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

Chapter 5. In The Pyramid

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Ned stared, half in amazement, half in despair. Yet he had known all the while that this would happen. The palm had emptied every drop from its veins and arteries for him, giving life for life. He had cut so deeply and so often that it would wither now and die. He turned away in sadness, and suddenly a bitter, burning thirst assailed him. It seemed to have leaped into new life with the knowledge that there was nothing now to assuage it.

The boy sat down on a small projection of brickwork, and considered his case. He had been more than twelve hours without water under a fierce sun. His thirst would not increase so fast at night, but it would increase, nevertheless, and the Mexican force might linger below a week. Certainly its camp was of such a character that it would remain at least two or three days, and any risk was preferable to a death of thirst. He could wait no longer.

Now chance which had been so cruel flung a straw his way. The night was darker than usual. The moon and stars did not come out, and troops of clouds stalked up from the southwest. Ned knew that it was a land of little rain, and for a few moments he had a wild hope that in some manner he might catch enough water for his use on the crest of the pyramid. But reason soon drove the hope away. There was no depression which would hold water, and he resolved instead to make the descent under cover of the darkness.

When he had come to this resolution the thirst was not so fierce. Indecision being over, both his physical and mental courage rose. He ate and had left enough food to last for two days, which he fastened securely in a pack to his body. Then, machete in hand, he looked over the edge of the pyramid. There was some noise in the camp, but most of the soldiers seemed to be at rest. Lights flickered here and there, and the ruined city, showing only in fragments through the darkness, looked more ghostly and mournful than ever.

Ned waited a long time. Drops of rain began to fall, and the wind moaned with an almost human note around the pyramids and old walls. The rain increased a little, but it never fell in abundance. It and the wind were very cold, and Ned drew the serape very closely about his body. He was anxious now for time to pass fast, because he was beginning to feel afraid, not of the Mexicans, but of the dead city, and the ghosts of those vanished long ago, although he knew there were no such things. But the human note in the wind grew until it was like a shriek, and this shriek was to him a warning that he must go. The pyramid had been his salvation, but his time there was at an end.

He drew the sombrero far down over his eyes, and once more calculated the chances. He spoke Spanish well, and he spoke its Mexican variations equally well. If they saw him he might be able to pass for a Mexican. He must succeed.

He lowered himself from the crowning platform of the pyramid and began the descent. The cold rain pattered upon him and his body was weak from privation, but his spirit was strong, and with steady hand and foot he went down. He paused several times to look at the camp. Five or six fires still burned there, but they flickered wildly in the wind and rain. He judged that the sentinels would not watch well. For what must they watch, there in the heart of their own country?

But as he approached the bottom he saw two of these sentinels walking back and forth, their bayonets reflecting a flicker now and then from the flames. He saw also five or six large white tents, and he was quite sure that the largest sheltered at that instant Martin Perfecto de Cos, whom he wished very much to avoid. He intended, when he reached the bottom, to keep as close as he could in the shadow of the pyramid, and then seek the other side of the Teotihuacan.

The rain was still blown about by the wind, and it was very cold. But the influence of both wind and rain were inspiring to the boy. They were a tonic to body and mind, and he grew bolder as he came nearer to the ground. At last he stepped upon the level earth, and stood for a little while black and motionless against the pyramid.

He was aware that the cordon of Cos' army completely enclosed the Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, the Calle de los Muertos and the other principal ruins, and he now heard the sentinels much more distinctly as they walked back and forth. Straining his eyes he could see two of them, short, sallow men, musket on shoulder. The beat of one lay directly across the path that he had chosen, reaching from the far edge of the Pyramid of the Moon to a point about twenty yards away. He believed that when this sentinel marched to the other end of his beat he could slip by. At any rate, if he were seen he might make a successful flight, and he slipped his hand to the handle of the machete in his belt in order that he might be ready for resistance.

He saw presently two or three dark heaps near him, and as his eyes grew used to the darkness he made out camp equipage and supplies. The smallest heap which was also nearest to him, consisted of large metal canteens for water, such as soldiers of that day carried. His thirst suddenly made itself manifest again. Doubtless those canteens contained water, and his body which wanted water so badly cried aloud for it.

It was not recklessness but a burning thirst which caused him to creep toward the little heap of canteens at the imminent risk of being discovered. When he reached them he lay flat on the ground and took one from the top. He knew by its lack of weight that it was empty, and he laid it aside. Then he paused for a glance at the sentinel who was still walking steadily on his beat, and whom he now saw very clearly.

He was disappointed to find the first canteen empty, but he was convinced that some in that heap must contain water, and he would persevere. The second and third failed him in like manner, but he would yet persevere. The fourth was heavy, and when he shook it gently he heard the water plash. That thirst at once became burning and uncontrollable. The cry of his body to be assuaged overpowered his will, and while deadly danger menaced he unscrewed the little mouthpiece and drank deep and long. It was not cold and perhaps a little mud lurked at the bottom of the canteen, but like the gift of the water palm it brought fresh life and strength.

He put down the canteen half empty and took another from the heap. It, too, proved to be filled, and he hung it around neck and shoulder by the strap provided for that purpose. He could have found no more precious object for the dry regions through which he intended to make his journey.

Ned went back toward the pyramid, but his joy over finding the water made him a little careless. Great fragments of stone lay about everywhere, and his foot slipped on a piece of black basalt. He fell and the metal of his canteen rang against the stone.

He sprang to his feet instantly, but the sentinel had taken the alarm and as Ned's sombrero had slipped back he saw the fair face. He knew that it was the face of no Mexican, and shouting "Gringo!" he fired straight at him. Luckily, haste and the darkness prevented good aim, although he was at short range. But Ned felt the swish of the bullet so close to him that every nerve jumped, and he jumped with them. The first jump took him half way to the pyramid and the next landed him at its base. There the second nearest sentinel fired at him and he heard the bullet flatten itself against the stone.

Fortunately for Ned, the silent, thoughtful lad, he had often tried to imagine what he would do in critical junctures, and now, despite the terrible crisis, he was able to take control of his nerves. He remembered to pull the sombrero down over his face and to keep close to the pyramid. The shots had caused an uproar in the camp. Men were running about, lights were springing up, and officers were shouting orders. A single fugitive among so many confused pursuers might yet pass for one of them. Chance which had been against him was now for him. The wind suddenly took a wilder sweep and the rain lashed harder. He left the pyramid and darted behind a tumulus. He stood there quietly and heard the uproar of the hunt at other points. Presently he slouched away in the manner of a careless peon, with his serape drawn about chin as well as body, for which the wind and the rain were a fitting excuse. He also shouted and chattered occasionally with others, and none knew that he was the Gringo at whom the two sentinels had fired.

Ned thought to make a way through the lines, but so many lights now flared up on all the outskirts that he saw it was impossible.

He turned back again to the side of the pyramid, where he was almost hidden by debris and foliage. Two or three false alarms had been sounded on the other side of the great structure, and practically the whole mob of searchers was drawn away in that direction. He formed a quick decision. He would reascend the pyramid. And he would take with him a water supply in the canteen that he still carried over his shoulder. He began to climb, and he noticed as he went up that it was almost the exact point at which he had ascended before.

He heard the tumult below, caught glimpses of lights flashing here and there, and he ascended eagerly. He was almost half way up when he came face to face with a Mexican soldier who carried in his hand a small lantern. The soldier, the only one perhaps who had suspected the pyramid as a place of refuge, had come at another angle, and there on a terrace the two had met.

They were not more than three feet apart. Ned had put his machete back in his belt that he might climb with more ease, but he hit out at once with his clenched right hand. The blow took the Mexican full between the eyes and toppling over backward he dropped the lantern. Then he slid on the narrow terrace and with an instinctive cry of terror fell. Ned was seized with horror and took a hasty glance downward. He was relieved when he saw that the man, grasping at projections and outgrowing vegetation, was sliding rather than falling, and would not be hurt seriously.

He turned to his own case. There lay the lantern on the stone, still glowing. Below rose the tumult, men coming to his side of the pyramid, drawn by his cry. He could no longer reach the top of the pyramid without being seen, but he knew another way. He snatched up the lantern, tucked it under his serape and made for the opening which he had noticed in the side of the pyramid at his first ascent. It was scarcely ten feet away, and he boldly stepped in, a thing that he would never have dared to do had it not been for the happy chance of the lantern.

His foot rested on solid stone, and he stood wholly in the dark. Yet the uproar came clearly to his ears. It was a certainty now that more soldiers would ascend the pyramid looking for him, but he believed that ignorance and superstition would keep them from entering it.

The air that came to his nostrils out of the unknown dark was cold and clean, but he did not yet dare to take out his lantern. He felt cautiously in front of him with one foot and touched a stone step below. He also touched narrow walls with his outstretched hand. He descended to the step, and then, feeling sure that the light of his lantern could not be seen from without, he took it from under his serape and held it as far in front of him as he could. A narrow flight of stone steps led onward and downward further than he could see, and, driven by imminent necessity, he walked boldly down them.

The way was rough with the decay of time from which stone itself cannot escape, but he always steadied himself with one hand against the wall. The stone was very cold and Ned had the feeling that he was in a tomb. Once more he had that overwhelming sense of old, old things, of things as old as Egypt. At another time, despite every effort of reason, he would have thrilled with superstitious terror, but now it was for his life, and down he went, step by step.

The air remained pure like that of great caves in the States, and Ned did not stop until a black void seemed to open almost before him when he drew back in affright. Calming himself he held up the lantern and looked at the void. It was a deep and square well, its walls faced as far as he could see with squared stones. His lantern revealed no water in the depths and he fancied that it had something to do with ceremonials, perhaps with sacrifice. There was a way around the well, but it was narrow and he chose to go no further. Instead he crouched on the steps where he was safe from a fall, and put the lantern beside him.

It was an oil lamp. Had he possessed any means of relighting it he would have blown it out, and sought sleep in the dark, but once out, out always, and he moved it into a little niche of the wall, where no sudden draught could get at it, and where its hidden light would be no beacon to any daring Mexican who might descend the stairway.

The sense of vast antiquity was still with the boy, but it did not oppress him now as it might have done at another time. His feeling of relief, caused by his escape from the Mexicans, was so great that it created, for the time at least, a certain buoyancy of the mind. The unknown depths of the ancient pyramid were at once a shelter and a protection. He folded the serape, in order to make as soft a couch as possible, and soon fell asleep.

When Ned awoke he was lying in exactly the same position on the steps, and the lantern was still burning in the niche. He had no idea how long he had slept, or whether it was day or night, but he did not care. He took the full canteen and drank. It was an unusually large canteen and it contained enough, if he used economy, to last him two days. The cool recesses of the pyramid's interior did not engender thirst like its blazing summit. Then he ate, but whether breakfast, dinner or supper he did not know, nor did he care.

He was tempted to go up to the entrance of the stairway and see what was going forward in the camp, but he resisted the impulse. For the sake of caution he triumphed over curiosity, and remained a long time on the steps, beside the niche in which his lamp sat. Then he began to calculate how much longer the oil would last, and he placed the time at about thirty hours. Surely some decisive event would happen in his favor before the last drop was burned.

After an interminable time the air on the stairway seemed to him to be growing colder, and he inferred that night had come. Taking the lantern he climbed the steps and peered out at the ancient doorway. He saw lights below, and he could discern dimly the shapes of tents. Disappointed, he returned to his place on the steps, and, after another long wait, fell asleep again. When he awoke he calculated by the amount of oil left in the lamp that at least twelve hours had passed since his previous awakening.

Once more he made a great effort of the will in order to achieve a conquest over curiosity and impatience. He would not return to the entrance until the oil had only an hour more to burn. Necessity had proved so stern a master that he was able to keep his resolution. Many long, long hours passed and sometimes he dozed or slept, but he did not go to the entrance. The oil at last marked the final hour, and, taking up the lamp, he went back to the entrance.

Ned looked out and then gave a cry of joy. It was broad daylight, but the army was gone, soldiers, horses, tents, everything. The Calle de los Muertos was once more what its name meant. Silence and desolation had regained the ruined city. He blew out the lantern and set it down at the opening. It had served him well. Then he went out and climbed again to the summit of the pyramid, from which he examined the valley long and well.

He saw no signs of human life anywhere. Traces of the camp remained in abundance, but the army itself had vanished. There were no lurking camp followers to make him trouble. He descended to the ground, and stood a while, drawing in deep draughts of the fresh daylight air. It had not been oppressive in the pyramid, but there is nothing like the open sky above. He went down to the Teotihuacan, and, choosing a safe place, bathed in its waters. Then he resumed the flight across the hills which had been delayed so long. He knew by the sun that it was morning not far advanced, and he wished to travel many miles before night. He saw abundant evidences on the great highway that the army was marching toward Vera Cruz, and as before he traveled on a line parallel with it, but at least a mile away. He passed two sheep herders, but he displayed the machete, and whistling carelessly went on. They did not follow, and he was sure that they took him for a bandit whom it would be wise to let alone.

Ned wandered on for two or three days. In one of his turnings among the mountains he lost the Vera Cruz highway, and came out again upon a wide, sandy plain, dotted with scattered cactus. As he was crossing it a Norther came up, and blew with great fierceness. Sand was driven into his face with such force that it stung like shot. The cold became intense, and if it had not been for the serape he might have perished.

The storm was still blowing when he reached the far edge of the plain, and came into extremely rough country, with patches of low, thorny forest. Here he found a dilapidated bark hut, evidently used at times by Mexican herdsmen, and, thankful for such shelter, he crept into it and fell asleep. When he awoke he felt very weak. He had eaten the last of his food seven or eight hours before.

Driven by desperate need, Ned ate wild fruits, and, for a while, was refreshed, but that night he fell ill, suffering greatly from internal pains. He was afraid at first that he had poisoned himself, and he knew that he had eaten something not used for food, but by morning the pains were gone, although he was much weaker than before.

Now he felt for the first time the pangs of despair. It was a full two hundred miles yet to Vera Cruz, and he was in the heart of a hostile country. He did not have the strength of a child left, and the chance that he could deliver his message of warning to the Texans seemed to have gone. He rambled about all that day, light-headed at times, and, toward evening, he fell into a stupor. Unable to go any further, he sank down beside a rock, and lapsed wholly into unconsciousness. _

Read next: Chapter 6. The March With Cos

Read previous: Chapter 4. The Palm

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