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THE TEXAN STAR
Just after the three started, they looked back and saw a faint light over the trees, which they knew was caused by the forest fire still traveling northward.
"It seemed almost a sin to set the torch to the woods," said the boy, "but I couldn't think of any other way to get you two loose from the Mexicans."
"It's a narrow fire," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' I guess it will burn itself out ag'inst some curve of the creek a few miles further on."
This, in truth, was what happened, as they learned later, but for the present they could bestow the thought of only a few moments upon the subject. Despite the Mexican interruption they intended to go on with their mission. With good horses beneath them they expected to reach the Brazos settlements the next day unless some new danger intervened.
They turned from the forest into the prairie and rode northward at a good gait.
"That was a fine scheme of yours, Ned," repeated the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' nobody could have done it better. You set the fire an' here we are, together ag'in."
"I was greatly helped by luck," said Ned modestly.
"Luck helps them that think hard an' try hard. Didn't that fellow, Urrea, give you the creeps? I had my doubts about him before, but I never believed he was quite as bad as he is."
But Ned felt melancholy. It seemed to him that somebody whom he liked had died.
"I saw him talking to you and Obed," he said. "What was he saying?"
The Ring Tailed Panther frowned and Ned heard his teeth grit upon one another.
"He was sayin' a lot of things," he replied. "He was talkin' low down, hittin' at men who couldn't hit back, abusin' prisoners, which the same was Obed an' me. He was doin' what I guess you would call tauntin', tellin' of all the things we would have to suffer. He said that they'd get you, too, before mornin' an' that we'd all be hanged as rebels an' traitors to Mexico. He laughed at the way he fooled us. He said that spat he had with Sandoval was only make-believe. He said that we'd never get San Antonio; that he'd kept Cos informed about all our movements an' that Santa Anna was comin' with a great army. He said that most of us would be chawed right up, an' that them that wasn't chawed up would wish they had been before Santa Anna got through with 'em."
"Many a threatened man who runs away lives to fight another day," said Obed cheerfully.
"That's so," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' I say it among us three that if we don't take San Antonio we'll have a mighty good try at it, an' if it comes to hangin' an' all that sort of business there's Texan as well as Mexican ropes."
They reached another belt of forest about 3 o'clock in the morning, and they concluded to rest there and get some sleep. They felt no fear of the Mexicans who, they were sure, were now riding southward. They slept here four or five hours, and late the next afternoon reached the first settlement on the Brazos.
Ned and his companions spent a week on the river and when they rode south again they took with them nearly a hundred volunteers for the attack on San Antonio, the last draft that the little settlements could furnish. Very few, save the women and children, were left behind.
On their return journey they passed through the very forest in which Ned had made his singular rescue of Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther. They saw the camp and they saw the swath made by the fire, a narrow belt, five or six miles in length, ending as the Ring Tailed Panther had predicted at a curve of the creek. The Mexicans, as they now knew definitely, were gone days ago from that region.
"Perhaps we'll meet Urrea when we attack San Antonio," said Ned.
"Maybe," said Obed.
They rode to the camp on the Salado without interruption, and found that indecision still reigned there. The blockade of San Antonio was going on, and the men were eager for the assault, but the leaders were convinced that the force was too small and weak. They would not consent to what they considered sure disaster. The recruits that the three brought were welcomed, but Ned noticed a state of depression in the camp. He found yet there his old friends, Bowie, Smith, Karnes, and the others. His news that Urrea was a spy and traitor created a sensation.
Ned was asked by "Deaf" Smith the morning after his arrival to go with him on a scout, and he promptly accepted. A rest of a single day was enough for him and he was pining for new action.
The two rode toward the town, and then curved away to one side, keeping to the open prairie where they might see the approach of a superior enemy, in time. They observed the Mexican sentinels at a distance, but the two forces had grown so used to each other that no hostile demonstration was made, unless one or the other came too close.
Smith and Ned rode some distance, and then turned on another course, which brought them presently to a hill covered with ash and oak. They rode among the trees and from that point of vantage searched the whole horizon. Ned caught the glint of something in the south, and called Smith's attention to it.
"What do you think it is?" he asked after Smith had looked a long time.
"It's the sun shining on metal, either a lance head or a rifle barrel. Ah, now I see horsemen riding this way."
"And they are Mexicans, too," said Ned. "What does it mean?"
A considerable force of mounted Mexicans was coming into view, and Smith's opinion was formed at once.
"It's reinforcements for Cos," he cried. "We heard that Ugartchea was going to bring fresh troops from Laredo, and that he would also have with him mule loads of silver to pay off Cos' men. We'll just cut off this force and take their silver. We'll ride to Bowie!"
They galloped at full speed to the camp and found the redoubtable Georgian, who instantly gathered together a hundred men including the Ring Tailed Panther and Obed and raced back. The Mexican horsemen were still in the valley, seeming to move slowly, and Bowie at once formed up the Texans for a charge. But before he could give the word a trumpet pealed, and the Mexicans rode at full speed toward a great gully at the end of the valley into which they disappeared. The last that the Texans saw were some heavily-loaded mules following their master into the ravine.
The Ring Tailed Panther burst into a laugh.
"Them's not reinforcements," he cried, "an' them's not mules loaded with silver. They're carryin' nothin' but grass. These men have been out there cuttin' feed in the meadow for Cos' horses."
"You're right, Panther," said "Deaf" Smith, somewhat crestfallen.
"But we'll attack, just the same," said Bowie. "Our men need action. We'll follow 'em into that gully. On, men, on!"
A joyous shout was his reply and the men galloped into the plain. They were about to charge for the gully when Bowie cried to them to halt. A new enemy had appeared. A heavy force of cavalry with two guns was coming from San Antonio to rescue the grass cutters. They rode forward with triumphant cheers, but the Texans did not flinch. They would face odds of at least three to one with calmness and confidence.
"Rifles ready, men!" cried Bowie. "They're about to charge."
The trumpets pealed out the signal again, and the Mexicans charged at a gallop. Up went the Texans' rifles. A hundred fingers pressed a hundred triggers, and a hundred bullets crashed into the front of the Mexican line. Down went horses and men, and the Mexican column stopped. But it opened in a few moments, and, through the breach, the two cannon began to fire, the heavy reports echoing over the plain. The Texans instinctively lengthened their line, making it as thin as possible, and continued their deadly rifle fire.
Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther as usual kept close together, and "Deaf" Smith also was now with them. All of them were aiming as well as they could through the smoke which was gathering fast, but the Mexicans, in greatly superior force, supported by the cannon, held their ground. The grass cutters in the gully also opened fire on the Texan flank, and for many minutes the battle swayed back and forth on the plain, while the clouds of smoke grew thicker, at times almost hiding the combatants from one another.
The Texans now began to press harder, and the Mexicans, despite their numbers and their cannon, yielded a little, but the fire from the men in the gully was stinging their flank. If they pushed forward much farther they would be caught between the two forces and might be destroyed. It was an alarming puzzle, but at that moment a great shout rose behind them. The sound of the firing had been heard in the main Texan camp and more Texans were coming by scores.
"It's all over now," said Obed.
The Texans divided into two forces. One drove the main column of the Mexicans in confusion back upon the town, and the other, containing Ned and his friends, charged into the gully and put to flight or captured all who were hidden there. They also took the mules with their loads of grass which they carried back to their own camp.
Ned, the Ring Tailed Panther, Obed and "Deaf" Smith rode back together to the Salado. It had been a fine victory, won as usual against odds, but they were not exultant. In the breast of every one of them had been a hope that the whole Texan army would seize the opportunity and charge at once upon Cos and San Antonio. Instead, they had been ordered back.
They made their discontent vocal that and the following evenings. There was no particular order among the Texans. They usually acted in groups, according to the localities from which they came, and some, believing that nothing would be done, had gone home disgusted. Mr. Austin himself had left, and Houston had persisted in his refusal to command. Burleson, a veteran Indian fighter, had finally been chosen for the leadership. Houston soon left, and Bowie, believing that nothing would be done, followed him.
It was only a few days after the grass fight, and despite that victory, Ned felt the current of depression. It seemed that their fortune was melting away without their ever putting it to the touch. Although new men had come their force was diminishing in numbers and San Antonio was farther from their hands than ever.
"If we don't do something before long," said Henry Karnes, "we'll just dissolve like a snow before a warm wind."
"An' all our rippin' an' tearin' will go for nothin'," growled the Ring Tailed Panther. "We've won every fight we've been in, an' yet they won't let us go into that town an' have it out with Cos."
"We'll get it yet," said Obed cheerfully. "In war it's a long lane that has no battle at the end. Just you be patient, Panther. Patience will have her good fight. I've tested it more than once myself."
Ned did not say anything. He had made himself a comfortable place, and, as the cold night wind was whistling among the oaks and pecans, the fire certainly looked very good to him. He watched the flames leap and sink, and the great beds of coals form, and once more he was very glad that he was not alone again on the Mexican mountains. He resolutely put off the feeling of depression. They might linger and hesitate now, but he did not doubt that the cause of Texas would triumph in the end.
Ned was restless that night, so restless that he could not sleep, and, after a futile effort, he rose, folded up his blankets and wandered about the camp. It was a body of volunteers drawn together by patriotism and necessity for a common purpose, and one could do almost as one pleased. There was a ring of sentinels, but everybody knew everybody else and scouts, skirmishers and foragers passed at will.
Ned was fully armed, of course, and, leaving the camp, he entered an oak grove that lay between it and the city. As there was no underbrush here and little chance for ambush he felt quite safe. Behind him he saw the camp and the lights of the scattered fires now dying, but before him he saw only the trunks of the trees and the dusky horizon beyond.
Ned had no definite object in view, but he thought vaguely of scouting along the river. One could never know too much about the opposing force, and experience added to natural gifts had given him great capabilities.
He advanced deeper into the pecan grove, and reached the point where the trees grew thickest. There, where the moonlight fell he saw a shadow lying along the ground, the shadow of a man. Ned sprang behind a tree and lay almost flat. The shadow had moved, but he could still see a head. He felt sure that its owner was behind another tree not yet ten feet distant. Perhaps some Mexican scout like himself. On the other hand, it might be Smith or Karnes, and he called softly.
No answer came to his call. Some freak of the moonlight still kept the shadowy head in view, while its owner remained completely hidden, unconscious, perhaps, that any part of his reflection was showing. Ned did not know what to do. After waiting a long time, and, seeing that the shadow did not move, he edged his way partly around the trunk, and stopped where he was still protected by the ground and the tree. He saw the shadowy head shift to the same extent that he had moved, but he heard no sound.
He called again and more loudly. He said: "I am a Texan; if you are a friend, say so!" No one would mistake his voice for that of a Mexican. No reply came from behind the tree.
Ned was annoyed. This was most puzzling and he did not like puzzles. Moreover, his situation was dangerous. If he left his tree, the man behind the other one--and he did not doubt now that he was an enemy--could probably take a shot at him.
He tried every maneuver that he knew to draw the shot, while he yet lay in ambush, but none succeeded. His wary enemy knew every ruse. Had it not been for the shadowy head, yet visible in the moonlight, Ned might have concluded that he had gone. He had now been behind the tree a full half hour, and during all that time he had not heard a single sound from his foe. The singular situation, so unusual in its aspect, and so real in its danger, began to get upon his nerves.
He thought at last of something which he believed would draw the fire of the ambushed Mexican. He carried a pistol as well as a rifle, and, carefully laying the cocked rifle by his side, he drew the smaller weapon. Then he crept about the tree, purposely making a little noise. He saw the shadowy head move, and he knew that his enemy was seeking a shot. He heard for the first time a slight sound, and he could tell from it exactly where the man lay.
Raising his pistol he fired, and the bark flew from the right side of the tree. A man instantly sprang out, rifle in hand, and rushed toward him expecting to take him, unarmed. Like a flash Ned seized his own cocked rifle and covered the man. When he looked down the sights he saw that it was Urrea.
Urrea halted, taken by surprise. His own rifle was not leveled, and Ned held his life at his gun muzzle.
"Stop, Don Francisco, or I fire," said the boy. "I did not dream that it was you, and I am sorry that I was wrong."
Urrea recovered very quickly from his surprise. He did not seek to raise his rifle, knowing that it was too late.
"Well," he said, "why don't you fire?"
"I don't know," replied Ned.
"I would do it in your place."
"I know it, but there is a difference between us and I am glad of that difference, egotistical as it may sound."
"There is another difference which perhaps you do not have in mind. You are a Texan, an American, and I am a Mexican. That is why I came among you and claimed to be one of you. You were fools to think that I, Francisco Urrea, could ever fight for Texas against Mexico."
"It seems that we were," said Ned.
Urrea laughed somewhat scornfully.
"There are some Mexicans born here in Texas who are so foolish," he said, "but they do not know Mexico. They do not know the greatness of our nation, or the greatness of Santa Anna. What are your paltry numbers against us? You will fail here against San Antonio, and, even if you should take the town, Santa Anna will come with a great army and destroy you. And then, remember that there is a price to be paid. Much rope will be used to good purpose in Texas."
"You have eaten our bread, you have received kindness from us, and yet you talk of executions."
"I ate your bread, because it was my business to do so. I am not ashamed of anything that I have done. I do not exaggerate, when I say that I have rendered my nation great service against the Texan rebels. It was I who brought them against you more than once."
"I should not boast of it. I should never pretend to belong to one side in war and work for another."
"Again there is a difference between us. Now, what do you purpose to do? I am, as it were, your prisoner, and it is for you to make a beginning."
Ned was embarrassed. He was young and he could not enforce all the rigors of war. He knew that if he took Urrea to the camp the man would be executed as a spy and traitor. The Mexicans had already committed many outrages, and the Texans were in no forgiving mood. Ned could not forget that this man had broken bread with his comrades and himself, and once he had liked him. Even now his manner, which contained no fear nor cringing, appealed to him.
"Go," he said at last, "I cannot take your life, nor can I carry you to those who would take it. Doubtless I am doing wrong, but I do not know what else to do."
"Do you mean that you let me go free?"
"I do. You cannot be a spy among us again, and as an open enemy you are only as one among thousands. Of course you came here to-night to spy upon us, and it was an odd chance that brought us together. Take the direction of San Antonio, but don't look back. I warn you that I shall keep you covered with my rifle."
Urrea turned without another word and walked away. Ned watched him for a full hundred yards. He noticed that the man's figure was as trim and erect as ever. Apparently, he was as wanting in remorse as he was in fear.
When Urrea had gone a hundred yards Ned turned and went swiftly back to the camp. He said nothing about the incident either to Obed or the Ring Tailed Panther. The next day Urrea was crowded from his mind by exciting news. A sentinel had hailed at dawn three worn and unkempt Texans who had escaped from San Antonio, where they had long been held prisoners by Cos. They brought word that the Mexican army was disheartened. The heavy reinforcements, promised by Santa Anna, had not come.
A great clamor for an immediate attack arose. The citizen army gathered in hundreds around the tent of Burleson, the leader, and demanded that they be led against San Antonio. Fannin and Milam were there, and they seconded the demands of the men. Ned stood on the outskirts of the crowd. The Ring Tailed Panther on one side of him uttering a succession of growls, but Obed on the other was silent.
"It looks like a go this time," said Ned.
"I think it is," said Obed, "and if it isn't a go now it won't be one at all. Waiting wears out the best of men."
The Ring Tailed Panther continued to growl.
A great shout suddenly arose. The Panther ceased to growl and his face beamed. Burleson had consented to the demand of the men. It was quickly arranged that they should attack San Antonio in the morning, and risk everything on the cast.
The short day--it was winter now--was spent in preparations. Ned and his comrades cleaned their rifles and pistols and provided themselves with double stores of ammunition. Ned did not seek to conceal from himself, nor did the men seek to hide from him the greatness and danger of their attempt.
"They outnumber us and they hold a fortified town," said Obed. "Whatever we do we three must stick together. In union there is often safety."
"We stick as long as we stand," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "If one falls the other two must go on, an', if two fall, the last must go on as long as he can."
"Agreed," said Ned and Obed.
They were ready long before night, but after dark an alarming story spread through the little army. Part of it at least proved to be true. One of the scouts, sent out after the decision to attack had been taken, had failed to come in. It was believed that he had deserted to the Mexicans with news of the intended Texan advance. The leaders had counted upon surprise, as a necessary factor in their success, and without it they would not advance. Gloom settled over the army, but it was not a silent gloom. These men spoke their disappointment in words many and loud. Never had the Ring Tailed Panther roared longer, without taking breath.
The Texans were still talking angrily about the fires, when another shout arose. The missing scout came in and he brought with him a Mexican deserter, who confirmed all the reports about the discouragement of the garrison. Once more, the Texans crowded about Burleson's tent, and demanded that the attack be made upon San Antonio. At last Burleson exclaimed:
"Well, if you can get volunteers to attack, go and attack!"
Milam turned, faced the crowd and raised his hand.
There was a sudden hush save for the deep breathing of many men. Then in a loud, clear voice Milam spoke only ten words. They were:
"Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?"
And a hundred voices roared a single word in reply. It was:
"That settles it," said the Ring Tailed Panther with deep satisfaction. "Old Satan himself couldn't stop the attack now."
The word was given that the volunteers for the direct attack, three hundred in number, would gather at an old mill half way between the camp and the town. Thence they would march on foot for the assault. Ned and his comrades were among the first to gather at the mill and he waited as calmly as he could, while the whole force was assembled, three hundred lean, brown men, large of bone and long of limb.
No light was allowed, and the night was cold. The figures of the men looked like phantoms in the dusk. Ned stood with his friends, while Milam gave the directions. They were to be divided into two forces. One under Milam was to enter the town by the street called Acequia, and the other under Colonel Johnson was to penetrate by Soledad Street. They relied upon the neglect of the Mexicans to get so far, before the battle began. Burleson, with the remainder of his men would attack the ancient mission, then turned into a fort, called the Alamo.
"Deaf" Smith, who knew the town thoroughly, led Johnson's column, and Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther were just behind him.
Ned was quivering in every nerve with excitement and suspense, but he let no one see it. He moved forward with steady step and he heard behind him the soft tread of the men who intended to get into San Antonio without being seen. He looked back at them. They came in the dusk like so many shadows and no one spoke. It was like a procession of ghosts, moving into a sleeping town. The chill wind cut across their faces, but no one at that moment took notice of cold.
High over Ned's head a great star danced and twinkled, and it seemed to him that it was the Texan Star springing out.
The houses of the town rose out of the darkness. Ned saw off to right and left fresh earthworks and rifle pits, but either no men were stationed there or they slept. The figure of Smith led steadily on and behind came the long and silent file. How much farther would they go without being seen or heard? It seemed amazing to Ned that they had come so far already.
They were actually at the edge of the town. Now they were in it, going up the narrow Soledad Street between the low houses directly toward the main plaza, which was fortified by barricades and artillery. A faint glimmer of dawn was just beginning to appear in the east.
A dusky figure suddenly appeared in the street in front of them and gave a shout of alarm. "Deaf" Smith fired and the man fell. A bugle pealed from the plaza and a cannon was fired down the street, the ball whistling over the heads of the Texans. In an instant the garrison of Cos was awake, and the alarm sounded from every point of San Antonio. Lights flashed, arms rattled and men called to one another.
"Into this house" cried "Deaf" Smith. "We cannot charge up the narrow street in face of the cannon!"
They were now within a hundred yards of the plaza, but they saw that the guide was right. They dashed into the large, solid house that he had indicated, and Ned did not notice until he was inside that it was the very house of the Vice-Governor, Veramendi, into which he had come once before. Just as the last of the Texans sprang through the doors another cannon ball whistled down the street, this time low enough. Milam's division, meanwhile, had rushed into the house of De La Garcia, near by.
As Ned and the others sprang to cover he trampled upon the flowers in a patio, and he saw a little fountain playing. Then he knew. It was the house of Veramendi, and he thought it a singular chance that had brought him to the same place. But he had little time for reflection. The column of Texans, a hundred and fifty in number, were taking possession of every part of the building, the occupants of which had fled through the rear doors.
"To the roof!" cried "Deaf" Smith. "We can best meet the attack from there."
The doors and windows were already manned, but Smith and many of the best men rushed to the flat roof, and looked over the low stone coping. It was not yet day and they could not see well. Despite the lack of light, the Mexicans opened a great fire of cannon and small arms. The whole town resounded with the roar and the crash and also with the shouting. But most of the cannon balls and bullets flew wide, and the rest spent themselves in vain on the two houses.
The Texans, meanwhile, held their fire, and waited for day. Ned, Smith and the others on the roof lay down behind the low coping. They had achieved their long wish. They were in San Antonio, but what would happen to them there?
Ned peeped over the coping. He saw many flashes down the street toward the plaza and he heard the singing of bullets. His finger was on the trigger and the temptation to reply was great, but like the others he waited.
The faint light in the east deepened and the sun flashed out. The full dawn was at hand and the two forces, Texans and Mexicans, faced each other.
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