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THE BLACK JAGUAR
It was so dark that the two could see but a narrow stretch of masonry on which they stood and a tossing sea beyond. Behind them heaved up the mass of the castle, mighty and somber. A fierce wind was blowing in from the gulf, and it whistled and screamed about the great walls. The rain, bitter and cold, lashed against them like hail. Shut off so long from the outer air they shivered now, but the shiver was merely of the air. Their spirit was as high as ever and they faced their crisis with undaunted souls.
Yet they were far from escape. The wind was of uncommon strength, seeming to increase steadily in power, and a half mile of wild waters raced between them and the town. Weaker wills would have yielded and turned back to prison, but not they. They ran eagerly along the edge of the masonry, pelted by rain and wind.
"There must be a boat tied up somewhere along here," exclaimed Ned. "The castle, of course, keeps communication with the town!"
"Yes, here it is!" said Obed. "Fortune favors the persistent. It's only a small boat, and it's a big sea before us, but, Ned, my lad, we've got to try it. We can't look any further. Listen! That's the alarm in the castle."
They heard shouts and clash of arms above the roaring of the wind. They picked in furious haste at the rope that held the boat, cast it loose, and sprang in, securing the oars. The waves at once lifted them up and tossed them wildly. It was perhaps fortunate that they lost control of their boat for a minute or two. Two musket shots were fired at them, but good aim in the darkness at such a bobbing object was impossible. Ned heard one of the bullets whistle near, and it gave him a queer, creepy feeling to realize that for the first time in his life someone was firing at him to kill.
"Can you row, Ned?" asked White.
"Then pull with all your strength. Bend as low as you can at the same time. They'll be firing at us as long as we are in range."
They strove for the cover of the darkness, but they were compelled to devote most of their efforts to keeping themselves afloat. The little boat was tossed here and there like a bit of plank. Spray from the sea was dashed over them, and, in almost a moment, they were wet through and through. The captured musket lay in the bottom and rolled against their feet. The wind shrieked continually like some wild animal in pain.
Many torches appeared on the wharf that led up to the castle, and there was a noise of men shouting to one another. The torches disclosed the little boat rising and falling with the swell of the sea, and numerous shots were now fired, but all fell short or went wild.
"I don't think we're in much danger from the muskets," said Obed, "so we won't pay any more attention to them. But in another minute they'll have big boats out in pursuit We must make for the land below the town, and get away somehow or other in the brush. If we were to land in the town itself we'd be as badly off as ever. Hark, there goes the alarm!"
A heavy booming report rose above the mutter of the waters and the screaming of the wind. One of the great guns on the castle of San Juan de Ulua had been fired. After a brief interval it was followed by a second shot and then a third. The reports could be heard easily in Vera Cruz, and they said that either a fresh revolution had begun, or that prisoners were escaping. The people would be on the watch. White turned the head of the boat more toward the south.
"Ned," he said, "we must choose the longer way. We cannot run any risk of landing right under the rifles of Santa Anna's troops. Good God!"
Some gunner on the walls of San Juan de Ulua, of better sight and aim than the others, had sent a cannon ball so close that it struck the sea within ten feet of them. They were deluged by a water spout and again their little vessel rocked fearfully. Obed White called out cheerfully:
"Still right side up! They may shoot more cannon balls at us, Ned, but they won't hit as near as that again!"
"No, it's not likely," said Ned, "but there come the boats!"
Large boats rowed by eight men apiece had now put out, but they, too, were troubled by the wind and the high waves, and the boat they pursued was so small that it was lost to sight most of the time. The wind and darkness while a danger on the one hand were a protection on the other. Fortunately both current and wind were bearing them in the direction they wished, and they struggled with the energy that the love of life can bring. All the large boats save one now disappeared from view, but the exception, having marked them well, came on, gaining. An officer seated in the prow, and wrapped in a long cloak, hailed them in a loud voice, ordering them to surrender.
"Ned," said Obed White, "you keep the boat going straight ahead and I'll answer that man. But I wish this was a rifle in place of a musket."
He picked up the musket and took aim. When he fired the leading rower on the right hand side of the pursuing boat dropped back, and the boat was instantly in confusion. White laid down the musket and seized the oar again.
"Now, Ned," he exclaimed, "if we pull as hard as we can and a little harder, we'll lose them!"
The boat, driven by the oars and the wind, sprang forward. Fortune, as if resolved now to favor fugitives who had made so brave a fight against overwhelming odds, piled the clouds thicker and heavier than ever over the bay. The little boat was completely concealed from its pursuers. Another gun boomed from San Juan de Ulua, and both Ned and Obed saw its flash on the parapet, but, hidden under the kindly veil of the night, they pulled straight ahead with strong arms. The sea seemed to be growing smoother, and soon they saw an outline which they knew to be that of the land.
"We're below the town now," said Obed. "I don't know any particular landing place, but it's low and sandy along here. So I propose that we ride right in on the the highest wave, jump out of the boat when she strikes and leave her."
"Good enough," said Ned. "Yes, that's the land. I can see it plainly now, and here comes our wave."
The crest of the great wave lifted them up, and bore them swiftly inland, the two increasing the speed with their oars. They went far up on a sandy beach, where the boat struck. They sprang out, Obed taking with him the unloaded musket, and ran. The retreating water caught them about the ankles and pulled hard, but could not drag them back. They passed beyond the highest mark of the waves, and then dropped, exhausted, on the ground.
"We've got all Mexico now to escape in," said Obed White, "instead of that pent-up castle."
The alarm gun boomed once more from San Juan de Ulua, and reminded them that they could not linger long there. The rain was still falling, the night was cold, and, after their tremendous strain, they would need shelter as well as refuge.
"They'll be searching the beach soon," said Obed, "and we'd best be off. It's against my inclination just now to stay long in one place. A rolling stone keeps slick and well polished, and that's what I'm after."
"I think our safest course is to travel inland just as fast and as far as we can," said Ned.
"Correct. Good advice needs no bush."
They started in the darkness across the sand dunes, and walked for a long time. They knew that a careful search along the beach would be made for them, but the Mexicans were likely to feel sure when they found nothing that they had been wrecked and drowned.
"I hope they'll think the sea got us," said Ned, "because then they won't be searching about the country for us."
"We weren't destined to be drowned that time," said Obed with great satisfaction. "It just couldn't happen after our running such a gauntlet before reaching the sea. But the further we get away from salt water the safer we are."
"It was my plan at first," said Ned, "to go by way of the sea from Vera Cruz to a Texan port."
"Circumstances alter journeys. It can't be done now. We've got to cut across country. It's something like a thousand miles to Texas, but I think that you and I together, Ned, can make it."
Ned agreed. Certainly they had no chance now to slip through by the way of Vera Cruz, and the sea was not his element anyhow.
The rain ceased, and a few stars came out. They passed from the sand dunes into a region of marshes. Constant walking kept their blood warm, and their clothes were drying upon them. But they were growing very tired and they felt that they must rest and sleep even at the risk of recapture.
"There's a lot of grass growing on the dry ground lying between the marshes," said Ned, "and I suppose that the Mexicans cut it for the Vera Cruz market. Maybe we can find something like a haystack or a windrow. Dry grass makes a good bed."
They hunted over an hour and persistence was rewarded by a small heap of dry grass in a little opening surrounded by thorn bushes. They spread one covering of it on the ground, covered themselves to the mouth with another layer, and then went sound asleep, the old, unloaded musket lying by Obed White's side.
The two slept the sleep of deep exhaustion, the complete relaxation of both body and mind. Boy and man they had passed through ordeals that few can endure, but, healthy and strong, they suffered merely from weariness and not from shattered nerves. So they slept peacefully and their breathing was long and deep. They were warm as they lay with the grass above and below them like two blankets. It had not rained much here, and the grass had dried before their coming, so they were free from danger of cold.
The night passed and the brilliant Mexican day came, touching with red and gold the town that curved about the bay, and softening the tints of the great fortress that rose on the rocky isle. All was quiet again within San Juan de Ulua and Vera Cruz. It had become known in both castle and town that two Texans, boy and man, had escaped from the dungeons under the sea only to find a grave in the sea above. Their boat had been found far out in the bay where the returning waves carried it, but the fishes would feed on their bodies, and it was well, because the Texans were wicked people, robbers and brigands who dared to defy the great and good Santa Anna, the father of his people.
Meanwhile, the two slept on, never stirring under the grass. It is true that the boy had dreams of a mighty castle from which he had fled and of a roaring ocean over which he had passed, but he landed happily and the dream sank away into oblivion. Peons worked in a field not a hundred yards away, but they sought no fugitives, and they had no cruel thoughts about anything. That Spanish strain in them was wholly dormant now. They had heard in the night the signal guns from San Juan de Ulua and the tenderest hearted of them said a prayer under his breath for the boy whom the storm had given to the sea. Then they sang together as they worked, some soft, crooning air of love and sacrifice that had been sung among the hills of Spain before the Moor came. Perhaps if they had known that the boy and man were asleep only a hundred yards away, the tenderest hearted among them at least would have gone on with their work just the same.
Ned was the first to awake and it was past noon. He threw off the grass and stood up refreshed but a little stiff. He awoke Obed, who rose, yawning tremendously and plucking wisps of grass from his hair. The droning note of a song came faintly, and the two listened.
"Peons at work in a field," said the boy, looking through the trees. "They don't appear to be very warlike, but we'd better go in the other direction."
"You're right," said Obed. "It's best for us to get away. If we tempt our fate too much it may overtake us, but before we go let's take a last view of our late home, San Juan de Ulua. See it over there, cut out in black against the blue sky. It's a great fortress, but I'm glad to bid it farewell."
"Shall we take the musket?" asked Ned. "It's unloaded, and we have nothing with which to load it."
"I think we'll stick to it," replied Obed, "we may find a use for it, but the first thing we want, Ned, is something to eat, and we've got to get it. Curious, isn't it, how the fear of recapture, the fear of everything, melts away before the demands of hunger."
"Which means that we'll have to go to some Mexican hut and ask for food," said Ned. "Now, I suggest, since we have no money, that we offer the musket for as much provisions as we can carry."
"It's not a bad idea. But our pistols are loaded and we'll keep them in sight. It won't hurt if the humble peon takes us for brigands. He'll trade a little faster, and, as this is a time of war so far as we are concerned, we have the right to inspire necessary fear."
They started toward the north and west, anxious to leave the tierra caliente as soon as they could and reach the mountains. Ned saw once more the silver cone of Orizaba now on his left. It had not led him on a happy quest before, but he believed that it was a true beacon now. They walked rapidly, staying their hunger as best they could, not willing to approach any hut, until they were a considerable distance from Vera Cruz. It was nearly nightfall when they dared a little adobe hut on a hillside.
"We'll claim to be Spaniards out of money and walking to the City of Mexico," said Obed. "They probably won't believe our statements, but, owing to the sight of these loaded pistols, they will accept them."
It was a poor hut with an adobe floor and its owner, a surly Mexican, was at home, but it contained plenty of food of the coarsest Mexican type, and Obed White stated their requests very plainly.
"Food we must have," he said, "sufficient for two or three days. Besides, we want the two serapes hanging there on the wall. I think they are clean enough for our use. In return we offer you this most excellent musket, a beautiful weapon made at Seville. Look at it. It is worth twice what we demand for it. Behold the beautifully carved stock and the fine steel barrel."
The Mexican, a dark, heavy-jawed fellow, regarded them maliciously, while his wife and seven half-naked children sat by in silence, but watching the strangers with the wary, shifting eyes of wild animals.
"Yes, it is a good musket," he said, "but may I inquire if it is your own?"
"For the purposes of barter and sale it is my own," replied Obed politely. "In this land as well as some others possession is ten points of the law."
"The words you speak are Spanish but your tone is Gringo."
"Gringo or Spanish, it does not change the beauty and value of the musket."
"I was in Vera Cruz this morning. Last night there was a storm and the great guns at the mighty Castle of San Juan de Ulua were firing."
"Did they fire the guns to celebrate the storm?"
"No. They gave a signal that two prisoners, vile Texans, were escaping from the dungeons under the sea. But the storm took them, and buried them in the waters of the bay. I heard the description of them. One was a very tall man, thin and with very thick, red hair. The other was a boy, but tall and strong for his age. He had gray eyes and brown hair. Wretched infidel Texans they were, but they are gone and may the Holy Virgin intercede for their souls."
He lifted his heavy lashes, and he and Obed White looked gravely into the eyes of each other. They and Ned, too, understood perfectly.
"You were informed wrongly," said Obed. "The man who escaped was short and fat, and he had yellow hair. The boy was very dark with black hair and black eyes. But the statement that they were drowned in the bay is correct."
"One might get five hundred good silver pesos for bringing in their bodies."
"One might, but one won't, and you, amigo, are just concluding an excellent bargain. You get this fine, unloaded musket, and we get the food and the serapes for which we have so courteously asked. The entire bargain will be completed inside of two minutes."
The blue eyes and the black eyes met again and the owner of each pair understood.
"It is so," said the Mexican, evenly, and he brought what they wished.
"Good-day, amigo," said Obed politely. "I will repeat that the musket is unloaded, and you cannot find ammunition for it any nearer than Vera Cruz, which will not trouble you as you are here at home in your castle. But our pistols are loaded, and it is a necessary fact for my young friend and myself. We purpose to travel in the hills, where there is great danger of brigands. Fortunately for us we are both able and willing to shoot well. Once more, farewell."
"Farewell," said the Mexican, waving his hand in dignified salute.
"That fellow is no fool," said Obed, as they strode away. "I like a man who can take a hint. A word to the wise is like a stitch in time."
"Will he follow us?"
"Not he. He has that musket which he craved, and at half its value. He does not desire wounds and perhaps death. The chances are ninety-nine out of a hundred that he will never say a word for fear his government will seize his musket."
"And now for the wildest country that we can find," said Ned. "I'm glad it doesn't rain much down here. We can sleep almost anywhere, wrapped in our serapes."
They ate as they walked and they kept on a long time after sunset, picking their way by the moonlight. Two or three times they passed peons in the path, but their bold bearing and the pistols in their belts always gave them the road. Brigands flourished amid the frequent revolutions, and the humbler Mexicans found it wise to attend strictly to their own business. They slept again in the open, but this time on a hill in a dense thicket. They had previously drunk at a spring at its base, and lacking now for neither food nor water they felt hope rising continually.
Ned had no dreams the second night, and both awoke at dawn. On the far side of the hill, they found a pool in which they bathed, and with breakfast following they felt that they had never been stronger. Their food was made up in two packs, one for each, and they calculated that with economy it would last two days. They could also reckon upon further supplies from wild fruits, and perhaps more frijoles and tortillas from the people themselves. When they had summed up all their circumstances, they concluded that they were not in such bad condition. Armed, strong and bold, they might yet traverse the thousand miles to Texas.
Light of heart and foot they started. Off to the left the great silver head of Orizaba looked down at them benignantly, and before them they saw the vast flowering robe of the tierra caliente into which they pushed boldly, even as Cortez and his men had entered it.
Ned was almost overpowered by a vegetation so grand and magnificent. Except on the paths which they followed, it was an immense and tangled mass of gigantic trees and huge lianas. Many of the lianas had wound themselves like huge serpents about the trees and had gradually pulled them, no matter how strong, into strange and distorted shapes. Overhead parrots and paroquets chattered amid the vast and gorgeous bloom of red and pink, yellow and white. Ned and Obed were forced to keep to the narrow peon paths, because elsewhere one often could not pass save behind an army of axes.
The trees were almost innumerable in variety. They saw mahogany, rosewood, Spanish cedar and many others that they did not know. They also saw the cactus and the palm, turned by the struggle for existence in this tremendous forest, into climbing plants. Obed noted these facts with his sharp eye.
"It's funny that the cactus and the palm have to climb to live," he said, "but they've done it. It isn't any funnier, however, than the fact that the whale lived on land millions of years ago, and had to take to the water to escape being eaten up by bigger and fiercer animals than himself. I'm a Maine man and so I know about whales."
They came now and then to little clearings, in which the peons raised many kinds of tropical and semitropical plants, bananas, pineapples, plantains, oranges, cocoa-nuts, mangoes, olives and numerous others. In some places the fruit grew wild, and they helped themselves to it. Twice they asked at huts for the customary food made of Indian corn, and on both occasions it was given to them. The peons were stolid, but they seemed kind and Ned was quite sure they did not care whether the two were Gringos or not. Two or three times, heavy tropical rains gushed down in swift showers, and they were soaked through and through, despite their serapes, but the hot sun, coming quickly afterward, soon dried them out again. They were very much afraid of chills and fever, but their constitutions, naturally so strong, held them safe.
Deeper and deeper they went into the great tropical wilderness of the tierra caliente. Often the heat under the vast canopy of interlacing vines and boughs was heavy and intense. Then they would lie down and rest, first threshing up grass and bushes to drive away snakes, scorpions and lizards. Sometimes they would sleep, and sometimes they would watch the monkeys and parrots darting about and chattering overhead. Twice they saw fierce ocelots stealing among the tree trunks, stalking prey hidden from the man and boy. The first ocelot was a tawny yellow and the second was a reddish gray. Both were marked with black spots in streaks and in lengthened rings. The second was rather the larger of the two. He seemed to be slightly over four feet in length, of which the body was three feet and the tail about a foot.
Ned and Obed were lying flat upon the ground, when the second ocelot appeared, and, as the wind was blowing from him toward them, he did not detect their presence. At the distance the figure of the great cat was enlarged. He looked to them almost like a tiger and certainly he was a ferocious creature, as he stalked his prey. Neither would have cared to meet him even with weapons in hand. Suddenly he darted forward, ran up the trunk of a great tree and disappeared in the dense foliage. As he did not come down again they inferred that he had caught what he was pursuing and was now devouring it.
Ned shivered a little and put his hand on the butt of his loaded pistol.
"Obed," he said, "I don't like the jungle, and I shall be glad when I get out of it. It's too vast, too bewildering, and its very beauty fills me with fear. I always feel that fangs and poison are lurking behind the beauty and the bloom."
"You're not so far wrong, Ned. I believe I'd rather be on the dusty deserts of the North. We'll go through the tierra caliente just as quickly as we can."
The next day they became lost among the paths, and did not regain their true direction until late in the afternoon. Sunset found them by the banks of a considerable creek, the waters of which were cold, as if its source were in the high mountains. Being very tired they bathed and arranged couches of grass on the banks. After the heat and perplexity of the jungle they were very glad to see cold, running water. The sight and the pleasant trickle of the flowing stream filled Ned with desires for the north, for the open land beyond the Rio Grande, where cool winds blew, and you could see to the horizon's rim. He was sicker than ever of the jungle, the beauty of which could not hide from him its steam and poison.
"How much longer do you think it will be before we leave the tierra caliente?" he asked.
"We ought to reach the intermediate zone between the tierra caliente and the higher sierras in three or four days," replied Obed. "It's mighty slow traveling in the jungle, but to get out of it we've only to keep going long enough. Meanwhile, we'll have a good snooze by the side of this nice, clean little river."
As usual after hard traveling, they fell asleep almost at once, but Ned was awakened in the night by some strange sound, the nature of which he could not determine at first. The jungle surrounded them in a vast, high circle, wholly black in the night, but overhead was a blue rim of sky lighted by stars. He raised himself on his elbow. Obed, four or five feet away, was still sleeping soundly on his couch of grass. The little river, silver in the moonlight, flowed with a pleasant trickle, but the trickle was not the sound that had awakened him.
The forest was absolutely silent. Not a breath of wind stirred, but the boy, although awed by the night and the great jungle, still listened intently.
The sound rose again, a low, hoarse rumble. It was distant thunder. A storm was coming. He heard it a third time. It was not thunder. It was the deep growl of some fierce, wild animal. For a moment the boy was afraid. Then he remembered the heavy pistol that never left his belt. It still carried the original load, a large bullet with plenty of gunpowder behind it.
The sounds were repeated and they were nearer. They were like a long drawn p-u, p-u, p-u. The tone was of indescribable ferocity. Ned was brave, but he shivered all over and there was a prickly sensation at the roots of his hair. He felt like some primeval youth who with club alone must face the rush of the saber-toothed tiger. But he drew upon his reserves of pride which were large. He would not awaken Obed, but, drawing the pistol and holding his fingers on trigger and hammer, he walked a little distance down the bank of the stream. That terrible p-u, p-u, p-u, suddenly sounded much closer at hand, and Ned shrank back, stiffening with horror.
A great black beast, by far the largest wild animal that he had ever seen, came silently out of the jungle and stood before the boy. He was a good seven feet in length, black as a coal, low but of singularly thick and heavy build. His shoulders and paws were more powerful than those of a tiger. As he stood there before Ned, black and sinister as Satan, he opened his mouth, and emitted again that fearful, rumbling p-u, p-u, p-u.
Ned could not move. All his power seemed to have gone into his eyes and he only looked. He saw the red eyes, the black lips wrinkling back from the long, cruel fangs, and the glossy skin rippling over the tremendous muscles. Ned suddenly wrenched himself free from this paralysis of the body, leveled the pistol and fired at a mark midway between the red eyes.
There was a tremendous roar and the animal leaped. Ned sprang to one side. The huge beast with blood pouring from his head turned and would have been upon him at the second leap, but a long barrel and then an arm was projected over Ned's shoulder. A pistol was fired almost in his ear. The monster's spring was checked in mid-flight, and he fell to the earth, dead. Ned too, fell, but in a faint.
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