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

Chapter 6. The March With Cos

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When Ned came to himself he was surrounded by men, and at first he thought he was back among his Texans. He was in a vague and dreamy state that was not unpleasant, although he was conscious of a great weakness. He knew that he was lying on the ground upon his own serape, and that another serape was spread over him. In a little while mind and vision grew more definite and he saw that the soldiers were Mexicans. After his long endurance and ingenuity on the pyramid he had practically walked into their hands. But such was his apathy of mind and body that it roused no great emotion in him. He closed his eyes for a little while, and then fresh strength poured into his veins. When he opened his eyes again his interest in life and his situation was of normal keenness.

They were in a little valley and the soldiers, lancers, seemed to number about two hundred. Their horses were tethered near them, and their lances were stacked in glittering pyramids. It was early morning. Several men were cooking breakfast for the whole troop at large fires. The far edge of the little valley was very rocky and Ned inferred that he had fallen there by a big outcropping of stone, and that the soldiers, looking around for firewood, had found him. But they had not treated him badly, as the serape spread over his body indicated.

Feeling so much better he sat up. The odor of the cooking made him realize again that he was fiercely hungry. A Mexican brought him a large tin plate filled with beans and meat chopped small. He ate slowly although only an effort of the will kept him from devouring the food like a famished wild animal. The Mexican who had brought him the plate stood by and watched him, not without a certain sympathy on his face. Several more Mexicans approached and looked at him with keen curiosity, but they did not say or do anything that would offend the young Gringo. Knowing that it was now useless, Ned no longer made any attempt to conceal his nationality which was evident to all. He finished the plate and handed it back to the Mexican.

"Many thanks," he said in the native tongue.

"More?" said the soldier, looking at him with understanding.

"I could, without hurting myself," replied Ned with a smile.

A second plate and a cup of water were brought to him. He ate and drank in leisurely fashion, and began to feel a certain relief. He imagined that he would be returned to imprisonment in the City of Mexico with Mr. Austin. At any rate, he had made a good attempt and another chance might come.

An officer dressed in a very neat and handsome uniform approached and the other Mexicans fell back respectfully. This man was young, not more than thirty-two or three, rather tall, fairer than most of his race, and with a singularly open and attractive face. His dress was that of a colonel, and the boy knew at once that he was commander of the troop. He smiled down at Ned, and Ned, despite himself, smiled back.

"I know you," said he, speaking perfect English. "You are Edward Fulton, the lad who was held in the prison with Stephen Austin, the Texan, the lad who starved himself that he might slip between the bars of his window. There was much talk at the capital about it, and you were not without admirers. You showed so much courage and resource that you deserved to escape, but we could not let you go."

"I got lost and I was without food."

"Rather serious obstacles. They have held many a boy and man. But since I know so much about you and you know nothing about me I will tell you who I am. My name is Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, and I am a colonel in the service of Mexico and of our great Santa Anna. I was educated in that United States of yours, Texan, though you call yourself. That is why I speak the English that you hear. I have friends, too, among your people."

"Well, Colonel Almonte," said Ned, "since I had to be recaptured, I'm glad I fell into your hands."

"I wish I could keep you in them," he said, "but I am under the command of General Cos, and I have to rejoin the main force which he leads."

Ned understood. Cos was a man of another type. But he resolved not to anticipate trouble. Almonte again looked at him curiously, and then leaning forward said confidentially:

"Tell me, was it you who knocked our soldier down on the side of the pyramid and took his lantern? If it is true, it can't do you any harm to acknowledge it now."

"Yes," replied Ned with some pride, "it was I. I came upon him suddenly and I was as much surprised as he. I hit out on the impulse of the moment, and the blow landed in exactly the right place. I hope he was not much hurt."

"He wasn't," replied Almonte, laughing with deep unction. "He was pretty well covered with bruises and scratches, but he forgot them in the awful fright you gave him. He took you to be some demon, some mysterious Aztec god out of a far and dim past, who had smitten him with lightning, because he presumed to climb upon a sacred pyramid. But some of us who were not so credulous, perhaps because we did not have his bruises and scratches, searched all the sides and the top of the pyramid. We failed to find you and we knew that you could not get through our lines. Now, will you tell me where you were?"

His tone was so intent and eager that Ned could not keep from laughing. Besides, the boy had a certain pride in the skill, daring and resource with which he had eluded the men of Cos.

"Did you look inside the pyramid?" he asked.

"Inside it?"

"Yes, inside. There's an opening sixty or seventy feet above the ground. I took your man's lantern when he dropped it and entered. There's a stairway, leading down to a deep, square well, and there's something beyond the well, although I don't know what. I stayed in there until your army went away. Before that I had been for two or three days on top of the pyramid, where a little water palm gave up its life to save me."

Almonte regarded him with wonder.

"I am not superstitious myself--that is, not unnecessarily so," he said, "but yours must be a lucky star. After all that, you should have escaped, and your present capture must be a mere delay. You will slip from us again."

"I shall certainly try," said Ned hopefully.

"It is bound to come true," said Almonte. "All the omens point that way."

Ned smiled. Almonte, young, brilliant and generous, had made him almost feel as if he were a guest and not a prisoner. He did not discern in him that underlying strain of Spanish cruelty, which passion might bring to the surface at any moment. It might be due to his youth, or it might be due to his American education.

"We march in an hour," said Almonte. "We are to rejoin General Cos on the Vera Cruz road, but that will not occur for two or three days. Meanwhile, as the way is rough and you are pretty weak, you can ride on a burro. Sorry I can't get you a horse, but our lancers have none to spare. Still, you'll find a burro surer of foot and more comfortable over the basalt and lava."

Ned thanked him for his courtesy. He liked this cheerful Mexican better than ever. In another hour they started, turning into the Vera Cruz road, and following often the path by which great Cortez had come. Ned's burro, little but made of steel, picked the way with unerring foot and never stumbled once. He rode in the midst of the lancers, who were full that day of the Latin joy that came with the sun and the great panorama of the Mexican uplands. Now and then they sang songs of the South, sometimes Spanish and sometimes Indian, Aztec, or perhaps even Toltec. Ned felt the influence. Once or twice he joined in the air without knowing the words, and he would have been happy had it not been for his thoughts of the Texans.

The courtesy and kindliness of Almonte must not blind him to the fact that he was the bearer of a message to his own people. That message could not be more important because its outcome was life and death, and he watched all the time for a chance to escape. None occurred. The lancers were always about him, and even if there were an opening his burro, sure of foot though he might be, could not escape their strong horses. So he bided his time, for the present, and shared in the gayety of the men who rode through the crisp and brilliant southern air. All the time they ascended, and Ned saw far below him valley after valley, much the same, at the distance, as they were when Cortez and his men first gazed upon them more than three hundred years before. Yet the look of the land was always different from that to which he was used north of the Rio Grande. Here as in the great valley of Tenochtitlan it seemed ancient, old, old beyond all computation. Here and there, were ruins of which the Mexican peons knew nothing. Sometimes these ruins stood out on a bare slope, and again they were almost hidden by vegetation. In the valleys Ned saw peons at work with a crooked stick as a plow, and once or twice they passed swarthy Aztec women cooking tortillas and frijoles in the open air.

The troop could not advance very rapidly owing to the roughness of the way, and Ned learned from the talk about him that they would not overtake Cos until the evening of the following day. About twilight they encamped in a slight depression in the mountain side. No tents were set, but a large fire was built, partly of dry stems of the giant cactus. The cactus burned rapidly with a light, sparkling blaze, and left a white ash, but the heavier wood, mixed with it, made a bed of coals that glowed long in the darkness.

Ned sat beside the fire on his serape with another thrown over his shoulders, as the night was growing very chill with a sharp wind whistling down from the mountains. The kindness of his captors did not decrease, and he found a genuine pleasure in the human companionship and physical comfort. Almonte found a comfortable place, took a guitar out of a silken case, and hummed and played a love song. No American officer would have done it at such a time and place, but it seemed natural in him.

Ned could not keep from being attracted by the picture that he presented, the handsome young officer bending over his guitar, his heart in the song that he played, but ready at any instant to be the brave and wary soldier. Circumstance and place seemed to the boy so full of wild romance that he forgot, for the time, his own fate and the message that he wished to bear to those far Texans.

It was very cold that night on the heights, and, now and then, a little snow was blown about by the wind, but Ned kept warm by the fire and between the two serapes. He fell asleep to the tinkling of Almonte's guitar. They started again at earliest dawn, descended the slopes into a highway to Vera Cruz, and pushed on in the trail of Cos. Ned still rode his burro, which trotted along faithfully with the best, and he kept an eager eye for the road and all that lay along it. The silent youth had learned the value of keen observation, and he never neglected it.

Before noon Ned saw a dim, white cone rising on the eastern horizon. It was far away and misty, a thing of beauty which seemed to hang in the air above the clouds.

"Orizaba, the great mountain!" said Almonte.

Ned had seen Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, but this was a shade loftier and more beautiful than either, shooting up nearly four miles, and visible to sailors far out at sea. It grew in splendor as they approached. Great masses of oak and pine hung on its lofty sides, up the height of three miles, and above the forest rose the sharp cone, gleaming white with snow. The face of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte flushed as he gazed at it.

"It is ours, the great mountain!" he exclaimed. "And the many other magnificent mountains and the valleys and rivers of Mexico. Can you wonder, then, Edward Fulton, that we Mexicans do not wish to lose any part of our country? Texas is ours, it has always been ours, and we will not let the Texans sever it from us!"

"The Texans have not wished to do so," said Ned. "You have been kind to me, Colonel Almonte, and I do not wish to tell you anything but the truth. The Texans will fight oppression and bad faith. You do not know, the Mexicans do not know, how hard they will fight. Our charter has been violated and President Santa Anna would strip our people of arms and leave them at the mercy of savage Indians."

Almonte was about to make a passionate reply, but he checked himself suddenly and said in mild tones:

"It is not fair for me to attack you, a prisoner, even in words. Look how Orizaba grows! It is like a pillar holding up the heavens!"

Ned gazed in admiration. He did not wonder that Almonte loved this country of his, so full of the strange and picturesque. The great mountain grew and grew, until its mighty cone, dark below, and white above, seemed to fill the horizon. But much of the gayety of Almonte departed.

"Before night," he said, "we will be with General Cos, who is my commander. As you know, he is the brother-in-law of General Santa Anna, and--he is much inflamed against the Texans. I fear that he will be hard with you, but I shall do what I can to assuage his severity."

"I thank you, Colonel Almonte," said Ned with a gravity beyond his years. "You are a generous enemy, and chance may help me some day to return your kindness, but whatever treatment General Cos may accord me, I hope I shall be able to stand it."

In another hour they saw a column of dust ahead of them. The column grew and soon Ned saw lances and bayonets shining through it. He knew that this was the army of Cos, and, just as the eastern light began to fade, they joined it. Cos was going into camp by the side of a small stream, and, after a little delay, Almonte took the prisoner to him.

A large tent had been erected for General Cos, but he was sitting before it, eating his supper. A cook was serving him with delicate dishes and another servant filled his glass with red wine. His dark face darkened still further, as he looked at Ned, but he saluted Almonte courteously. It was evident to Ned that through family or merit, probably both, Almonte stood very high in the Mexican service.

"I have the honor to report to you, General Cos," said Almonte, "that we have retaken the young Texan who escaped through the bars of his prison at the capital. We found him in the mountains overcome by exhaustion."

General Cos' lips opened in a slow, cold smile,--an evil smile that struck a chill to Ned's heart. Here was a man far different from the gallant and gay young Almonte. That cruel strain which he believed was in the depths of the Spanish character, dormant though it might usually be, was patent now in General Cos. Moreover, this man was very powerful, and, as brother-in-law of Santa Anna, he was second only to the great dictator. He did not ask Ned to sit down and he was brusque in speech. The air about them grew distinctly colder. Almonte had talked with Ned in English, but Cos spoke Spanish:

"Why did you run away from the capital?" he asked, shortly. "You were treated well there."

"No man can be held in prison and be treated well."

General Martin Perfecto de Cos frowned. The bearing of the young Gringo did not please him. Nor did his answer.

"I repeat my question," he said, his voice rising. "Why did you run like a criminal from the capital? You were with the man Austin. You, like he, were the guest of our great and illustrious Santa Anna who does no wrong. Answer me, why did you slip away like a thief?"

"I slipped away, but it was not like a thief nor any other kind of criminal. And if you must know, General Cos, I went because I did not believe the words of the great and illustrious Santa Anna. He promises the Texans redress for their wrongs, and, at the same time, he orders them to give up their weapons. Do you think, and does General Santa Anna think, that the Texans are fools?"

Despite all his study and thought, Ned Fulton was only a boy and he did not have the wisdom of the old. The manner and words of General Cos had angered him, and, on impulse, he gave a direct reply. But he knew at once that it was impolitic. Cos' eyes lowered, and his lips drew back like those of an angry jaguar, showing his strong white teeth. There was no possible doubt now about that Spanish strain of cruelty.

"I presume," he said, and he seemed to Ned to bite each word, "that you meant to go to the Texans with the lying message that the word of the most illustrious General Santa Anna was not to be believed?"

"I meant to go with such a message," said Ned proudly, "but it would not be a lying one."

Knowing that he was already condemned he resolved to seek no subterfuge.

"The President cannot be insulted in my presence," said Cos ominously.

"He is only a boy, General," said Almonte appealingly.

"Boys can do mischief," said Cos, "and this seems to be an unusually cunning and wicked one. You are zealous, Colonel Almonte, I will give you that much credit, but you do not hate the Gringos enough."

Almonte flushed, but he bowed and said nothing. Cos turned again to Ned.

"You will bear no message to the Texans," he said. "I think that instead you will stay a long time in this hospitable Mexico of ours."

Ned paled a little. The words were full of menace, and he knew that they came straight from the cruel heart of Cos. But his pride would not permit him to reply.

"You will be kept under close guard," said the General. "I will give that duty to the men of Tlascala. They are infantry and to-morrow you march on foot with them. Colonel Almonte, you did well to take the prisoner, but you need trouble yourself no longer about him."

Two men of the Tlascalan company were summoned and they took Ned with them. The name "Tlascala" had appealed to Ned at first. It was the brave Tlascalan mountaineers who had helped Cortez and who had made possible his conquest of the great Mexican empire. But these were not the Tlascalans of that day. They were a mongrel breed, short, dirty and barefooted. He ate of the food they gave him, said nothing, and lay down on his serape to seek sleep. Almonte came to him there.

"I feared this," he said. "I would have saved you from General Cos had I been able."

"I know it," said Ned warmly, "and I want to thank you, Colonel Almonte."

Almonte held out his hand and Ned grasped it. Then the Mexican strode away. Ned lay back again and watched the darkness thin as the moon and stars came out. Far off the silver cone of Orizaba appeared like a spear point against the sky. It towered there in awful solemnity above the strife and passion of the world. Ned looked at it long, and gradually it became a beacon of light to him, his "pillar of flame" by night. It was the last thing he saw as he fell asleep, and there was no thought then in his mind of the swart and menacing Cos.

They resumed the march early in the morning. Ned no longer had his patient burro, but walked on foot among the Tlascalans. Often he saw General Cos riding ahead on a magnificent white horse. Sometimes the peons stood on the slopes and looked at them but generally they kept far from the marching army. Ned surmised that they had no love of military service.

The way was not easy for one on foot. Clouds of dust arose, and stung nose and throat. The sharp lava or basalt cut through the soles of shoes, and at midday the sun's rays burned fiercely. Weakened already by the hardships of his flight Ned was barely able to keep up. Once when he staggered a horseman prodded him with the butt of his lance. Ned was not revengeful, but he noted the man's face. Had he been armed then he would have struck back at any cost. But he took care not to stagger again, although it required a supreme effort.

They halted about an hour at noon, and Ned ate some rough food and drank water with the Tlascalans. He was deeply grateful for the short rest, and, as he sat trying to keep himself from collapse, Almonte came up and held out a flask.

"It is wine," he said. "It will strengthen you. Drink."

Ned drank. He was not used to wine, but he had been so near exhaustion that he took it as a medicine. When he handed the flask back the color returned to his face and the blood flowed more vigorously in his veins.

"General Cos does not wish me to see you at all," said Almonte. "He thinks you should be treated with the greatest harshness, but I am not without influence and I may be able to ease your march a little."

"I know that you will do it if you can," said Ned gratefully.

Yet Almonte was able to do little more for him. The march was resumed under equally trying conditions, after the short rest. When night came and the detachment stopped, Ned ached in every bone, and his feet were sore and bleeding. Almonte was sent away in the morning on another service, and there was no one to interfere for him.

He struggled on all of the next day. Most of his strength was gone, but pride still kept him going. Orizaba was growing larger and larger, dominating the landscape, and Ned again drew courage from the lofty white cone that looked down upon them.

Late in the afternoon he heard a trumpet blow, and there was a great stir in the force of Cos. Men held themselves straighter, lines were re-formed, and the whole detachment became more trim and smart. General Cos on his white horse rode to its head, and he was in his finest uniform. Somebody of importance was coming! Ned was keen with curiosity but he was too proud to ask. The Tlascalans had proved a churlish lot, and he would waste no words on them.

The road now led down into a beautiful savanna, thick in grass, and with oaks and pines on all sides. Cos' companies turned into the grass, and Ned saw that another force entering at the far side was doing the same. All the men in the second force were mounted, the officer who was at their head riding a horse even finer than that of Cos. His uniform, too, was more splendid, and his head was surmounted by a great three-cornered hat, heavy with gold lace. He was compact of figure, sat his saddle well, and rode as if the earth belonged to him. Ned recognized him at once. It was the general, the president, the dictator, the father of his country, the illustrious Santa Anna himself.

The mellow trumpet pealed forth again, and Santa Anna advanced to meet his brother, Cos, who likewise advanced to meet him. They met in full view of both forces, and embraced and kissed each other. Then a shout came forth from hundreds of throats at the noble spectacle of fraternal amity. The two forces coalesced with much Latin joy and chatter, and camp was pitched in the savanna.

Ned stayed with the Tlascalans, because he had no choice but to do so. They flung him a tortilla or two, and he had plenty of water, but what he wanted most was rest. He threw himself on the grass, and, as the Tlascalans did not disturb him, he lay there until long after nightfall. He would have remained there until morning had not two soldiers come with a message that he was wanted by Santa Anna himself.

Ned rose, smoothed out his hair, draped his serape as gracefully as he could about his shoulders, and, assuming all the dignity that was possible, went with the men. He had made up his mind that boldness of manner and speech was his best course and it suited his spirit. He was led into a large tent or rather a great marquee, and he stood there for a few moments dazzled.

The floor of the marquee was spread with a thick velvet carpet. A table loaded with silver dishes was between the generals, and a dozen lamps on the walls shed a bright light over velvet carpet, silver dishes and the faces of the two men who held the fortunes of Mexico in the hollows of their hands. General Cos smiled the same cold and evil smile that Ned had noticed at their first meeting, but Santa Anna spoke in a tone half of surprise and half of pity.

"Ah, it is the young Fulton! And he is in evil plight! You would not accept my continued hospitality at the capital, and behold what you have suffered!"

Ned looked steadily at him. He could not fathom the thought that lay behind the words of Santa Anna. The man was always appearing to him in changing colors. So he merely waited.

"It was a pleasure to me," said Santa Anna, "to learn from General Cos that you had been retaken. Great harm might have come to you wandering through the mountains and deserts of the north. You could never have reached the Texans alive, and since you could not do so it was better to have come back to us, was it not?"

"I have not come willingly."

General Cos frowned, but Santa Anna laughed.

"That was frank," he said, "and we will be equally frank with you. You would go north to the Texans, telling them that I mean to come with an army and crush them. Is it not so?"

"It is," replied Ned boldly.

Santa Anna smiled. He did not seem to be offended at all. His manner, swift, subtle and changing, was wholly attractive, and Ned felt its fascination.

"Be your surmise true or not," said the dictator, "it is best for you not to reach Texas. I have discussed the matter with my brother, General Cos, in whom I have great confidence, and we have agreed that since you undertook to reach Vera Cruz you can go there. General Cos will be your escort on the way, and, as I go to the capital in the morning, I wish you a pleasant journey and a happy stay in our chief seaport."

It seemed to Ned that there was the faintest touch of irony in his last word or two, but he was not sure. He was never sure of Santa Anna, that complex man of great abilities and vast ambition. And so after his fashion when he had nothing to say he said nothing.

"You are silent," said Santa Anna, "but you are thinking. You of the north are silent to hide your thoughts, and we of the south talk to hide ours!"

Ned still said nothing, and Santa Anna examined him searchingly. He sent his piercing gaze full into the eyes of the boy. Ned, proud of his race and blood, endured it, and returned it with a firm and steady look. Then the face of Santa Anna changed. He became all at once smiling and friendly, like a man who receives a welcome guest. He put a hand on Ned's shoulder, and apparently he did not notice that the shoulder became rigid under his touch.

"I like you," he said, "I like your courage, your truth, and your bluntness. You Texans, or rather you Americans,--because the Texans are Americans,--have some of the ruder virtues which we who are of the Spanish and Latin blood now and then lack. You are only a boy, but you have in you the qualities that can make a career. The Texans belong to Mexico. Your loyalty is due to Mexico and to me. I have said that you would go to Vera Cruz and take the hospitality that my brother, Cos, will offer you, but there is an alternative."

He stopped as if awaiting a natural question, but still Ned did not speak. A spark appeared in the eye of Santa Anna, but it passed so quickly that it was like a momentary gleam.

"I would make of you," continued the dictator in his mellow, coaxing tone, "a promising young member of my staff, and I would assign to you an immediate and important duty. I would send you to the Texans with a message entirely different from the one you wish to bear. I would have you to tell them that Santa Anna means only their greatest good; that he loves them as his children; that he is glad to have these strong, tall, fair men in the north to fight for him and Mexico; that he is a man who never breaks a promise; that he is the father of his people, and that he loves them all with a heart full of tenderness. To show you how much I trust and value you I would take your word that you would bear such a message, and I would send you with an escort that would make your way safe and easy."

Again he sent his piercing gaze into the eyes of the boy, but Ned was still silent.

"You would tell them," said Santa Anna in the softest and most persuasive tones, "that you have been much with me, that you know me, and that no man has a softer heart or a more just mind."

"I cannot do it," said Ned.


"Because it is not so."

The change on the face of Santa Anna was sudden and startling. His eyes became black with wrath, and his whole aspect was menacing. The hand of Cos flew to the hilt of his sword, and he half rose from his chair. But Santa Anna pushed him back, and then the face of the dictator quickly underwent another transformation. It became that of the ruler, grave but not threatening.

"Softly, Cos, my brother," he said. "Bear in mind that he is only a boy. I offered too much, and he does not understand. He has put away a brilliant career, but, my good brother Cos, he has left to him your hospitality, and you will not be neglectful."

Cos sank back in his chair and laughed. Santa Anna laughed. The two laughs were unlike, one heavy and angry, and the other light and gay, but their effect upon Ned was precisely the same. He felt a cold shiver at the roots of his hair, but he was yet silent, and stood before them waiting.

"You can go," said Santa Anna. "You have missed your opportunity and it will not come again."

Ned turned away without a word. The Tlascalans were waiting at the door of the marquee, and he went with them. Once more he slept under the stars. _

Read next: Chapter 7. The Dungeon Under The Sea

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