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THE LONG CHASE
Ned, despite his brave heart and strong will, felt a deep awe. Storms on the great uplands of North America often present aspects which are sublime and menacing to the last degree. The thunder which had been growling before now crashed continually like batteries of great guns, and the lightning flashed so fast that there was a rapid alternation of dazzling glare and impervious blackness. Once, the lightning struck in the forest near them with a terrible, rending crash, and trees went down. Far down in the gorges they heard the fierce howl of the wind.
Ned shrank closer and closer against the rocky wall, and, now and then, he veiled his eyes with one hand. If one were to judge by eye and ear alone it would seem that the world was coming to an end. Cast away in the wilderness, he was truly thankful for the human companionship of the man, Obed White, and it is likely that the man, Obed White, was just as thankful for the companionship of the boy, Edward Fulton.
All thought of another attack by the Mexicans passed for the present. They knew that the besiegers themselves would be awed, and would flee for refuge, particularly from the trees falling before the strokes of lightning. It was at least two miles to any such point of safety, and Ned and Obed saw a coming opportunity. Both lightning and thunder ceased so abruptly that it was uncanny. The sudden stillness was heavy and oppressive, and after the continued flare of the lightning, the darkness was so nearly impenetrable that they could not see ten yards in front of them.
Then the rain came in a tremendous cataract, but it came from the south, while they faced the north. Hence it drove over and past their alcove and they remained dry. But it poured so hard and with such a sweep and roar that Obed was forced to shout when he said to Ned:
"I've never been to Niagara and of course I've never been behind the falls there but this must be like it. The luck has certainly turned in our favor, Ned. The Mexicans could never stand it out there without shelter."
"I don't see how it can last long," shouted Ned in reply.
"It can't. It's too violent. But it's the way down here, rushing from one extreme to another. As soon as it begins to ease up, we'll move."
The darkness presently began to thin rapidly, and the heavy drumming of the rain on the rocks and forest turned to a patter.
"I think it's a good time to go, Ned," said Obed. "In fifteen minutes it will stop raining entirely and the Mexicans, if they are not drowned, may come back for us. We can't keep ourselves dry, but we'll protect our rifles and ammunition. We've got a good chance to escape now, especially since night will soon be here."
They left the overhanging cliff which had guarded them so well in more ways than one, and entered the forest, veering off to the left, and picking their way carefully through the underbrush. Ned suddenly sprang aside, shuddering. A Mexican, slain in the battle, lay upon his side. But Obed was practical.
"I know it's unpleasant to touch him," he said, "but he may have what we need. Ah, here is a pistol and bullets for it, and a flask of powder which his own body has helped to keep dry. It's likely that we'll have use for these before we get through, and so I'll take 'em."
He quickly secured the pistol and ammunition, and they went on, traveling rapidly westward. The rain ceased entirely in twenty minutes, and all the clouds passed away, but night came in their place, covering their flight with its friendly mantle. They were wet to the waist and the water dripped from the trees upon them, but these things did not trouble them. They felt all the joy of escape. Ned knew that neither of them, if taken, could expect much mercy from the brutal Cos.
They came after a while to a gorge, through which a torrent rushed, cutting off their way. It was midnight now. They saw that the stream was very muddy and that it bore on its current much débris.
"We'll just sit down here and rest," said Obed. "This is nothing more than a brook raised to a river by the storm, and, in another hour or two, it will be a brook again. Rise fast, fall fast holds true."
They sat on a log near the stream and watched it go down. As their muscles relaxed they began to feel cold, and had it not been for the serapes they would have been chilled. In two hours the muddy little river was a muddy little brook and they walked across. All the while now, a warm, drying wind was blowing, but they kept on for some time longer in order that the vigorous circulation of the blood might warm their bodies. Then, seeking the best place they could find, they lay down among the bushes, despite the damp, and slept.
Ned was the first to awake the next day, and he saw, by a high sun, that they were on a slope, leading to a pretty valley well grown in grass. He took a few steps and also stretched both arms. He found that his muscles were neither stiff nor sore and his delight was great. Obed still slumbered peacefully, his head upon his arm.
Ned walked a little further down the slope. Then he jumped back and hid behind a bush. He had caught a glimpse of a horse saddled and bridled in the Mexican manner, and it was his first thought that a detachment from the army of Cos was riding straight toward them. But as he stood behind the bush, heart beating, eyes gazing through the leaves, he saw that it was only a single horse. Nor was it coming toward him. It seemed to be moving about slowly in a circle of very limited area. Then, leaving the bush, he saw that the horse was riderless. He watched a long time to see if the owner would appear, and as none came he went back and awakened Obed White.
"What! What!" said Obed, opening his eyes slowly and yawning mightily. "Has the day come? Verily, it is a long night that has no ending. And so you have seen a horse, Ned, a horse saddled and bridled and with no owner! It can't be the one that King Richard offered his kingdom for, and since it isn't we'll just see why this caparisoned animal is there grazing in our valley."
The two went down the slope. The horse was still there, grazing in his grassy circle, and as the two approached he drew away a little but did not seem to be frightened. Then Ned understood, or at least his belief was so strong that it amounted to conviction.
"It's the horse of the soldier whom you shot yesterday," he said. "You remember that he galloped away among the bushes. No doubt, too, he was driven a long distance by the storm. He can't be accounted for in any other manner."
"There are some guesses so good that you know at once they're right," said Obed, "and yours is one of them, Ned. Now that is a valuable horse. One of the most valuable that ever grazed in a valley of Mexico or any other valley. He's so precious because we want him, and we want him so bad that he's worth a million dollars to us."
"That one of us may ride him to Texas."
"Yes, and we may be able to secure another. You stay here, Ned, and let me catch him. Horses like me better than some men do."
Ned sat down and Obed advanced warily, holding out his hand and whistling gently. It was a most persuasive whistle, soft and thrilling and the horse raised his head, looked contemplatively out of large lustrous eyes at the whistler. Obed advanced, still whistling, in the most wonderful, enticing manner. Ned felt that if he were a horse he could not resist it, that he would go to the whistler, expecting to receive oats, corn, and everything else that a healthy horse loves. It seemed to have some such effect upon the quarry that Obed coveted, because the horse, after withdrawing a step, advanced toward the man.
Obed stopped, but continued to whistle, pouring forth the most beautiful and winning trills and quavers. The horse came and Obed, reaching out, seized the bridle which hung loose. He stroked the horse's head and the animal rubbed his nose against his shoulder. The conquest was complete. Bridle in hand, Obed led the way and Ned met him.
"I think our good horse here was lonesome," said Obed, "Horses that are used to human beings miss 'em for a while when they lose 'em, and we're not enslaving our friend by taking him. Here's a lariat coiled at the saddle bow; we'll just tether him by that, and let him go on with his grazing, while we get our breakfast. You will notice, too, Ned, that we've taken more than a horse. See this pair of holster pistols swung across the saddle and ammunition to fit. The enemy is still supplying us with our needs, Ned."
As they ate breakfast they resolved to secure another horse. Obed was of the opinion that the army of Cos was not far away, and he believed that he could steal one. At least, he was willing to try on the following night, and, if he succeeded, their problem would be simplified greatly.
They remained nearly all the morning in the little valley and devoted a large part of the time to developing their acquaintance with the horse, which was a fine animal, amenable to good treatment, and ready to follow his new masters.
"He looks like an American horse," said Obed, with satisfaction, "and maybe he is one, stolen from the Texans. He'll carry one of us over many miles of sand and cactus, and he'll be none the worse for it. But he needs a friend. Horse was not made to live alone. It's my sympathy for him as much as the desire for another mount that drives me to the theft we contemplate."
Ned laughed and lolled on the grass which was now dry.
"Yon stay here with Bucephalus or Rosinante or whatever you choose to call him," continued Obed, "and I think I'll cross the hills, and see if Cos is near. If we're going to capture a horse, we must first know where the horse is to be found."
"Suppose I go along, too."
"No, it would be easier for the Mexicans to see two than one, and we shouldn't take unnecessary risks. Be sure you stay in the valley, Ned, because I want to know where to find you when I come back. I've an idea that the Mexican army isn't far, as we wound around a good deal during the storm and darkness, and covered no great distance, if it were counted in a straight line. At least I think so."
"You'll find me here."
Obed went toward the east, and Ned continued to make himself comfortable on the grass, which was so long and thick that it almost hid his body. But it was truly luxurious. It seemed that after so much hardship and danger he could not get enough rest. He felt quite safe, too. It would take a careful observer to see him lying there in the deep grass. It was warm and dry where he lay, and the little valley was well hemmed in by forest in which crotons, mimosas, myrtle oaks, okote pine and many other trees grew. Some had large rich blossoms and he admired their beauty.
His eyes wandered back from the forest to their new friend, the horse. Besides being an animal of utility the horse added to their comradeship. Ned felt that he still had a friend with him, although Obed was away. Obed had spoken truly. It was a fine horse, a bay, tall, strong and young, grazing with dignified content, at the end of a lariat about forty feet in length.
Ned watched the horse idly, and soon he saw him raise his head, stand perfectly still for a moment or two, and then sniff the wind. The next instant an extraordinary manifestation came from him. He whirled about and galloped so fast to the end of his tether that he was thrown down by the sharp jerk. He regained his feet and stood there, trembling all over. His great eyes were distended. Ned had never before seen such a picture of terror.
The boy raised himself a little in the grass, but not so high that he would be seen by an enemy. It was his first idea that Mexicans had come, but the horse would not show such fright at the presence of human beings. He looked in the direction opposite to the spot on which the horse was standing. At first he saw nothing, but with intent looking he detected a great body crouched in the grass and stealing forward slowly. It was their old enemy, the jaguar, not a black one but tawny in color.
Ned's rage rose. First a jaguar had attacked him, and now another was stalking their horse. He felt pity for the poor animal which was tied, and which could not escape. Now man who had tied him must save him. Ned knew that if he cut the lariat the horse in its terror might run away and never be retaken. A shot might be heard by the Mexicans, but he believed that the probabilities were against it, and he decided to use the rifle.
He raised himself just a little more, careful to make no noise, and watched the jaguar stealing through the tall grass, so intent on the horse that it failed to notice the most dangerous of all enemies who lay near. But Ned waited until the flank of the animal was well presented, and, taking a sure aim, fired.
The jaguar shot up into the air, as if an electric spring had been released, then came down with a thump and was dead. The horse neighed in terror at sight of his leaping foe and trembled more violently than ever. Ned went to him first, and tried to soothe him which was a long and difficult task. At last, he untethered the horse and led him to the far end of the valley, where he tethered him again at least two hundred yards from the dead body of the jaguar. Returning he looked at the fallen animal, and marked with pleasure the correctness of his aim. He had shot the jaguar squarely through the heart. Then he went back to his place in the grass, but he did not doze or dream. The Mexicans might come, drawn by his shot, and even if they did not, a member of the unpleasant jaguar tribe might take a notion to stalk the only available human being in that grassy little valley.
But no Mexicans appeared, nor did he observe any other jaguar. When the sun set, he began to feel a little uneasy about Obed. His uneasiness increased with the darkness, but he was finally reassured by a whistle from the head of the valley. Then he saw Obed's tall figure striding down the slope in the dusk, and he went forward to meet him.
"I suppose you've spent the afternoon sleeping," said Obed.
"I might have done so, but we had a visitor."
"A visitor? What kind of a visitor?"
"A jaguar. He wanted to eat our horse and as the horse could not get away, being tethered strongly, I had to shoot his jaguarship."
He showed Obed the body, and his comrade approved highly of the shot.
"And now for the history of my own life and adventures during the afternoon," said Obed. "The country to the eastward is not rough, and I made good time through it. Sure enough the army of Cos is there, about five miles away, camped in a plain. It was beaten about a good deal by the storm, and it keeps poor guard, because it is in its own country far from any expected foe, and because the Mexicans are Mexicans. I think, Ned, that we can lift a horse without great trouble or excessive danger. We'll go over there about midnight."
"And we'd better take our present horse with us," said Ned, "or other jaguars may come."
They remained in their own valley until the appointed time, and then set out on a fairly dark night, each taking his turn at riding the horse. They halted at the crest of a low hill, from which they saw the flash of camp fires.
"That's Cos and his army," said Obed. "They're down there, sprawled all about the valley, and I imagine that by this time they're all asleep, including a majority of the sentinels, and that's our opportunity."
They tethered their own horse and crept down the slope. Soon they came to the edge of the woods and saw the camp fires more plainly. All had burned low, but they made out the shapes of tents, and, nearer by, a dark mass which they concluded to be the horses belonging to the lancers and other cavalry. They approached within a hundred yards, and saw no sentinels by the horses, although they were able to discern several moving figures farther on.
"Now, Ned," said Obed, "you stay here and I'll try to cut out a horse, the very best that I can find. Sit down on the ground, and have your rifle ready. If I'm discovered and have to run for it you shoot the first of my pursuers."
Ned obeyed and Obed stole down toward the horses. Ned knew his comrade's skill, and he believed he would employ the soft whistle that had been so effective with the first horse. He watched the dark figure stealing forward, and he admired Obed's skill. It would be almost impossible for anyone to notice so faint a shadow in the darkness. Nevertheless, his heart beat heavily. Despite all that Obed had said it was a dangerous task, requiring both skill and luck.
The faint shadow reached the black blur of the horses and disappeared. Ned waited five minutes, ten, fifteen minutes, while the little pulses beat hard in his temples. Then he saw a shadow detach itself from the black blur. It was the figure of a man and he was on horseback. Obed had succeeded.
Ned remained kneeling, rifle in hand, to guard against any mistake. The man on horseback rode toward him, while the sprawling army of Cos still slept. Then Ned saw clearly that it was Obed, and that he rode a magnificent black horse, sixteen hands high, as fiery as any that could be found in all Mexico.
In another moment Obed was by his side, looking down from the height of his horse. In the moonlight Ned saw that his face was glowing.
"Isn't he a beauty?" he said. "And I think, too, that he likes me. There were three or four sentinels down there by the horses, but all of them were fast asleep, and I had time to pick. I've also brought away a roll of blankets, two for each of us, and I never woke a man. Now, Ned, we're furnished complete, and we're off to Texas with your message."
"The first thing, I suppose, is to introduce our horses to each other."
"Correct. You and I are friends, Ned, and so must our horses be."
They took a last look at the sleeping camp and went away through the woods. Obed dismounted, and led his horse to the place where the second was tied. The two horses whinnied and rubbed noses.
"It's all right," said Obed. "When horse and man agree who can stop us?"
Ned mounted the first, the bay, while Obed retained the black. Then they rode all through the night, coming about dawn to a plain which turned to sand and cactus, as they advanced further into the north. There was no water here, but they had rilled their water bottles at the last brook and they had no fear of perishing by thirst. Although they had passed the army of Cos they did not fail to keep a vigilant watch. They knew that patrols of Mexicans would be in the north, and the red men were also to be feared. They were coming into regions across which mounted Indians often passed, doing destruction with rifle and lance, spear and arrow. Both had more apprehension now about Indians than Mexicans.
At noon of that day they saw four horsemen on their left who shaped their course toward theirs in such a manner that if they moved at an equal pace they would meet at the point of a triangle. But the horses that Ned and Obed rode were powerful animals, far superior to the ordinary Mexican mounts, and they rode steadily ahead, apparently taking no notice of the four on their flank.
"They're Mexican scouts," said Obed, "I'm sure of it, but I don't believe that they'll come too close. They see that we have rifles, and they know the deadly nature of the Texan rifle. If we are friends it's all right, if we are Texans it will be wise to keep at a good distance."
Obed was a good prophet. The Mexicans, at a distance of almost a quarter of a mile, raised a great shout. The two took no notice of it, but rode on, their faces toward the north.
"I can talk good Spanish or Mexican," said Obed, "and so can you, but I'm out riding now and I don't feel like stopping for conversation. Ah, there they are shouting again, and as I live, Ned, they're increasing their speed. We'll give 'em a sign."
Obed and Ned wheeled about and raised their rifles. The four Mexicans, who were galloping their ponies, stopped abruptly. Obed and Ned turned and rode on.
"We gave 'em a sign," said Obed, "and they saw it. We're in no danger, Ned. We could beat 'em either in a fight or a run. The battle is sometimes to the strong and the race to the swift."
It was obvious that the Mexicans, who were probably only scouts, did not want a fight with formidable Texans who carried such long rifles. They dropped back until Ned, taking a final look, could not tell their distant figures from the stem of the lonesome cactus.
"Horses and rifles are mighty useful in their place," said Obed. "Add to them wood and water and what little more a man needs he should be able to find."
"It's wood and water that we ought to hunt now."
"We may strike both before night, but if not we'll ride on a while anyhow, and maybe we'll find 'em."
They went deeper into the great upland which was half a desert and half a plain. Occasionally they saw besides the cactus, mesquite and yucca and some clumps of coarse grass.
"Bunch grass," said Obed, "like that which you find further north, and mighty good it is, too, for cattle and horses. We'll have plenty of food for these two noble steeds of ours, and I shouldn't be surprised, too, if we ran across big game. It's always where the bunch grass grows."
They did not reach wood and water by nightfall, but, riding two hours longer in a clear twilight, they found both. The plain rose and fell in deep swells, and in the deepest of the swells to which they had yet to come they found a trickling stream of clear water, free from alkali, fringed on either shore with trees of moderate size.
"Here we are," said Obed, "and here we stay till morning. You never know how fine water looks until you've been a long time without it."
They let their horses drink first, and then, going further up the stream, drank freely of the water themselves. They found it cold and good, and they were refreshed greatly. There was also a belt of excellent grass, extending a hundred yards back on either side of the stream, and, unsaddling and tethering their horses, they let them graze. Both Ned and Obed would have liked a fire, but they deemed it dangerous, and they ate their food cold. After supper, Obed walked up the stream a little distance, examining the ground on either side of the water. When he came back he said to Ned:
"I saw animal tracks two or three hundred yards up the creek, and they were made by big animals. Buffalo range about here somewhere, and we may see 'em before we get through."
"I wouldn't mind having a shot at a fine buffalo," said Ned. But he was not very eager about it. He was thinking more then of sleep. Obed, while thinking of sleep also, was thinking of other things, too, and he was somewhat troubled in his mind. But he bore himself as a man of cheerful countenance.
"Now, Ned," he said, "you and I cannot go forever without sleep. We've been through a good deal and we haven't closed our eyes for thirty-six hours. I feel as if I had pound weights tied to my eyelids."
"Two-pound weights are tied to mine."
"Then we'll prove the value of my foresight in obtaining the two sets of blankets by using them at once."
Each lay down between his blankets, and Ned was soon asleep, but Obed, by a violent effort, kept his eyes open. He could never remember a time when it seemed sweeter to sleep, but he struggled continually against it. When he saw that Ned's slumber was deep he rose and walked up and down the stream again, going a half mile in either direction.
At one point where there was a break in the fringe of trees the imprints of the mighty hoofs were numerous, and, mingled with them, were tracks made by horses' hoofs. It was these that worried Obed so much. They were made by unshod hoofs, but evidently they were two or three days old, and, after all, the riders might have passed on, not to return. Smothering his anxiety as much as possible he went back to their little camp, crept between his two blankets which felt very warm, and began to watch with his eyes and ears, vowing to himself that he would not sleep.
Yet within two hours he slept. Exhausted nature triumphed over will and claimed her own. He was not conscious of any struggle. He was awake and then he was not. The two tethered horses, having eaten all they wanted, also settled themselves comfortably and slept.
But while the two, or rather the four slept, something was moving far out on the plain.
It was an immense black mass with a front of more than a mile, and it was coming toward Ned and Obed. This mass had been disturbed by a great danger and it advanced with mighty heavings and tramplings. Ned and Obed slept calmly for a long time, but as the black front of the moving mass drew closer to the creek and its thin lines of trees, the boy stirred in his blankets. A vague dream came and then a state that was half an awakening. He was conscious in a dim way of a low, thundering sound that approached and he sprang to his feet. The next instant a neigh of terror came from one of the horses and Obed, too, awoke.
"Listen!" exclaimed Ned. "Hear that roar! And it's drawing near, too!"
"Yes, it's a buffalo herd!" said Obed. "We're far enough north now to be within the buffalo ranges, and they're coming down on us fast. But they must be scared or be drawn on by something, because it's not yet dawn."
"All of which means that it's time for us to go."
"Or be trodden to death."
Naturally, they had slept in their clothes and they quickly gathered up their arms and baggage. Then they released their frightened horses, sprang upon their backs and galloped toward the north. They felt secure now, so far as the herd was concerned. Their horses could easily take them out of its reach.
"Maybe they'll stop at the creek," said Ned. "I should think that the water would hold anything in this thirsty land."
Obed shook his head, but offered no further answer. The thunder of the hoofs now filled their ears, and, as the sound advanced steadily, it was evident that the creek had not stopped the buffalo herd.
The dawn suddenly came up sharp and clear after the manner of southern lands. The heavens turned blue, and a rosy light suffused the prairie. Then Ned saw the front of the buffalo herd extending two or three miles to right and to left. And he saw more. He saw the cause of the terror that had smitten the herd.
Brown men, almost naked and on horseback, darted in and out among the buffaloes, shooting and stabbing. They were muscular men, fierce of countenance, and their long black hair streamed out behind them. Some carried rifles and muskets, and others carried lances and bows and arrows.
"Lipans," said Obed, "one of the fiercest of all the southwestern tribes. They belong mostly across the Rio Grande, but I suppose they've come for the buffalo. Ned, we're not wanted here."
After the single look they were away toward the north, moving at a smooth and easy gallop. They were truly thankful now that the horses they rode were so large and powerful, evidently of American breed. It was not difficult to increase the distance between them and the herd, and they hoped to slip away before they were seen by any of the Lipans. But a sudden shout behind them, a long, piercing whoop showed that they had reckoned wrong.
The two looked back. A group of warriors had gathered in advance of the band, and it was obvious, as they galloped on, that they had seen the two fugitives. Two or three shook their long lances, and pointed them straight at Ned and Obed. Then uttering that long, menacing whoop again, the group, about twenty in number, rode straight for the two, while the rest continued their work with the herd.
"It's a chase," said Obed. "Those fellows want scalps and they don't care whether we're Texans or Mexicans. Besides, they may have better horses than the Mexican ponies. But it's a long chase that has no turning, and if our horses don't stumble we'll beat them. Look out for potholes and such places."
They rode knee to knee, not yet putting the horses to their full speed, but covering the ground, nevertheless, at a great rate. It seemed play for their fine horses, which arched their necks and sped on, not a drop of perspiration yet staining their glossy skins. Ned felt the thrill, as the ground spun back under his horse's feet, and the air rushed past his face. It did not occur to him that the Lipans could overtake them, and their pursuit merely added a fresh spice to a magnificent ride.
He took another look back. The Lipans, although they had lost ground, were still following. They came in a close group, carrying, besides their arms, shields, made of layers of buffalo hide. Several wore magnificent war bonnets. Otherwise all were naked save for the breech-cloth, and their brown bodies were glistening with war paint. Behind them, yet came the black front of the buffalo herd, but it was a full mile away.
Obed looked also, and his heart smote him. Older and more experienced than Ned, he knew that with the fierce Lipans the most powerful of all lures was the lure of scalps. Just as the wolf can trail down the moose at last, they could follow for days on their tough mustangs. But as he shifted his good rifle a bit he felt better. Both he and Ned were splendid marksmen, and if the chase were a success for the Lipans there would also be a bitter fight at the end of it.
Now he and Ned ceased to talk, the sun blazed down on the plain, and on sped the chase, hour after hour.
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