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CACTUS AND MEXICANS
They now came upon bare, wind-swept plains, which alternated with blazing heat and bitter cold. Once they nearly perished in a Norther, which drove down upon them with sheets of hail. Fortunately their serapes were very thick and large, and they found additional shelter among some ragged and mournful yucca trees. But they were much shaken by the experience, and they rested an entire day by the banks of a shallow little brook.
"Oh, for a horse, two horses!" said Obed. "I'd give all our castles in Spain for two noble Barbary steeds to take us swiftly o'er the plain."
"I think we'll keep on walking," said Ned.
"At any rate, we're good walkers. We must be the very best walkers in the world judging from the way we've footed it since we left the castle of San Juan de Ulua."
They refilled their water bottles, despite the muddiness of the stream, and went on for three or four days over the plain, having nothing for scenery save the sandy ridges, the ragged yuccas, dwarfed and ugly mesquite bushes, and the deformed cactus.
It was an ugly enough country by day, but, by night, it had a sort of weird charm. The moonlight gave soft tints to the earth. Now and then the wind would pick up the sand and carry it away in whirling gusts. The wind itself had a voice that was almost human and it played many notes. Lean and hungry wolves now appeared and howled mournfully, but were afraid to attack that terrible creature, man.
They saw sheep herders several times, but the herders invariably disappeared over the horizon with great speed. Neither Ned nor Obed meant them any harm, and they would have liked to exchange a few words with human beings.
"They think of course that we're brigands," said Obed. "It's what anybody would take us for. Evil looks corrupt good intentions."
The next day Obed was lucky enough to shoot an antelope, and they had fresh food. It was a fine fat buck, and they jerked and dried the remainder of the body in the sun, taking a long rest at the same time. Obed was continually restraining Ned's eagerness to hurry on.
"The race is to the swift if he doesn't break down," he said, "but you've got to guard mighty well against breaking down. I think we're going to enter a terrible long stretch of dry country, and we want our muscles to be tough and our wind to be good."
Obed was partially right in his prediction as they passed for three days through an absolutely sterile region. It was not sandy, however, but the soil was hard and baked like a stone. Then they saw on their left high but bare and desolate mountains, and soon they came to a little river of clear water, apparently flowing down from the range. The stream was not over twenty feet wide and two feet deep, but its appearance was inexpressibly grateful to both. They sat down on its banks and looked at each other.
"Ned," said Obed, "how much dust of the desert do you think I am carrying upon me? Let your answer be without prejudice. Friendship in this case must not stand in the way of truth."
"Do you mean by weight or by area?"
"Answering by guess I should say about three square yards, or about three pounds. Wouldn't you say about the same for me?"
"Just about the same. I should say, too, that we carry at least twelve or fifteen kinds of dirt. It is well soaked in our hair and also in our clothes, and, as we may not get another good chance for a bath in a month, we'd better use our opportunity."
They reveled in the cool waters. They also washed out all their clothing, including their serapes, and let the garments dry in the sun. It was the most luxurious stop that they had made and they enjoyed it to the full. Ned, scouting a little distance up the stream, shot a fine fat deer among the bushes, and that night they had a feast of tender steaks. Obed had obtained flint and steel at the Indian village, at which they had seen the fandango, and he could light a fire with them, a most difficult thing to do. Their fire was of dried cactus, burning rapidly, but it lasted long enough for their cooking. After the heartiest meal that they had eaten in a long time, they stretched out by the river, listening to its pleasant flow. The remainder of the deer they had hung high in the branches of a myrtle oak about forty yards away.
"We haven't got our horses," said Obed, "but we're making progress. Time and tide will carry man with them if he's ready with his boat."
"Perhaps we've been lucky, too," said Ned, "in passing through what is mostly a wilderness."
"That's so. The desert is a hard road, but in our case it keeps enemies away."
They were lying on their serapes, the waters sang softly, the night was dark but very cool and pleasant, and they were happy. But Ned suddenly saw something that made him reach out and touch his companion.
"Look!" he whispered, pointing a finger.
They saw a dark figure creep on noiseless feet toward the tree, from a bough of which hung their deer. It was only a shadow in the night, but they knew that it was a cougar, drawn by the savor of the deer.
"Don't shoot," whispered Obed. "He can't get our meat, but we'll watch him try."
They lay quite still and enjoyed the joke. The cougar sprang again and again, making mighty exertions, but always the rich food swung just out of his reach. Once or twice his nose nearly touched it, but the two or three inches of gulf which he could never surmount were as much as two or three miles. He invariably fell back snarling, and he became so absorbed in the hopeless quest that there was no chance of his noticing the man and boy who lay not far away.
The humor of it appealed strongly to Ned and Obed. The cougar, after so many vain leaps, lay on the ground for a while panting. Then he ran up the tree, and as far out on the bough as he dared. He reached delicately with a forefoot, but he could not touch the strips of bark with which the body was tied. Then he lay flat upon the bough and snarled again and again.
"That's a good punishment for a rascally thief," whispered Obed. "I don't blame him for trying to get something to eat, but it's our deer. Let him go away and do his own hunting."
The cougar came back down the tree, but his descent was made with less spirit than his ascent. Nevertheless he made another try at the jumping. Ned saw, however, that he did not do as well as before. He never came within six inches of the deer now. At last he lay flat again on the ground and panted, staying there a full five minutes. When he got up he made one final and futile jump, and then sneaked away, exhausted and ashamed.
"Now, Ned," said Obed, "since the comedy is over I think we can safely go to sleep."
"Especially as we know our deer is safe," said Ned.
Both slept soundly throughout the remainder of the night. Toward morning the cougar came back and looked longingly at the body of the deer hanging from the bough of the tree. He thought once or twice of leaping for it again, but there was a shift of the wind and he caught the human odor from the two beings who lay forty yards away. He was a large and strong beast of prey, but this odor frightened him, and he slunk off among the trees, not to return.
Ned and Obed stayed two days beside the little river, taking a complete rest, bathing frequently in the fresh waters, and curing as much of the deer as possible for their journey. Then, rather heavily loaded, they started anew, always going northward through a sad and rough land. Now they entered another bare and sterile region of vast extent, walking for five days, without seeing a single trace of surface water. Had it not been for their capacious water bottles they would have perished, and, even with their aid, it was only by the strictest economy that they lived. The evaporation from the heat was so great that after a mouthful or two of water they were invariably as thirsty as ever, inside of five minutes.
They passed from this desert into a wide, dry valley between bare mountains, and entered a great cactus forest, one of the most wonderful things that either of them had ever seen. The ground was almost level, but it was hard and baked. Apparently no more rain fell here than in the genuine desert of shifting sand, and there was not a drop of surface water. Ned, when he first saw the mass of green, took it for a forest of trees, such as one sees in the North, but so great was his interest that he was not disappointed, when he saw that it was the giant cactus.
The strange forest extended many miles. The stems of the cactus rose to a height of sixty feet or more, with a diameter often reaching two feet. Sometimes the stems had no branches, but, in case they did, the branches grew out at right angles from the main stem, and then curving abruptly upward continued their growth parallel to the parent stock.
The stems of these huge plants were divided into eighteen or twenty ribs, within which at intervals of an inch or so were buds, with cushions, yellow and thick, from which grew six or seven large, and many smaller spines.
Most of the cactus trees were gorgeous with flowers, ranging from a deep rich crimson through rose and pink to a creamy white.
The green of the plants and the delicate colors of the flowers were wonderfully soothing to the two who had come from the bare and burning desert. There their eyes had ached with the heat and glare. They had longed for shade as men had longed of old for the shadow of a rock in a weary land. In truth they found little shade in the cactus forest, but the green produced the illusion of it. They expected to find flowing or standing water, but they went on for many miles and the soil remained hard and baked, as it can bake only in the rainless regions of high plateaus.
They found the forest to be fully thirty miles in length and several miles in width. Everywhere the giant cactus predominated, and on its eastern border they found two Indian men and several women and children gathering the fruit, from which they made an excellent preserve. The Indians were short in stature and very dark. All started to run when they saw the white man and boy, both armed with rifles, approaching, but Ned and Obed held up their hands as a sign of amity and, after some hesitation, they stopped. They spoke a dialect which neither Ned nor Obed could understand, but by signs they made a treaty of peace.
They slept that night by the fire of their new friends and the next day they were fortunate enough to shoot a deer, the greater part of which they gave to the Indians. The older of the men then guided them out of the forest at the northern end, and indicated as nearly as he could, by the same sign language, the course they should pursue in order to reach Texas. They had gone too far to the west, and by coming back toward the east they would save distance, as well as pass through a better country. Then he gravely bade them farewell and went back to his people.
Ned and Obed now crossed a low but rugged range of mountains, and came into good country where they were compelled to spend a large part of their time, escaping observation. It was only the troubled state of the people and the extreme division of sentiment among them that saved the two from capture. But they obtained news that filled both with joy. Fighting had occurred in Texas, but no great Mexican army had yet gone into the north.
Becoming bold now from long immunity and trusting to their Mexican address and knowledge of Spanish and its Mexican variants, they turned into the main road and pursued their journey at a good pace. They were untroubled the first day but on the second day they saw a cloud of dust behind them.
"Sheep being driven to market," said Obed.
"I don't know," replied Ned, looking back. "That cloud of dust is at least a mile away, but it seems to me I saw it give out a flash or two."
"What kind of a flash do you mean?"
"Bright, like silver or steel. There, see it!"
"Yes, I see it now, and I think you know what makes it, Ned."
"I should say that it is the sun striking on the steel heads of long lances."
"So should I, and I say also that those lances are carried by Mexican cavalrymen bound for Texas. It may not be a bad guess either that this is the vanguard of the army of Cos. I infer from the volume of dust that it is a considerable force."
"Therefore it is wise for us to leave the road and hide as best we can."
"Correctly spoken. The truth needs no bush. It walks without talking."
They turned aside at once, and entered a field of Indian corn, where they hoped to pass quietly out of sight, but some of the lancers came on very fast and noticed the dusty figures at the far edge of the field. Many of the Mexicans were skilled and suspicious borderers, and the haste with which the two were departing seemed suspicious to them.
Ned and Obed heard loud and repeated shouts to halt, but pretending not to hear passed out of the field and entered a stretch of thin forest beyond.
"We must not stop," said Obed. "Being regular soldiers they will surely discover, if they overtake us, that we are not Mexicans, and two or three lance thrusts would probably be the end of us. Now that we are among these trees we'll run for it."
A shout came from the lancers in the corn field as soon as they saw the two break into a run. Ned heard it, and he felt as the fox must feel when the hounds give tongue. Tremors shook him, but his long and silent mental training came to his aid. His will strengthened his body and he and Obed ran rapidly. Nor did they run without purpose. Both instinctively looked for the roughest part of the land and the thickest stretches of forest. Only there could they hope to escape the lancers who were thundering after them.
Ned more than once wished to use his rifle, but he always restrained the impulse, and Obed glanced at him approvingly. He seemed to know what was passing in the boy's mind.
"Our bullets would be wasted now, even if we brought down a lancer or two," he said, "so we'll just save 'em until we're cornered--if we are. Then they will tell. Look, here are thorn bushes! Come this way."
They ran among the bushes which reached out and took little bits of their clothing as they passed. But they rejoiced in the fact. Horses could never be driven into that dense, thorny growth, and they might evade pursuers on foot. The thorn thicket did not last very long, however. They passed out of it and came into rough ground with a general trend upward. Both were panting now and their faces were wet with perspiration. The breath was dry and hot and the heart constricted painfully. They heard behind them the noise of the pursuit, spread now over a wide area.
"If only these hills continue to rise and to rise fast," gasped Obed White, "we may get away among the rocks and bushes."
There was a rapid tread of hoofs, and two lancers, with their long weapons leveled, galloped straight at them. Obed leaped to one side, but Ned, so startled that he lost command of himself, stopped and stood still. He saw one of the men bearing down upon him, the steel of the lance head glittering in the sunlight, and instinctively he closed his eyes. He heard a sharp crack, something seemed to whistle before his face, and then came a cry which he knew was the death cry of a man. He had shut his eyes only for a moment, and when he opened them he saw the Mexican falling to the ground, where he lay motionless across his lance. Obed White stood near, and his rifle yet smoked. Ned instantly recovered himself, and fired at the second lancer who, turning about, galloped away with a wound in his shoulder.
"Come Ned," cried Obed White. "There is a time for all things, and it is time for us to get away from here as fast as we can."
He could not be too quick for Ned, who ran swiftly, avoiding another look at the silent and motionless figure on the ground. The riderless horse was crashing about among the trees. From a point three or four hundred yards behind there came the sound of much shouting. Ned thought it to be an outburst of anger caused by the return of the wounded lancer.
"We stung 'em a little," he panted.
"We did," said Obed White. "Remember that when you go out to slay you may be slain. But, Ned, we must reload."
They curved about, and darting into a thick clump of bushes put fresh charges in their rifles. Ned was trembling from excitement and exertion, but his anger was beginning to rise. There must always come a time when the hunted beast will turn and rend if it can. Ned had been the hunted, now he wanted to become the hunter. Obed and he had beaten off the first attack. There were plenty more bullets where the other two had come from, and he was eager to use them. He peered out of the bushes, his face red, his eyes alight, his rifle ready for instant use. But Obed placed one hand on his shoulder:
"Gently, Ned, gently!" he said. "We can't fight an entire Mexican army, but if we slip away to some good position we can beat off any little band that may find us."
It was evident that the Mexicans had lost the trail, for the time being. They were still seeking the quarry but with much noise and confusion. A trumpet was blown as if more help were needed. Officers shouted orders to men, and men shouted to one another. Several shots were fired, apparently at imaginary objects in the bushes.
"While they're running about and bumping into one another we'll regain a little of our lost breath which we'll need badly later," said Obed. "We can watch from here, and when they begin to approach then it's up and away again."
Those were precious minutes. The ground was not good for the lancers who usually advanced in mass, and, after the fall of one man and the wounding of another, the soldiers on foot were not very zealous in searching the thickets. The breathing of the two fugitives became easy and regular once more. The roofs of their mouths were no longer hot and dry, and their limbs did not tremble from excessive exertion. Ned had turned his eyes from the Mexicans and was examining the country in the other direction.
"Obed," he said, "there's a low mountain about a mile back of us, and it's covered with forest. If we ever reach it we can get away."
"Yes--if we reach it," said Obed, "and, Ned, we'll surely try for it. Ah, there they come in this direction now!"
A squad of about twenty men was approaching the thicket rapidly. Ned and Obed sprang up and made at top speed for the mountain. The soldiers uttered a shout and began to fire. But they had only muskets and the bullets did not reach. Ned and Obed, having rested a full ten minutes, ran fast. They were now descending the far side of the hill and meant to cross a slight valley that lay between it and the mountain. When they were near the center of this valley they heard the hoofs of horsemen, and again saw lancers galloping toward them. These horsemen had gone around the hill, and now the hunt was in full cry again.
Ned and Obed would have been lost had not the valley been intersected a little further on by an arroyo seven or eight feet deep and at least fifteen feet wide. They scrambled down it, then up it and continued their flight among the bushes, while the horsemen, compelled to stop on the bank, uttered angry and baffled cries.
"The good luck is coming with the bad," said Obed. "The foot soldiers will still follow. They know that we're Texans and they want us. Do you see anybody following us now, Ned?"
"I can see the heads of about a dozen men above the bushes."
"Perhaps they are delegated to finish the work. The whole army of Cos can't stop to hunt down two Texans, and when we get on that mountain, Ned, we may be able to settle with these fellows on something like fair terms."
"Let's spurt a little," said Ned.
They put on extra steam, but the Mexicans seemed to have done the same, as presently, appearing a little nearer, they began to shout or fire. Ned heard the bullets pattering on the bushes behind him.
"A hint to the wise is a stitch in time," said Obed White. "Those fellows are getting too noisy. I object to raucous voices making loud outcries, nor does the sound of bullets dropping near please me. I shall give them a hint."
Wheeling about he fired at the nearest Mexican. His rifle was a long range weapon and the man fell with a cry. The others hesitated and the fugitives increased their speed. Now they were at the base of the mountain. Now they were up the slope which was densely clothed with trees and bushes.
Then they came to a great hollow in the stone side of the ridge, an indentation eight or ten feet deep and as many across, while above them the stone arched over their heads at a height of seventy or eighty feet.
"We'll just stay here," said Obed White. "You can run and you can run, but the time comes when you can run no more. They can't get at us from overhead, and they can't get at us from the sides. As for the front, I think that you and I, Ned, can hold it against as many Mexicans as may come."
"At least we'll make a mighty big try," said Ned, whose courage rose high at the sight of their natural fort. They had their backs to the wall, but this wall was of solid stone, and it also curved around on either side of them. Moreover, he had a chance to regain his breath which was once more coming in hot and painful gasps from his chest.
"Let's lie down, Ned," said Obed, "and pull up that log in front of this."
Near them lay the stem of an oak that had fallen years before. All the boughs had decayed and were gone, so it was not a very difficult task to drag the log in front of them, forming a kind of bar across the alcove. As it was fully a foot in diameter it formed an excellent fortification behind which they lay with their rifles ready. It was indeed a miniature fort, the best that a wilderness could furnish at a moment's notice, and the fighting spirit of the two rose fast. If the enemy came on they were ready to give him a welcome.
But the two heard nothing in the dense forest in front of them. The pursuers evidently were aware of the place, in which they had taken refuge, and knew the need of cautious approach. Mexicans do not lack bravery, but both Obed and Ned were sure there would be a long delay.
"I think that all we've got to do for the present," said Obed, "is to watch the woods in front of us, and see that none of them sneaks up near enough for a good shot."
Nearly an hour passed, and they neither saw nor heard anything in the forest. Then there was a rushing sound, a tremendous impact in front of them and something huge bounded and bounded again among the bushes. It was a great rock that had been rolled over the cliff above, in the hope that it would fall upon them, but the arch of stone over their heads was too deep. It struck fully five feet in front of them. Both were startled, although they knew that they were safe, and involuntarily they drew back.
"More will come," said Obed. "Just as one swallow does not make a summer, one stone does not make a flight. Ah, there it is now!"
They heard that same rushing sound through the air, and a bowlder weighing at least half a ton struck in front of their log. It did not bound away like the first, but being so much heavier buried half its weight in the earth and lay there. Obed chuckled and regarded the big stone with an approving look.
"It's an ill stone that doesn't fall to somebody's good," he said. "That big fellow is squarely in the path of anybody who advances to attack us, and adds materially to our breastwork. If they'll only drop a few more they'll make an impregnable fortification for us."
The third came as he spoke, but being a light one rolled away. The fourth was also light, and alighting on the big one bounded back into the alcove, striking just between Ned and Obed. It made both jump and shiver, but they knew that it was a chance not likely to happen again in a hundred times. The bombardment continued for a quarter of an hour without any harm to either of the two, and then the silence came again. Ned and Obed pushed the rock out of the alcove, leaving it in front of them and now their niche had a formidable stone reinforcement.
"They'll be slipping up soon to look at our dead bodies," whispered Obed, "and between you and me, Ned, I think there will be a great surprise in Mexico to-day."
They lay almost flat and put the muzzles of their rifles across the log. Both, used to life on the border, where the rifle was a necessity, were fine shots and they were also keen of eye and ear. They waited for a while which seemed interminably long to Ned, but which was not more than a quarter of an hour, and then he heard a slight movement among the trees somewhat to their left. He called Obed's attention to it and the man nodded:
"I hear it, too," he whispered. "Those investigators are cautious, but they'll have to come up in front before they can get at us, and then we can get at them, too. We'll just be patient."
Ned was at least quiet and contained, although it was impossible to be patient. They heard the rustling at intervals on their right, then it changed to their front, and he saw a black head, covered with a sombrero, peep from behind a tree. The head came a little farther, disclosing a shoulder, and Obed White fired. They heard a yell of pain, and a thrashing among the bushes, but the sound rapidly moved farther and farther away.
"That fellow was stung badly," said Obed White with satisfaction, "and he won't come back. I'm glad to see, Ned, that you held your fire, keeping ready for any other who might come."
Ned glowed at the compliment. He had cocked his rifle, and was ready but he remained cool, wasting no shot.
"I fancy that they now know we are here," said Obed, who loved to talk, "and that we have not been demolished by the several tons of rock that they have sent down from above. A shot to the wise is sufficient. Keep down, Ned! Keep down!"
From a point sixty or seventy yards away Mexicans, lying among the trees or in the undergrowth, suddenly opened a heavy fire upon the rocky fort. The Mexicans were invisible but jets of smoke arose in the brush. Bullets thudded on the log or stones, or upon the stone wall above the two, but both Ned and Obed were sheltered well and they were not touched. Nevertheless it was uncomfortable. The impact of the bullets made an unpleasant sound, and there was always a chance that one of them might angle off from the stone and strike a human target. Obed however was cheerful.
"They're wasting good ammunition," he said. "They'll need that later on when they attack the Texans. After all, Ned, we're serving a good purpose when we induce the Mexicans to shoot good powder and lead here, and not against our people."
Encouraged by the failure of the besieged to reply to their fire the Mexicans came closer and grew somewhat incautious. Ned saw one of them sheltered but partially by a bush and he fired. The man uttered a cry and fell. Ned saw the bush moving and he hoped the man was not slain, but he never knew.
The volleys from the Mexicans ceased, and silence came again in the woods. Wisps of smoke floated here and there among the trees, but a light wind soon caught them and carried them away. Ned and Obed, rolling into easier positions, talked cheerfully.
"I don't think they'll try to rush us," said Obed. "The Mexicans are not afraid to charge breastworks, but they'll hardly think we two are worth the price they would have to pay. Perhaps they'll try to starve us out."
"And that they can't do because we have provisions for several days."
"But they don't know it. Nor do we want to stay here for several days, Ned. Texas is calling to us, and we should be traveling northward instead of lying under a rock besieged by Mexicans."
But they were compelled anew to make heavy drafts upon their patience. The Mexicans kept quiet a long time. Finally a shot fired from some high point grazed Ned's cap, and flattened against the rock behind him. The boy involuntarily ducked against the earth. Obed also lay lower.
"Some Mexican must have climbed a tree," said the Maine man. "He's where he can look over our fortifications and that gives him an advantage. It also gives him a disadvantage because it will be harder for him to come down out of that tree unaided than it was for him to go up in it. We'll stick as close as we can under the log, until he sends in the second shot."
They waited about ten minutes until the Mexican fired again. He was in the boughs of a great oak about fifty yards away, and following the flash of his weapon they saw his chest and shoulders as he leaned forward to take aim and pull the trigger. Obed fired and the soldier dropped to the ground. There was a noise in the underbrush, as if his comrades were dragging him away and then the great silence came again. As Obed reloaded he said grimly:
"I think we're done with the tree-climbers. Evil to him who evil does. They're cured of that habit."
It was now mid-afternoon and the sun was blazing down over the cliffs and forest. It grew very hot in the alcove. No breath of wind reached them there, and they began to pant for air.
"I hope night will come soon," said Ned.
"It will be here before long," said Obed, "but something else will arrive first."
"What is that?"
"Look, there to the right over the trees. See the dark spot in the sky. Ned, my boy, a storm is coming and it is for you and me to say 'let it come.'"
"What will it do for us?"
"Break up the siege, or at least I think so. Unless it drives directly in our faces we will be sheltered out here, but the Mexicans will have no such protection. And, Ned, if you will listen to one who knows, you will understand that storms down here can be terrific."
"Then the more terrific it is the better for us."
"Just so. See, Ned, how that black spot grows! It is a cloud of quite respectable size. Before long it will cover all the skies, and you notice too that there is absolutely no wind."
"It is so. The stillness is so great that I feel it. It oppresses me. It is hard for me to draw my breath."
"Exactly. I feel just the same way. The storm is coming fast and it is going to be a big one. The sun is entirely hidden already, and the air is growing dark. We'll crouch against the wall, Ned, and keep our rifles, powder and ourselves as dry as possible. There goes the thunder, growling away, and here's the lightning! Whew, but that made me jump!"
An intense flash of lightning burned across the sky, and showed the forest and hills for one blazing moment. Then the darkness closed in, thick and black. The two, wrapped closely in their serapes, crouched against the stone wall and watched the storm gather in its full majesty and terror.
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