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THE COMING OF URREA
Many of the Texans were hot for pursuit, but Moore recalled them. His reasons were brief and grim. "You will not overtake them," he said, "and you will need all your energies later on. This is only the beginning."
A number of the Mexicans had been slain, but none of the Texans had fallen, the aim of their opponents being so wild. The triumph had certainly been an easy one, but Ned perhaps rejoiced less than any other one present. The full mind again projected itself into the future, and foresaw great and terrible days. The Texans were but few, scattered thinly over a long frontier, and the rage of Cos and Santa Anna would be unbounded, when they heard of the fight and flight of their troops at Gonzales.
"Obed," he said to his friend, "we are victorious to-day without loss, but I feel that dark days are coming."
The Maine man looked curiously at the boy. He already considered Ned, despite his youth, superior in some ways to himself.
"You've been a reader and you're a thinker, Ned," he said, "and I like to hear what you say. The dark days may come as you predict, because Santa Anna is a great man in the Mexican way, but night can't come until the day is ended and it's day just now. We won't be gloomy yet."
After the fallen Mexicans had been buried, the little force of voluntary soldiers began to disperse, just as they had gathered, of their own accord. The work there was done, and they were riding for their own little villages or lone cabins, where they would find more work to do. The Mexicans would soon fall on Texas like a cloud, and every one of them knew it.
Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther rode back to Gonzales, where the women and children welcomed the victors with joyous acclaim.
The three sat down with others to a great feast, spread on tables under the shade of oaks, and consisting chiefly of game, buffalo, deer, squirrels, rabbits and other animals which had helped the early Texans to live. But throughout the dinner Ned and Obed were rather quiet, although the Ring Tailed Panther roared to his heart's content. It was Ned who spoke first the thought that was in the minds of both Obed and himself. Slowly and by an unconscious process he was becoming the leader.
"Obed," he said, "everybody can do as he pleases, and I propose that you and I and the Ring Tailed Panther scout toward San Antonio. Cos and his army are marching toward that town, and while the Texan campaign of defense is being arranged and the leaders are being chosen we might give a lot of help."
"Just what I was thinking," said Obed.
"Jest what I ought to have thought," said the Ring Tailed Panther.
San Antonio was a long journey to the westward, and they started at twilight fully equipped. They carried their usual arms, two blankets apiece, light but warm, food for several days, and double supplies of ammunition, the thing that they would now need most. Gonzales gave them a farewell full of good wishes. Some of the women exclaimed upon Ned's youth, but Obed explained that the boy had lived through hardships and dangers that would have overcome many a veteran pioneer of Texas.
They forded the Guadalupe for the second time on the same day. Then they rode by the mound on which the Mexicans had made their brief stand. The three said little. Even the Ring Tailed Panther had thoughts that were not voiced. The hill, the site of the first battle in their great struggle, stood out, clear and sharp, in the moonlight. But it was very still now.
"We'll date a good many things from that hill," said Ned as they rode on.
They followed in the path of the flying Mexicans who, they were quite sure, would make for Cos and San Antonio. The Ring Tailed Panther knew the most direct course and as the moon was good they could also see the trail left by the Mexicans. It was marked further by grim objects, two wounded horses that had died in the flight, and then by a man succumbing, who had been buried in a grave so shallow that no one could help noticing it.
A little after midnight they saw a light ahead, and they judged by the motions that a man was waving a torch.
"It can't be a trap," said Obed, "because the Mexicans would not stop running until they were long past here."
"An' there ain't no cover where that torch is," added the Ring Tailed Panther.
"Then suppose we ride forward and see what it means," said Ned.
They cocked their rifles, ready for combat if need be, and rode forward slowly. Soon they made out the figure of a man standing on a swell of the prairie, and vigorously waving a torch made of a dead stick lighted at one end. He had a rifle, but it leaned against a bush beside him. His belt held a pistol and knife, but his free hand made no movement toward them, as the three rode up. The man himself was young, slender, and of olive complexion with black hair and eyes. He was a Mexican, but he was dressed in the simple Texan style. Moreover, there were Mexicans born in Texas some of whom, belonging to the Liberal party, inclined to the Texan side. This man was distinctly handsome and the look with which he returned the gaze of the three was frank, free and open.
"I saw you from afar," he said in excellent English. "I climbed the cottonwood there in order to see what might be passing on the prairie, and as my eyes happen to be very good I detected three black dots in the moonlight, coming out of the east. As I saw the men of Santa Anna going west as fast as hoofs would carry them I knew that only Texans could be riding out of the east."
He laughed, threw his torch on the ground and stamped out the light.
"I felt that sooner or later someone would come upon Castenada's track," he said, "and you see that I was not wrong."
He smiled again. Ned's impression was distinctly favorable, and when he glanced at Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther he saw that they, too, were attracted.
"Who are you, stranger?" asked Palmer. "People who meet by night in Texas in these times had best know the names and business of one another."
"Not a doubt of it," replied the young Mexican. "My name is Francisco Urrea, and I was born on the Guadalupe. So, you see, I am a Texan, perhaps more truly a Texan than any of you, because I know by looking at you that all three of you were born in the States. As for my business?"
He grew very serious and looked at the three one after another.
"My business," he said, "is to fight for Texas."
"Well spoke, by the great horn spoon," roared the Ring Tailed Panther.
"Yes, to fight for Texas," resumed young Urrea. "I was on my way to Gonzales to join you. I was too late for the fight, but I saw the men of Castenada, with Castenada himself at their head, flying across the prairie. I assure you there was no delay on their part. First they were here and then they were gone. The prairie rumbled with their hasty tread, their lances glittered for only a single instant, and then they were lost over the horizon."
He laughed again, and his laugh was so infectious that the three laughed with him.
"I know most people in Texas," rumbled the Ring Tailed Panther, "though there are some Mexican families I don't know. But I've heard of the Urreas, an' if you want to go with us an' join in tearin' an' chawin' we'll be glad to have you."
"So we will," said Ned and Obed together, and Obed added: "Three are company, four are better."
"Very well, then," said Urrea, "I shall be happy to become one of your band, and we will ride on together. I've no doubt that I can be of help if you mean to keep a watch on Cos. My horse is tied here in a clump of chaparral. Wait a moment and I will rejoin you."
He came back, riding a fine horse, and he was as well equipped as the Texans. Then the four rode on toward San Antonio de Bexar. They found that Urrea knew much. Cos himself would probably be in San Antonio within a week, and heavy reinforcements would arrive later. The three in return gave him a description of the fight at the mound, and they told how the Texans afterward had scattered for different points on the border.
They were not the only riders that night. Men were carrying along the whole frontier the news that the war had begun, that the death struggle was now on between Mexico and Texas, the giant on one side and the pigmy on the other.
But the ride of the four in the trail of Castenada's flying troop was peaceful enough. About three hours after midnight they stopped under the shelter of some cottonwoods. The Ring Tailed Panther took the watch while the other three slept. Ned lay awake for a little while between his blankets, but he saw that Urrea, who was not ten feet away, had gone sound asleep almost instantly. His olive face lighted dimly by the moon's rays was smooth and peaceful, and Ned was quite sure that he would be a good comrade. Then he, too, entered the land of slumber.
The Ring Tailed Panther stalked up and down, his broad powerful figure becoming gigantic in the moonlight. Belligerent by nature and the born frontiersman, he was very serious now.
He knew that they were riding toward great danger and he glanced at the face of the sleeping boy. The Ring Tailed Panther had a heart within him, and the temptation to make Ned go back, if he could, was very strong. But he quickly dismissed it as useless. The boy would not go. Besides, he was skillful, strong and daring.
The Ring Tailed Panther tramped on. Coyotes howled on the prairie, and the deeper note of a timber wolf came from the right, where there was a thick fringe of trees along a creek. But he paid no attention to them. All the while he watched the circle of the horizon, narrow by night, for horsemen. If they came he believed that his warning must be quick, because they were likely to be either Mexicans or Indians. He saw no riders but toward daylight he saw horses in the west. They were without riders and he walked to the nearest swell to look at them.
He looked down upon a herd of wild horses, many of them clean and fine of build. At their head was a great black stallion and when the Ring Tailed Panther saw him he sighed. At another time, he would have made a try for the stallion's capture, but now there was other business afoot.
The wind shifted. The stallion gave a neigh of alarm and galloped off toward the south, the whole herd with streaming manes and tails following close behind. The Ring Tailed Panther walked back to the cottonwoods and awoke his companions, because it was now full day.
"I saw some wild horses grazing close by," he said, "an' that means that nobody else is near. Mebbe we can ride clean to San Antonio without anybody to stop us."
"And gain great information for the Texans," said Urrea quickly. "Houston is to command the forces of Eastern Texas, and he will be glad enough to know just what Cos is doing."
"And glad will we be to take such news to him," said Ned. "I've seen him and talked with him, Don Francisco. He is a great man. And I've ridden, too, with Jim Bowie and 'Deaf' Smith and Karnes."
Urrea smiled pleasantly at Ned's boyish enthusiasm.
"And they are great men, too," he said, "Bowie, Smith and Karnes. I should not want any one of them to send his bullet at me."
"Jim Bowie is best with the knife," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "but I guess no better shots than 'Deaf' Smith and Hank Karnes were ever born."
"A horseman is coming," said Ned who was in advance. The boy had shaded his eyes from the sun, and his uncommonly keen sight had detected the black moving speck before any of the others could see it.
"It's sure to be a Texan," said Obed. "You won't find any Mexican riding alone on these plains just now."
They rode forward to meet him and the horseman, who evidently had keen eyes, too, came forward with equal confidence. It soon became obvious that he was a Texan as Obed had predicted. His length of limb and body showed despite the fact that he was on horseback, and the long rifle that he carried across the saddle bow was of the frontier type.
"My name is Jim Potter," he said as he came within hailing distance.
"You're welcome, Jim Potter," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "The long, red-headed man here on my right is Obed White, the boy is Ned Fulton; our young Mexican friend, who is a good Texan patriot, is Don Francisco Urrea, an' as for me, I'm Martin Palmer, better an' more properly known as the Ring Tailed Panther."
"I've heard of you, Panther," said Potter, "and you and your friends are just the people I want."
He spoke with great eagerness, and the soul of the Ring Tailed Panther, foreseeing an impending crisis of some kind, responded.
"What is it?" he asked.
"A crowd is gathering to march on Goliad," replied Potter. "The Mexican commander there is treating the people with great cruelty and he is sending out parties to harass lone Texan homes. We mean to smite him."
Potter spoke with a certain solemnity of manner and he had the lean, ascetic face of the Puritan. Ned judged that he was from one of the Northern States of New England, but Obed, a Maine man, was sure of it.
"Friend," said Obed, "from which state do you come, New Hampshire or Vermont? I take it that it is Vermont."
"It is Vermont as you rightly surmise," replied Potter, "and the accent with which you speak, if I mistake not is found only in Maine."
"A good guess, also," said Obed, "but we are both now Texans, heart and soul; is it not so?"
"It is even so," replied Potter gravely. Then he and Obed reached across from their horses and gave each other a powerful clasp.
"You will go with us to Goliad and help smite the heathen?" said Potter.
Obed glanced at his comrades, and all of them nodded.
"We were riding to San Antonio," said the Maine man, "to find out what was going on there, but I see no reason why we should not turn aside to help you, since we seem to be needed."
"Our need of you is great," said Potter in his solemn, unchanging tones, "as we are but few, and the enemy may be wary. Yet we must smite him and smite him hard."
"Then lead the way," said Obed. "It's better to be too soon than too late."
Without another word Potter turned his horse toward the south. He was tall and rawboned, his face burned well by the sun, but he had an angularity and he bore himself with a certain stiffness that did not belong to the "Texans" of Southern birth. Ned did not doubt that he would be most formidable in combat.
After riding at least two hours without anyone speaking a word, Potter said:
"We will meet the remainder of our friends and comrades about nightfall. We will not exceed fifty, and more probably we shall be scarcely so many as that, but with the strength of a just cause in our arms it is likely that we shall be enough."
"When we charged at Gonzales they stayed for but one look at our faces," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "Then they ran so fast that they were rippin' an' tearin' up the prairie for the next twenty-four hours."
"I have heard of that," said Potter with a grave smile. "The grass so far from growing scarcely bent under their feet. Still, the Mexicans at times will fight with the greatest courage."
Here Urrea spoke.
"My friends," he said, "I must now leave you. I have an uncle and cousins on the San Antonio River, not far above Goliad. Like myself they are devoted adherents of the Texan cause, and it is more than likely that they will suffer terribly at the hands of some raiding party from Goliad, if they are not warned in time. I have tried to steel my heart and go straight with you to Goliad, but I cannot forget those who are so dear to me. However, it is highly probable that I can give them the warning to flee, and yet rejoin you in time for the attack."
"We hate to lose a good man, when there's rippin' an' tearin' ahead of us," said the Ring Tailed Panther.
"But if people of his blood are in such great danger he must even go," said Potter.
Urrea's face was drawn with lines of mental pain. His expressive eyes showed great doubt and anguish. Ned felt very sorry for him.
"It is a most cruel quandary," said Urrea. "I would go with you, and yet I would stay. Texas and her cause have my love, but to us of Mexican blood the family also is very, very dear."
His voice faltered and Latin tears stood in his eyes.
"Go," said Obed. "You must save your kin, and perhaps, as you hope, you can rejoin us in time."
"Farewell," said Urrea, "but you will see me again soon."
He spurred his horse, a powerful animal, and went ahead at a gallop. Soon he disappeared over the swells of the prairie.
"I hate to see him go," growled the Ring Tailed Panther. "Mexicans are uncertain even when they are on your side. But he's a big strong fellow, an' he'd be handy in the fight for which we're lookin'."
But he kept Ned's sympathy.
"He must save his people," said the boy.
Obed and Potter said nothing. At twilight they found the other men waiting for them in a thicket of mesquite, and the total, including the four, was only forty. But with Texan daring and courage they made straight for Goliad, and Ned did not doubt that they would have a fight. Life was now moving fast for him, and it was crowded with incident.
The troop in loose formation rode swiftly, but the hoofs of their horses made little sound on the prairie. The southern moon rode low, and the night was clear. They crossed two or three creeks, and also went through narrow belts of forest, but they never halted or hesitated. Potter and several others knew the way well, and night was the same as day to them.
At midnight Ned saw a wide but shallow stream, much like the Guadalupe. Trees and reeds lined its banks. Potter informed him that this was the San Antonio River, and that they were now below the town of Goliad, where they meant to attack the Mexican force.
"And if Providence favors us," said Potter, "we shall smite them quick and hard."
"Providence favors those who hit first and hard," said Obed, mixing various quotations.
The men forded the river, and, after a brief stop began to move cautiously through thickets of mesquite and chaparral toward the town, the lights of which they could not yet see. At one point the mesquite became so thick that Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther dismounted, in order to pick their way and led their horses.
Ned, who was in advance, heard a noise, as of something moving in the thicket. At first he thought it was a deer, but the sounds ceased suddenly, as if whatever made them were trying to seek safety in concealment rather than flight. Ned's experience had already made him skillful and daring. The warrior's instinct, born in him, was developing rapidly, and flinging his bridle to Obed he asked him to hold it for a moment.
Before the surprised man could ask why, Ned left him with the reins in his hand, cocked his rifle and crept through the mesquite toward the point whence the sounds had come. He saw a stooping shadow, and then a man sprang up. Quick as a flash Ned covered him with his rifle.
"Surrender!" he cried.
"Gladly," cried the man, throwing up his hands and laughing in a hysterical way. "I yield because you must be a Texan. That cannot be the voice of any Mexican."
Obed and the others came forward and the man strode toward them. He was tall, but gaunt and worn, until he was not much more than a skeleton. His clothing, mere rags, hung loosely on a figure that was now much too narrow for them. Two bloodshot eyes burned in dark caverns.
"Thank God," he cried, "you are Texans, all of you!"
"Why, it's Ben Milam," said Potter. "We thought you were a prisoner at Monterey in Mexico."
"I was," replied Milam, one of the Texan leaders, "but I escaped and obtained a horse. I have ridden nearly seven hundred miles day and night. My horse dropped dead down there in the chaparral and I've been here, trying to take a look at Goliad, uncertain about going in, because I do not know whether it is held by Texans or Mexicans."
"It is held by Mexicans at present," replied Potter, solemnly. "But I think that within an hour or two it will be held by Texans."
"If it ain't there'll be some mighty roarin' an' rippin' an' tearin'," said the Ring Tailed Panther.
"Give me a bite to eat and something to drink," said Milam; "and I'll help you turn Goliad from a Mexican into a Texan town."
Exhausted and nearly starved, he showed, nevertheless, the dauntless spirit of the Texans. Food and drink were given to him and the little party moved toward the town. Presently they saw one or two lights. Far off a dog howled, but it was only at the moon. He had not scented them. By and by the ground grew so rough and the bushes so thick that all dismounted and tethered their horses. Then they crept into the very edge of the town, still unseen and unheard. Potter pointed to a large building.
"That," he said, "is the headquarters of Colonel Sandoval, the commandant, and if you look closely you will see a sentinel walking up and down before the door."
"We will make a rush for that house," said the leader of the Texans, "and call upon the sentinel to yield."
They slipped from the cover and ran toward the house, shouting to the Mexican on guard to surrender. But he fired at them point blank, although his bullet missed, and a shot from one of the Texans slew him. The next moment they were thundering at the door of the house, in which were Sandoval and the larger part of his garrison. The door held fast, and shots were fired at them from the windows.
Some of the Texans ran to the neighboring houses, obtained axes and smashed in the door. Then they poured in, every man striving to be first, and most of the Mexicans fled through the back doors or the windows, escaping in the darkness into the mesquite and chaparral. Sandoval himself, half dressed, was taken by the Ring Tailed Panther and Obed. He made many threats, but Obed replied:
"You have chosen war and the Texans are giving it to you as best they can. Our bullets fall on all Mexicans, whether just or unjust."
Sandoval said no more, but finished his interrupted toilet. It was clear to Ned, watching his face, that the Mexican colonel considered all the Texans doomed, despite their success of the moment. Sandoval was still in his quarters. His arms had been taken away but he suffered no ill treatment. Despite the rapid flight of the Mexican soldiers twenty-five or thirty had been taken and they were held outside. The Texans not knowing what to do with them decided to release them later on parole.
Ned was about to leave Sandoval's room when he met at the door a young man, perspiring, wild of eye and bearing all the other signs of haste and excitement. It was Francisco Urrea.
"I am too late!" he cried. "Alas! Alas! I would have had a share in this glorious combat! I should like to have taken Sandoval with my own hand! I have cause to hate that man!"
Sandoval was sitting on the edge of his bed, and the eyes of the two Mexicans flashed anger at each other, Urrea went up, and shook his hand in the face of Sandoval. Sandoval shook his in the face of Urrea. Wrath was equal between them. Fierce words were exchanged with such swiftness that Ned could not understand them. He judged that the young Mexican must have some deep cause for hatred of Sandoval. But the Ring Tailed Panther interfered. He did not like this trait of abusing a fallen foe which he considered typically Mexican.
"Come away, Don Francisco," he said. "The rippin' an' tearin' are over an' we can do our roarin' outside!"
He took Urrea by the arm and led him away. Ned preceded them. Outside he met Obed who was in the highest spirits.
"We've done more than capture Mexicans," he said. "It never rains but it turns into a storm. We've gone through the Mexican barracks and we've made a big haul here. Let's take a look."
Ned went with him, and, when he saw, he too exulted. Goliad had been made a place of supply by the Mexicans, and, stored there, the Texans had taken a vast quantity of ammunition, rounds of powder and lead to the scores of thousands, five hundred rifles and three fine cannon. Some of the Texans joined hands in a wild Indian dance, when they saw their spoils, and the eyes of Ned and Obed glistened.
"Unto the righteous shall be given," said Obed. "We've done far better to-night than we hoped. We'll need these in the advance on Cos and San Antonio."
"They will be of the greatest service," said Urrea who joined them at that moment. "How I envy you your glory!"
"What happened to you, Don Francisco?" asked Obed.
"I carried the warning to my uncle and his family," replied Urrea. "I was just in time. Guerrillas of Cos came an hour later, and burned the house to the ground. They destroyed everything, the stables and barns, and they even killed the horses and the cattle. Ah, what a ruin! I rode back by there on my way to Goliad."
The young Mexican pressed his hands over his eyes and Ned thrilled with sympathy.
"What became of your uncle and his family?" asked the boy.
"They rode north for San Felipe de Austin. They will be safe but they lose all."
"Never mind," said Obed, "we'll make the Mexicans pay it back, when we drive 'em out of Texas. I don't believe that any good patriot will suffer."
"Nevertheless," said Urrea, "my uncle is willing to lose and endure for the cause."
Ned slept half through the morning in one of the little adobe houses, and at noon he, Obed, the Ring Tailed Panther and others rode toward San Antonio. They slept that night in a pecan grove, and the next day continued their journey, meeting in the morning a Texan who informed them that Cos with a formidable force was in San Antonio. He also confirmed the information that the Texans were gathering from all points for the attack upon this, the greatest Mexican fortress in all Texas. Mr. Austin was commander-in-chief of the forces, but he wished to yield the place to Houston who would not take it.
Late in the afternoon they saw horsemen and rode toward them boldly. The group was sixty or eighty in number and they stopped for the smaller body to approach. Ned's keen eyes recognized them first, and he uttered a cry of joy.
"There's Mr. Bowie," he said, "and there are Smith and Karnes, too! They are all on their way to San Antonio."
He took off his hat and waved it joyously. Smith and Karnes did the same and Bowie smiled gravely as the boy rode up.
"Well, Ned," he said, "we meet again and I judge that we ride on the same errand."
"We do. To San Antonio."
"An' there'll be the biggest fight that was ever seen in Texas," said the Ring Tailed Panther, who knew Bowie well. "If Mexicans an' Texans want to get to roarin' an' rippin' they'll have the chance."
"They will, Panther," said Bowie, still smiling gravely. Then he looked inquiringly at Urrea.
"This is Don Francisco Urrea," said Obed. "He was born in Texas, and he is with us heart and soul. By a hard ride he saved his uncle and family from slaughter by the guerrillas of Cos, and he reached Goliad just a few minutes too late to take part in the capture of the Mexican force."
"Some of the Mexicans born in Texas are with us," said Bowie, "and before we are through at San Antonio, Don Francisco, you will have a good chance to prove your loyalty to Texas."
"I shall prove it," said Urrea vehemently.
"The place for the gathering of our troops is on Salado Creek near San Antonio," said Bowie, "and I think that we shall find both Mr. Austin and General Houston there."
Bowie was extremely anxious to be at a conference with the leaders, and taking Ned, Obed, the Ring Tailed Panther and a few others he rode ahead. Ned suggested that Urrea go too, but Bowie did not seem anxious about him, and he was left behind.
"Maybe he would not be extremely eager to fire upon people of his own blood if we should happen to meet the Mexican lancers," said Bowie. "I don't like to put a man to such a test before I have to do it."
Urrea showed disappointment, but, after some remonstrance, he submitted with a fair grace.
"I'll see you again before San Antonio," he said to Ned.
Ned shook his hand, and galloped away with the little troop, which all told numbered only sixteen. Bowie kept them at a rapid pace until sundown and far after. Ned saw that the man was full of care, and he too appreciated the importance of the situation. Events were coming to a crisis and very soon the Texans and the army of Cos would stand face to face.
They slept on the open prairie, and were in the saddle again before dawn. Bowie now curved a little to the North. They were coming into country over which Mexicans rode, and he did not wish a clash. But the Ring Tailed Panther was not sanguine about a free passage, nor did he seem to care.
"It's likely that the Mexican bands are out ridin'," he said. "Cos ain't no fool, an' he'll be on the lookout for us. There's more timber as you come toward San Antonio, an' there'll be a lot of chances for ambushes."
"I believe you are hoping for one," said Ned.
The Ring Tailed Panther did not answer, but he looked upon this young friend of his of whom he thought so much, and his dark face parted in one of the broadest smiles that Ned had ever seen.
"I ain't runnin' away from the chance of it," he replied.
They saw a little later a belt of timber to their right. Ned's experience told him that it masked the bed of a creek, probably flowing to the San Antonio River, and he noticed, although they were at some distance, that the trees seemed to be of unusually fine growth. This fact first attracted his attention, but he lost sight of it when he saw a glint of unusually bright light among the trunks. He looked more closely. Here again experience was of value. It was the peculiar kind of light that he had seen before, when a ray from the sun struck squarely on the steel head of a lance.
"Look!" he said to Obed and Bowie.
They looked, and Bowie instantly halted his men. The face of the Ring Tailed Panther suddenly lighted up. He too had good eyes, and he said in tones of satisfaction:
"Figures are movin' among the trees, an' they are those of mounted men with lances. Texans don't carry lances an' I think we shall be attacked by a Mexican force within a few minutes, Colonel Bowie."
"It is altogether probable," replied Bowie. "See, they are coming from the wood, and they number at least sixty."
"Nearer seventy, I think," said Obed.
"Whether sixty or seventy, they are not too many for us to handle," said Bowie.
The Mexicans had seen the little group of Texans and they were coming fast. The wind brought their shouts and they brandished their long lances. Ned observed with admiration how cool Bowie and all the men remained.
"Ride up in a line," said Bowie. "Here, Ned, bring your horse by me and all of you face the Mexicans. Loosen your pistols, and when I give the word to fire let 'em have it with your rifles."
They were on the crest of one of the swells and the sixteen horses stood in a row so straight that a line stretched across their front would have touched the head of every one. They were trained horses, too, and the riders dropped the reins on their necks, while they held their rifles ready.
It was hard for Ned to keep his nerves steady, but Obed was on one side of him and Bowie on the other, while the Ring Tailed Panther was just beyond Obed. Pride as well as necessity kept him motionless and taut like the others.
Doubtless the Mexicans would have turned, had it not been for the smallness of the force opposed to them, but they came on rapidly in a long line, still shouting and brandishing their weapons. Ned saw the flaming eyes of the horses, and he marked the foam upon their jaws. For what was Bowie waiting! Nearer they came, and the beat of the hoofs thundered in his ears. It seemed that the flashing steel of the lances was at his throat. He had already raised his rifle and was taking aim at the man in front of him, all his nerves now taut for the conflict.
"Fire!" cried Bowie, and sixteen rifles were discharged as one.
Not a bullet went astray. The Mexican line was split asunder, and horses and men went down in a mass. A few, horses and men, rose, and ran across the plain. But the wings of the Mexican force closed in, and continued the charge, expecting victory, now that the rifles were empty. But they forgot the pistols. Ned snatched his from the holster, and fired directly into the evil face of a lancer who was about to crash into him. The Mexican fell to the ground and his horse, swerving to one side, galloped on.
The pistols cracked all around Ned, and then, the Mexicans, sheering off, fled as rapidly as they had charged. But they left several behind who would never charge again.
"All right, Ned?" said the cheery voice of Obed.
"Not hurt at all," replied the boy. But as he spoke he gazed down at the face of the man who had tried to crash into him, and he shuddered. He knew that face. At the first glance it had seemed familiar, and at the second he had remembered perfectly. It was the face of the man who had struck him with the butt of a lance on that march in Mexico, when he was the prisoner of Cos. It seemed a vengeance dealt out by the hand of fate. He who had received the blow had given it in return, although not knowing at the time. Ned recognized the justice of fate, but he did not rejoice. Nor did he speak of the coincidence to anyone. It was not a thing of which he wished to talk.
"They're gone," said the Ring Tailed Panther, speaking now in satisfied tones. "They came, they stayed half a minute, an' then they went, but there was some rippin' an tearin' an' chawin'."
"Yes, they've gone, and they've gone to stay," said Bowie. "It was a foolish thing to do to charge Texans armed with rifles on the open prairie."
Ned was looking at the last Mexican as he disappeared over the plain.
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