the scurrying of other feet in his cell told John
Carter that he was not alone with the corpse. Gleaming eyes were coming
toward him, reflecting the meager rays that entered through the still open
door. Then there was a the slight sound of a body bumping against the wood
and the cell door swung shut with a thud -- and a click!
John Carter pulled himself atop the prone body and crawled
over the double torso. At the very end of his chains, he was groping with
his teeth to remove the keys from the dead Warhoon. Glancing up into the
darkness he saw six spots of faint reflection fixed, unbliinking, upon
him. Cautiously he backed away, but the evil eyes moved toward him out
of the darkness. Moments later he was again at the limits of his chains,
against the wall in the corner where he'd made a rude mattress from discarded
animal bladders. Backed into that inky corner, he crouched and held his
chained hands out into the blackness. Then the faint spots retreated. Their
departure was accompanied by a strange grating sound, low in the room,
but finally both the eyes and the eerie sound disappeared. Perhaps the
unknown creatures had retreated into some distant recess of the cell, or
perhaps they found a passage out of the dungeon. No matter, the Earthman
continued to crouch in the corner, counting his own heartbeats and waiting.