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The Texan Star: The Story of a Great Fight for Liberty, a novel by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 4. The Palm

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Ned awoke about noon. The morning had been cold, but having been wrapped very thoroughly in the great serape, he had remained snug and warm all through his long sleep. He rose very cautiously, lest the spikes and thorns should get him, and then went to a comparatively open place among the giant cactus stems whence he could see over the hills and valleys. He saw in the valley nearest him the flat roofs of a small village. Columns of smoke rose from two or three of the adobe houses, and he heard the faint, mellow voices of men singing in a field. Women by the side of a small but swift stream were pounding and washing clothes after the primitive fashion.

Looking eastward he saw hills and a small mountain, but all the country in that direction seemed to be extremely arid and repellent. The bare basalt of volcanic origin showed everywhere, and, even at the distance, he could see many deep quarries in the stone, where races older, doubtless, than Aztecs and Toltecs, had obtained material for building. It was always Ned's feeling when in Mexico that he was in an old, old land, not ancient like England or France, but ancient as Egypt and Babylon are ancient.

He had calculated his course very carefully, and he knew that it would lead through this desert, volcanic region, but on the whole he was not sorry. Mexicans would be scarce in such a place. He remained a lad of stout heart, confident that he would succeed.

He ate sparingly and reckoned that with self-denial he had food enough to last three days. He might obtain more on the road by some happy chance or other. Then becoming impatient he started again, keeping well among cypress and cactus, and laying his course toward the small mountain that he saw ahead. He pressed forward the remainder of the afternoon, coming once or twice near to the great road that led to Vera Cruz. On one occasion he saw a small body of soldiers, deep in dust, marching toward the port. All except the officers were peons and they did not seem to Ned to show much martial ardor. But the officers on horseback sternly bade them hasten. Ned, as usual, had much sympathy for the poor peasants, but none for the officers who drove them on.

About sunset he came to a little river, the Teotihuacan he learned afterward, and he still saw before him the low mountain, the name of which was Cerro Gordo. But his attention was drawn from the mountain by two elevations rising almost at the bank of the river. They were pyramidal in shape and truncated, and the larger, which Ned surmised to be anywhere from 500 to 1000 feet square, seemed to rise to a height of two or three hundred feet. The other was about two-thirds the size of the larger, both in area and height.

Although there was much vegetation clinging about them Ned knew that these were pyramids erected by the hand of man. The feeling that this was a land old like Egypt came back to him most powerfully in the presence of these ancient monuments, which were in fact the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. There they stood, desolate and of untold age. The setting sun poured an intense red light upon them, until they stood out vivid and enlarged.

So far as Ned knew, no other human being was anywhere near. The loneliness in the presence of those tremendous ruins was overpowering. He longed for human companionship. A peon, despite the danger otherwise, would have been welcome. The whole land took on fantastic aspects. It was not normal and healthy like the regions from which he came north of the Rio Grande. Every nerve quivered.

Then he did the bravest thing that one could do in such a position, forcing his will to win a victory over weirdness and superstition. He crossed the shallow river and advanced boldly toward the Pyramid of the Sun. His reason told him that there were no such things as ghosts, but it told him also that Mexican peons were likely to believe in them. Hence it was probable that he would be safer about the Pyramid than far from it. The country bade fair to become too rough for night traveling and he would stop there a while, refreshing his strength.

Although the sun was setting, the color of the skies promised a bright night, and Ned approached boldly. As usual his superstitious fears became weaker as he approached the objects that had called them into existence. But before he reached the pyramids he found that he was among many ruins. They stood all about him, stone fragments of ancient walls, black basalt or lava, and, unless the twilight deceived him, there were also traces of ancient streets. He saw, too, south of the larger pyramids a great earthwork or citadel thirty or forty feet high enclosing a square in which stood a small pyramid. The walls of the earthwork were enormously thick, three hundred feet Ned reckoned, and upon it at regular intervals stood other small pyramids fourteen in number.

Scattered all about, alone or in groups, were tumuli, and leading away from the largest group of tumuli Ned saw a street or causeway, which, passing by the Pyramid of the Sun, ended in front of the Pyramid of the Moon, where it widened out into a great circle, with a tumulus standing in the center.

Despite all the courage that he had shown Ned felt a superstitious thrill as he looked at these ancient and solemn ruins. He and they were absolutely alone. Antiquity looked down upon him. The sun was gone now and the moon was coming out, touching pyramids and tumuli, earthworks and causeway with ghostly silver, deepening the effect of loneliness and far-off time.

While Ned was looking at these majestic remains he heard the sound of voices, and then the rattle of weapons. He saw through the twilight the glitter of uniforms and of swords and sabers. A company of Mexican soldiers, at least a hundred in number, had come into the ancient city and, no doubt, intended to camp there. Being so absorbed in the strange ruins he had not noticed them sooner.

As the men were already scattering in search of firewood or other needs of the camp Ned saw that he was in great danger. He hid behind a tumulus, half covered by the vegetation that had grown from its crevices. He was glad that his serape was of a modest brown, instead of the bright colors that most of the Mexicans loved. A soldier passed within ten feet of him, but in the twilight did not notice him. It was enough to make one quiver. Another passed a little later, and he, too, failed to see the fugitive. But a third, if he came, would probably see, and leaving the tumulus Ned ran to another where he hid again for a few minutes.

It was the boy's object to make off through the neighboring forest after passing from tumulus to tumulus, but he found soon that another body of soldiers was camping upon the far side of the ruined city. He might or might not run the gauntlet in the darkness. The probabilities were that he would not, and hiding behind a tumulus almost midway between the two forces he took thought of his next step.

The Pyramid of the Moon rose almost directly before him, its truncated mass spotted with foliage. Ned could see that its top was flat and instantly he took a bold resolution. He made his way to the base of the pyramid and began to climb slowly and with great care, always keeping hidden in the vegetation. He was certain that no Mexican would follow where he was going. They were on other business, and their incurious minds bothered little about a city that was dead and gone for them.

Up he went steadily over uneven terraces, and from below he heard the chatter of the soldiers. A third fire had been lighted much nearer the pyramid, and pausing a moment he looked down. Twenty or thirty soldiers were scattered about this fire. Their muskets were stacked and they were taking their ease. Discipline was relaxed. One man was strumming a mandolin already, and two or three began to sing. But Ned saw sentinels walking among the tumuli and along the Calle de los Muertos which led from the Citadel to the southern front of the Pyramid of the Moon. He was very glad now that he had sought this lofty refuge, and he renewed his climb.

As he drew himself upon another terrace he saw before him a dark opening into the very mass of the pyramid, which was built either of brick or of stone, he could not tell which. He thought once of creeping in and of hiding there, but after taking a couple of steps into the dark he drew back. He was afraid of plunging into some well and he continued the ascent. He was now about sixty or seventy feet up, but he was not yet half way to the top of the pyramid.

He was so slow and cautious that it took more than a half hour to reach the crest, where he found himself upon a platform about twenty feet square. It was an irregular surface with much vegetation growing from the crevices, and here Ned felt quite safe. Near him and sixty feet above him rose the crest of the Pyramid of the Sun. Beyond were ranges of mountains silvery in the moonlight. He walked to the edge of the pyramid and looked down. Four or five fires were burning now, and the single mandolin had grown to four. Several guitars were being plucked vigorously also, and the sound of the instruments joined with that of the singing voices was very musical and pleasant. These Mexicans seemed to be full of good nature, and so they were, with fire, food and music in plenty, but now that he had been their prisoner Ned never forgot how that dormant and Spanish strain of cruelty in their natures could flame high under the influence of passion. The dungeons of Spanish Mexico and of the new Mexico hid many dark stories, and he believed that he had read what lay behind the smiling mask of Santa Anna's face. He would suffer everything to keep out of Mexican hands.

He crept away from the edge of the pyramid, and chose a place near its center for his lofty camp. There was much vegetation growing out of the ancient masonry, and he had a fear of scorpions and of more dangerous reptiles, perhaps, but he thrashed up the grass and weeds well with his machete. Then he sat down and ate his supper. Fortunately he had drunk copiously at a brook before reaching the ruined city and he did not suffer from thirst.

Then, relying upon the isolation of his perch for safety, he wrapped himself in the invaluable serape and lay down. The night was cold as usual, and a sharp wind blew down from northern peaks and ranges, but Ned, protected by vegetation and the heavy serape, had an extraordinary feeling of warmth and snugness as he lay on the old pyramid. Held so long within close walls the wild freedom and the fresh air that came across seas and continents were very grateful to him. Even the presence of an enemy, so near, and yet, as it seemed, so little dangerous, added a certain piquancy to his position. The pleasant tinkle of the mandolins was wafted upward to him, and it was wonderfully soothing, telling of peace and rest. He inhaled the aromatic odors of strange and flowering southern plants, and his senses were steeped in a sort of luxurious calm.

He fell asleep to the music of the mandolin, and when he awoke such a bright sun was shining in his eyes that he was glad to close and open them again several times before they would tolerate the brilliant Mexican sky that bent above him. He lay still about five minutes, listening, and then, to his disappointment, he heard sounds below. He judged by the position of the sun that it must be at least 10 o'clock in the morning, and the Mexicans should be gone. Yet they were undoubtedly still there. He crept to the edge of the pyramid and looked over. There was the Mexican force, scattered about the ruined city, but camped in greatest numbers along the Calle de los Muertos. Their numbers had been increased by two hundred or three hundred, and, as Ned saw no signs of breaking camp, he judged that this was a rendezvous, and that there were more troops yet to come.

He saw at once that his problem was increased greatly. He could not dream of leaving the summit of the pyramid before the next night came. Food he had in plenty but no water, and already as the hot sun's rays approached the vertical he felt a great thirst. Imagination and the knowledge that he could not allay it for the present at least, increased the burning sensation in his throat and the dryness of his lips. He caught a view of the current of the Teotihuacan, the little river by the side of which the pyramids stand, and the sight increased his torments. He had never seen before such fresh and pure water. It sparkled and raced in the sun before him and it looked divine. And yet it was as far out of his reach as if it were all the way across Mexico.

Ned went back to the place where he had slept and sat down. The sight of the river had tortured him, and he felt better when it was shut from view. Now he resolved to see what could be accomplished by will. He undertook to forget the water, and at times he succeeded, but, despite his greatest efforts, the Teotihuacan would come back now and then with the most astonishing vividness. Although he was lying on the serape with bushes and shrubs all around, there was the river visible to the eye of imagination, brighter, fresher and more sparkling than ever. He could not control his fancy, but will ruled the body and he did not stir from his place for hours. The sun beat fiercely upon him and the thin bushes and shrubs afforded little protection. Toward the northern edge of the pyramid a small palm was growing out of a large crevice in the masonry, and it might have given some shade, but it was in such an exposed position that Ned did not dare to use it for fear of discovery.

How he hated that sun! It seemed to be drying him up, through and through, causing the very blood in his veins to evaporate. Why should such hot days follow such cold nights? When his tongue touched the roof of his mouth it felt rough and hot like a coal. Perhaps the Mexicans had gone away. It seemed to him that he had not heard any sounds from them for some time. He went to the edge of the pyramid and looked over. No, the Mexicans were yet there, and the sight of them filled him with a fierce anger. They were enjoying themselves. Tents were scattered about and shelters of boughs had been erected. Many soldiers were taking their siestas. Nobody was working and there was not the slightest sign that they intended to depart that day. Ned's hot tongue clove to the roof of his hot mouth, but he obstinately refused to look at the river. He did not think that he could stand another sight of it.

He went back to his little lair among the shrubs and prayed for night, blessed night with its cooling touch. He had a horrible apprehension which amounted to conviction that the troops would stay there for several days, awaiting some maneuver or perhaps making it a rallying point, and that in his hiding place on the pyramid he was in as bad case as a sailor cast on a desert island without water. Nothing seemed left for him but to steal down and try to escape in darkness. Thus night would be doubly welcome and he prayed for it again and with renewed fervor.

Some hours are ten times as long as others, but the longest of all come to an end at last. The sun began to droop in the west. The vertical glare was gone, yet the masonry where it was bare was yet hot to the touch. It, too, cooled soon. The sun dropped wholly down and darkness came over all the earth. Then the fever in Ned's throat died down somewhat, and the blood began to flow again in his veins. It seemed as if a dew touched his face, delicious, soothing like drops of rain in the burning desert.

He rose and stretched his stiffened limbs. Overhead spread the dark, cool sky, and the bright stars were coming out, one by one. After the first few moments of relief he heard the cry for water again. Despite the night and the coming chill he knew that it would make itself heard often and often, and he began to study the possibilities of a descent. But he saw the fires spread out again on all sides of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon and flame thickly along the Calle de los Muertos. It did not seem that he could pass even on the blackest night.

He moved over toward the northern edge of the pyramid, and stood under the palm which he had noticed in the day. One of its broad green leaves, swayed by the wind, touched him softly on the face. He looked up. It was a friendly palm. Its very touch was kindly. He stroked the blades and then he examined the stem or body minutely. He was a studious boy who had read much. He had heard of the water palm of the Hawaiian and other South Sea Islands. Might not the water palm be found in Mexico also? In any event, he had never heard of a palm that was poisonous. They were always givers of life.

He raised the machete and slashed the stem of the palm at a point about five feet from the ground. The wound gaped open and a stream of water gushed forth. Ned applied his mouth at once and drank long and deeply. It was not poison, nor was it any bitter juice. This was the genuine water palm, yielding up the living fluid of its arteries for him. He drank as long as the gash gave forth water and then sat down under the blades of the palm, content and thankful, realizing that there was always hope in the very heart of despair.

Ned sat a long time, feeling the new life rushing into his veins. He ate from the food of which he had a plentiful supply and once more gave thanks to Benito and Juana. Then he stood up and the broad leaves of the palm waving gently in the wind touched his face again. He reached up his hand and stroked them. The palm was to him almost a thing of life. He went to the edge of the pyramid and strove for a sight of the Teotihuacan. He caught at last a flash of its waters in the moonlight and he shook his fist in defiance. "I can do without you now," was his thought. "The sight of you does not torture me."

He returned to his usual place of sleep. As long as he had a water supply it was foolish of him to attempt an escape through the Mexican lines. He was familiar now with every square inch of the twenty feet square of the crowning platform of the pyramid. It seemed that he had been there for weeks and he began to have the feeling that it was home. Once more, hunger and thirst satisfied, he sought sleep and slept with the deep peace of youth.

Ned awoke from his second night on the pyramid before dawn was complete. There was silvery light in the east over the desolate ranges, but the west was yet a dark blur. He looked down and saw that nearly all the soldiers were still asleep, while those who did not sleep were as motionless as if they were. In the half light the lost city, the tumuli and the ruins of the old buildings took on strange and fantastic shapes. The feeling that he was among the dead, the dead for many centuries, returned to Ned with overpowering effect. He thought of Aztec and Toltec and people back of all these who had built this city. The Mexicans below were intruders like himself.

He shook himself as if by physical effort he could get rid of the feeling and then went to the water palm in which he cut another gash. Again the fountain gushed forth and he drank. But the palm was a small one. There was too little soil among the crevices of the ancient masonry to support a larger growth, and he saw that it could not satisfy his thirst more than a day or two. But anything might happen in that time, and his courage suffered no decrease.

He retreated toward the center of the platform as the day was now coming fast after the southern fashion. The whole circle of the heavens seemed to burst into a blaze of light, and, in a few hours, the sun was hotter than it had been before. Many sounds now came from the camp below, but Ned, although he often looked eagerly, saw no signs of coming departure. Shortly after noon there was a great blare of trumpets, and a detachment of lancers rode up. They were large men, mounted finely, and the heads of their long lances glittered as they brandished them in the sun.

Ned's attention was drawn to the leader of this new detachment, an officer in most brilliant uniform, and he started. He knew him at once. It was the brother-in-law of Santa Anna, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, a man in whom that old, cruel strain was very strong, and whom Ned believed to be charged with the crushing of the Texans. Then he was right in his surmise that Mexican forces for the campaign were gathering here on the banks of the Teotihuacan!

More troops came in the afternoon, and the boy no longer had the slightest doubt. The camp spread out further and further, and assumed military form. Not so many men were lounging about and the tinkling of the guitars ceased. Ned could see General de Cos plainly, a heavy man of dark face, autocratic and domineering in manner.

Night came and the boy went once more to the palm. When he struck with his machete the water came forth, but in a much weaker stream. In reality he was yet thirsty after he drank the full flow, but he would not cut into the stem again. He knew that he must practice the severest economy with his water supply.

The third night came and as soon as he was safe from observation Ned slashed the palm once more. The day had been very hot and his thirst was great. The water come forth but with only half the vigor of the morning, which itself had shown a decrease. The poor palm, too, trembled and shook when he cut into it with the machete and the blades drooped. Ned drank what it supplied and then turned away regretfully. It was a kindly palm, a gift to man, and yet he must slay it to save his own life.

He lay down again, but he did not sleep as well as usual. His nerves were upset by the long delay, and the decline of the palm, and he was not refreshed when he awoke in the morning. His head felt hot and his limbs were heavy.

As it was not yet bright daylight he went to the palm and cut into it. The flow of water was only a few mouthfuls. Cautious and doubly economical now he pursed his lips that not a single drop might escape. Then, after eating a little food he lay down, protected as much as possible by the scanty bushes, and also sheltering himself at times from the sun with the serape which he drew over his head. He felt instinctively and with the power of conviction that the Mexicans would not depart. The coming of Cos had taken the hope from him. Cos! He hated the short, brusque name.

It was another day of dazzling brightness and intense heat. Certainly this was a vertical sun. It shot rays like burning arrows straight down. The blood in his veins seemed to dry up again. His head grew hotter. Black specks in myriads danced before his eyes. He looked longingly at his palm. When he first saw it, it stood up, vital and strong. Now it seemed to droop and waver like himself. But it would have enough life to fill its veins and arteries through the day and at night he would have another good drink.

He scarcely stirred throughout the day but spent most of the time looking at the palm. He paid no attention to the sounds below, sure that the Mexicans would not go away. He fell at times into a sort of fevered stupor, and he aroused himself from the last one to find that night had come. He took his machete, went to the tree, and cut quickly, because his thirst was very great.

The gash opened, but not a drop came forth. _

Read next: Chapter 5. In The Pyramid

Read previous: Chapter 3. Sanctuary

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