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

Chapter 9. The Ruined Temples

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Ned revived and sat up. Cold water which Obed had brought in his hat from the river was dripping from his face. At his feet lay a huge black animal, terrible even in death. There was one wound in his head, where Ned's bullet had gone in, and another through the right eye, where Obed's had entered, reaching the brain. Ned's strength now returned fully and the color came back to his face. He stood up, but he shuddered nevertheless.

"Obed," he said gratefully, "you came just in time."

"I surely did," said that cheerful artisan. "A bullet in time saved a life like thine. But you had already given him a bad wound."

"What is he, Obed?"

"About the biggest and finest specimen of a black jaguar that ever ravaged a Mexican jungle. I always thought the black kind was found only in Paraguay and the regions down there, but I'm quite sure now that at least one of them has been roaming up here, and he is bound to have kin, too. Ned, isn't he a terror? If he'd got at you he'd have ripped you in pieces in half a minute."

Ned shuddered again. Even in death the great black jaguar was capable of inspiring terror. He had never before seen such a picture of magnificent and sinister strength. He was heavier and more powerful than a tiger, and he knew that the jaguar often became a man-eater.

"I'd like to have that skin to lay upon the parlor of my palatial home, if I ever have one," said Obed, "and I reckon that you and I had better stick pretty close together while we are in this jungle. Our pistols are not loaded now, and we have no more ammunition."

They did not dare to sleep again in the same place, fearing that the jaguar might have a mate which would seek revenge upon them, but, a couple of hundred yards further down, they found in the river a little island, twelve or fifteen feet square. Here they felt that the water would somehow give them security, and they lay down once more.

Ned was awakened a second time by that terrifying pu-pu-pu. It approached through the forest but it stopped at the point where the dead body of the black giant lay. He knew that it was the voice of the mate. He listened a long time, but he did not hear it again, and he concluded that the second jaguar, after the brief mourning of animals, had gone away. He fell asleep again, and did not awaken until day.

They were now practically unarmed, but they kept the pistols, for the sake of show in case any peons of the jungle should offer trouble, and pressed forward, with all the speed possible in so dense a tangle of forest. In the deep shade of trees and bushes Ned continually saw the shadows of immense black jaguars. He knew that it was only nerves and imagination, but he did not like to be in a condition that enabled fancy to play him such tricks. He longed more than ever for the open plains, even with dust and thirst.

Already they saw the mountains rising before them, terrace after terrace, and, three days after the encounter with the jaguar, they began to ascend the middle slopes between the tierra caliente and the lofty sierras. The whole character of the country changed. The tropical jungle ceased. They now entered magnificent forests of oak, pine, plane tree, mimosas, chestnut and many other varieties. They also saw the bamboo, the palm and the cactus. The water was fresher and colder, and they felt as if they had come into a new world.

But the question of food supply returned. They had used the wild fruits in abundance, always economizing strictly with their tortillas and frijoles. Now they had eaten the last of these and a diet of fruit alone would not do.

"We'll have to sell a pistol in the way that we sold the musket," said Ned.

"I hate to do it," said Obed, "but I don't see anything else that we can do. We might seize our food at the first hut we find, but whatever may be the quarrels between the Mexicans and Texans, I'm not willing to rob any of these poor peons."

"Nor I," said Ned with emphasis. "My pistol goes first."

They found the usual adobe hut in a pleasant valley, and the noble senor, the proprietor, was at home playing a mandolin. He did not suspect them to be Gringos, but he was quite sure that they were brigands and he made the exchange swiftly and gladly. Two days later the other pistol went in the same way, and they began to think how they could acquire new weapons and plenty of ammunition for them. They sat in the shade of a great oak while they discussed the question. It was certainly a vital one. Dangerous enough at any time, the long journey through Mexico would become impossible without arms.

"If we could loot them from the soldiers I wouldn't mind at all," said Obed. "The soldiers are to act against Texas, according to the tale you tell, and the tale is true. All's fair in flight and war, and if such a chance comes our way I'm going to take it."

"So am I," said Ned.

But such a chance was in no hurry to present itself. They went on for a number of days and came now to the region, bordering the high sierras, passing through vast forests of oak and pine, and seeing scarcely any habitation. Here, as they walked toward twilight along one of the narrow paths, a voice from the bushes cried: "Halt!"

Ned saw several gun barrels protruding from the foliage, and was obedient to the command. He also threw up his hands and Obed White was no slower than he. Ned judged from the nature of the ambush that they had fallen among brigands, then so prevalent in Mexico, and the thought gave him relief. Soldiers would carry him back to Santa Anna, but surely brigands would not trouble long those who had nothing to lose.

"It is well, friends, that you obey so quickly," said a man in gaudy costume as he stepped from the bushes followed by a half dozen others, evil looking fellows, all carrying guns and pistols. Ned noticed that two of the guns were rifles of long and slender barrel, undoubtedly of American make.

"Good-evening, Captain," said Obed White in his smoothest tones. "We were expecting to meet you, as we learned that we are in the territory which you rule so well."

The man frowned and then smiled.

"I see that you are a man of humor, amigo," he said, "and it is well. Your information is correct. I rule this territory. I am Captain Juan Carossa and these are my men. We collect tribute from all who pass this way."

"A worthy task and, I have no doubt, a profitable one."

"Always worthy but not always profitable. However, I trust that you can make it worth our while."

A look of sadness passed over the expressive features of Obed White.

"You look like a brave and generous man, Senor Juan Carossa," he said sorrowfully, "and it grieves both my young friend and myself to the very center of our hearts to disappoint you. We have nothing. There is not a cent of either gold or silver upon us. Jewels we admire, but we have them not. You may search."

He held wide his arms and Ned did likewise. Carossa gave an order to one of his men, a tall fellow, swathed in a red serape, to make the search, and he did so in such a rapid and skillful manner that Ned marveled. He felt hands touching him here and there, as light as the fall of a leaf. Obed was treated in the same fashion, and then the man in the red serape turned two empty and expressive palms to his chief.

Carossa swore fluently, and bent a look of deep reproach upon Ned and Obed.

"Senors," he said, "this is an injustice, nay more, it is a crime. You come upon the territory over which we range. You put us to the trouble of stopping you, and you have nothing. All our risk and work are wasted."

Obed shook his head in apology.

"It is not our fault," he said. "We had a little money, but we spent it for food. We had some arms also, but they went for food too, so you see, good kind Captain Carossa, we had nothing left for you."

"But you have two good serapes," said the Captain. "Had you money we would not take them from you, but it must not be said of Captain Carossa and his men that they went away with nothing. I trust, senor, that you do not think me unreasonable."

Obed White considered. Captain Carossa was a polite man. So was he.

"We can ill afford to part with these cloaks or serapes," he said, "but since it must be we cannot prevent it. Meanwhile, we ask you to offer us your hospitality. We are on the mountains now, and the nights are cold. We would be chilled without our cloaks. Take us with you, and, in the morning, when the warm sunshine comes we will proceed."

Carossa laughed and pulled his long black mustaches. "Santiago, but you have a spirit," he said, "and I like it. You shall have your request and you may come with us but to-morrow you go forth stripped and shorn. My men cannot work for nothing. Spanish or Mexican, English or Gringo you must pay. Gringo you are, but for that I do not care. It is in truth the reason why I yield to your little request, because you can never bring the soldiers of Santa Anna down upon us."

Obed While smiled. The look upon his face obviously paid tribute to the craft and courage of Juan Carossa, the great, and Carossa therefore was pleased. The brigand captain did not abate one whit from his resolution to have their serapes and their coats too, but he would show them first that he was a gentleman. He spoke to his men, and the fellow with the red serape led the way along a narrow path through a forest of myrtle oaks. They went in single file, the Captain about the middle, and just behind him Obed, with Ned following. Ned as usual was silent, but Obed talked nearly all the time and Carossa seemed to like it. Ned saw that the brigand leader was vain, eager to show his power and resource, but he was sure that, at bottom, he was cruel, and that he would turn them forth stripped and helpless in the forest.

Night came down suddenly, but the man in front lighted a small lantern that he took from under his serape, and they continued the march with unabated speed. The forest thinned, and about nine o'clock they came into an open space. The moon was now out and Ned saw a group of four rectangular buildings, elevated on mounds. The buildings, besides being rectangles themselves, were so placed that the group made a rectangle. The structures of stone were partly ruined, and of great age. They followed the uniform plan of those vast and mysterious ruins found so often in Southern and Central Mexico. The same race that erected the pyramids on the Teotihuacan might have raised these buildings.

"My home! The quarters of myself and my men," said Carossa, dramatically, pointing to the largest of the buildings. "We do not know who built it. It goes far beyond the time of Cortez, but it serves us now. The peon will not approach it, because Carossa is there and maybe ghosts too."

"I'm not afraid of ghosts," said Obed White. "Lead on, most noble captain. We appreciate your hospitality. We did not know that you were taking us to a palace."

Captain Carossa deigned to be pleased again with himself, and, taking the lantern from the man in the red serape, he led the way. He entered the large building by means of a narrow passageway in one of the angles, passed through an unroofed room, and then came to a door at which both Ned and Obed gazed with the most intense curiosity. The doorway was made of only three stones, two huge monolithic door jambs, each seven feet high, nearly as wide and more than two feet thick. Upon them rested a lintel also monolithic, but at least twenty feet in length, with a width of five feet and a thickness of three feet. It was evident to Ned that mighty workmen had once toiled here.

"Is not that an entrance fit for a king?" said the brigand captain, again making a dramatic gesture.

"It is fit for Captain Juan Carossa, which is more," said Obed White with suave courtesy.

Captain Carossa bowed. Once more he deigned to be pleased with himself. Then he led through the doorway and Ned uttered a little cry of admiration. They stood in a great room with a magnificent row of monolithic pillars running down the center. A stone roof had once covered the room, but it had long since fallen in. The interior of the walls was plain, made of stones and mortar, once covered with cement, deep blood red in color, of which a few fragments remained. But the walls on the outside were covered with splendid panels of mosaic work varied now and then by sculptured stones. The stone used on the outside was of a light cream color. But the boy did not see the mosaic panels until later.

Silent and studious, these vast ruins of a mysterious race made a great appeal to Ned. He forgot the rough brigands for a moment, and stood there looking at the walls and great columns, upon which the moon was pouring a flood of beams. What were these outlaws to those mighty builders whom the past had swallowed up so completely?

The brigands were already lighting a fire beside one of the huge monoliths, and Carossa lay down on a serape. The fire blazed up, but it did not detract from the weird effect of the Hall of Pillars. One of the men warmed food which he brought from another of the ruined houses, and Carossa told his prisoners to eat.

"What I give you to-night, and what I shall give you to-morrow morning may be the last food that you will have for some time," he said, "so enjoy it as best you may."

He smiled, his lips drawing back from his white teeth, and in some singular way he made Ned think of the black jaguar and his black lips writhing back from his great fangs. Why had Obed spoken of coming with them? Better to have been stripped in the path, and to have gone on alone. But he ate the food, as the long marching had made him hungry, and lay down within the rim of the firelight.

The men also ate, and Ned saw that they were surly. Doubtless they had endured much hardship recently and had secured little spoil. He heard muttered sounds which he knew were curses. He became more uneasy than ever. Certainly little human kindness lurked in the hearts of such as these, and he believed that Carossa was playing with them for his own amusement, just as a trainer with a steel bar makes the animals in a cage do their tricks.

The mutterings among the men increased. Carossa spoke to one of them, who brought forth a stone jar from a recess in the wall. Tin cups were produced and all, including Carossa, drank pulque made from the maguey plant. They offered it also to Ned and Obed, but both declined.

The pulque did not make the men more quarrelsome, but seemed to plunge them into a lethargy. Two or three of them hummed doleful songs, as if they were thinking of homes to which they could not go. One began to weep, but finally spread out his serape, lay down on it and went to sleep. Three or four others soon did the same. Two sat near the great monolithic doorway, with muskets across their knees. Undoubtedly they were intended to be sentinels, but Ned noted that their heads drooped.

"I shall sleep now, my Gringo guests," said Carossa, "and I advise you to do the same. You cannot alter anything, and you will need the strength that sleep brings."

"Your advice is good," said Obed, "and we thank you, Captain Carossa, for your advice and courtesy. Manners are the fine finish of a man."

His serape had not yet been taken from him, and he rolled himself in it. Ned was already in his, lying with his feet to the smoldering fire. The boy did not wish to sleep, nor could he have slept had he wished. But he saw that Carossa soon slumbered, and the sentinels by the doorway seemed, at least, to doze. He turned slightly on his side, and looked at Obed who lay about eight feet away. He could not see the man's face, but his body did not stir. Perhaps Obed also slept.

A wind was now rising and it made strange sounds among the vast ruins. It was a moan, a shriek and a hoarse sigh. Perhaps the peons were not so far wrong! The ghosts did come back to their old abodes. Ned was glad that he was not alone. Even without Obed the company of brigands would have been a help. He lay still a long time.

The coals of the fire went out, one by one, and where they had glowed only black ashes lay. The wind among the ruins played all kinds of strange variations, and Ned was never more awake in his life. He took a last look at the sentinels, and he was sure that they slept, sitting, with their muskets across their laps. Then he rose to his knees and with difficulty checked a cry of astonishment when he saw Obed rising at the same time. They remained on their knees a moment or two looking at each other and then, simultaneously they rose to their feet. Their comprehension was complete.

Ned looked down at Carossa. The brigand chief slept soundly and his face in repose was wholly evil. The gayety and courtesy that they had seen upon it awake were only a mask.

Obed stepped lightly to one of the pillars and Ned followed him. He knew what Obed was seeking. Here was the great chance. The brigands, careless from long immunity, had stacked their guns against the pillar, and Ned and Obed promptly selected the two American rifles that Ned had noticed. Hung by each was a large supply of powder and bullets to fit which they also took. Two of the best machetes were chosen too, and then they were ready to go. With the rifle in his hand, the great weapon with which the pioneer made his way from ocean to ocean, Ned had strength and courage. He believed that Obed and he could defeat the entire force of brigands, but he awaited the signal of his older comrade.

Standing close together behind the massive pillar they could not now see the sentinels at the doorway. Ned was quite sure that they were sleeping and that he and his comrade could steal past them. But Obed turned in another direction and Ned followed without a word. The man had caught a glimpse of a second entrance at the opposite side of this hall of pillars, and the two darted into it.

They found themselves in a passage less than the height of a man, and only about three feet wide, but Obed led on boldly, and Ned, with equal boldness, followed. The wall was about five feet thick, and they came out into a court or patio surrounded by four ruined buildings. The floor of the patio was cement, upon which their footsteps made no noise, and, going through the great apertures in one of the ruined buildings, they stood entirely on the outside of the mass of ancient temples, or whatever it may have been.

"Ned," whispered Obed, "we ought to go right down on our knees and give thanks. We've not only escaped from Carossa and his cutthroats, but we've brought with us two American rifles; good enough for anybody and two or three hundred rounds of ammunition, the things that we needed most of all."

"It must have been more than chance," said Ned with emotion. "It must have been a hand leading us."

"When I proposed to go with them I thought we might have a chance of some kind or other. Well, Captain Carossa, you meant us evil, but you did us good. Come, Ned, the faster we get away from these ghosts the better. Besides, we've got more to carry now."

They had also brought away with them their packs of food, but they did not mind the additional weight of the weapons, which were worth more to them than gold or jewels. They listened a minute or two to see if any alarm had been raised, but no sound came from the Hall of Pillars, and with light steps and strong hearts they began another march on their northward journey.

They traveled by the moon and stars, and, as they were not hindered now by any great tangle of undergrowth, they made many miles before dawn, although they were ascending steadily. They had come upon the edge of the great central plateau of Mexico, which runs far into the north and which includes much of Texas. Before them lay another and great change in the country. They were now to enter a land of little rain, where they would find the ragged yucca tree, the agave and the cactus, the scrubby mesquite bush and clumps of coarse grass. But they had passed through so much that they did not fear it.

They hunted for an hour after sunrise, before they found a small brook, at which they drank, and, in spirit, returned the thanks which Obed had said so emphatically were due. Then, wrapped in the useful serapes, they went to sleep once more in a thicket. They had been sure that the Mexicans could not trail them, and their confidence was justified. When they awoke in the afternoon no human being was in sight, and their loaded rifles lay undisturbed beside them.

Then they entered upon the plain, plodding steadily on over a dusty gray landscape, but feeling that their rifles would be ample protection against anything that they might meet. The sun became very hot, and they longed at times for the shade of the forest that they had left behind, but they did not cease their march. Off to their left they saw towering mountains with a green film along their slopes that they knew to be forests of oak and pine; and such was the nature of man that they looked at them regretfully. Obed White, glancing at Ned, caught Ned glancing at him, and both laughed.

"That's it," said Obed. "How precious is the thing that slips away. When we were in the forest we wanted the open country, but now in the open country we want the forest. But we're making progress, Ned. Don't forget that."

"I don't," said Ned. "But when we get further North into the vast stretches of the arid plateau, we must have something more to carry--water bottles."

"That's so. We can't do without them. Maybe, too, Ned, we can pick up a couple of good horses. They'd be a wonderful help."

"We'll hope for everything we need," said Ned cheerfully. "Now I wonder, Obed, if the attack has been made on Texas. Do you think we can yet get there in time?"

"I hope so," replied Obed thoughtfully. "You were a long time in San Juan de Ulua, but armies move slowly, and they have plenty of troubles of their own here in Mexico. I would wager almost anything that no Mexican force in great numbers has yet crossed the Rio Grande."

"Then we may be in time. Obed, we'll push for the north with every ounce of strength we have."

"That's just what we'll do. Courage defeats a multitude of sins."

They traveled now for nearly a week in a direction north slightly by west, suffering at times from heat, and once from a tropical rain storm that deluged them. While the rain poured upon them, they kept their serapes wrapped around their powder, and let their bodies take the worst. The rain, for a while, was very cold, but the powder was precious, and after a while the sun came out, drying and warming them again. They were compelled to swim two narrow but deep rivers, a most difficult task, as they had arms, ammunition and food to carry with them.

They noticed stretches of forest again, and passed both scattered houses and villages. Their knowledge of Spanish and their rifles were their protection. But in some places the people seemed to care nothing either about Santa Anna or those who might oppose him. They were content to lead lives in a region which furnished food almost of its own accord. Just before approaching one of these villages Ned shot another jaguar. It was not black like the first, nor so large. It was about five feet in length, and yellowish in color, with a splendid skin, which, at Obed's suggestion, they removed for purposes of barter. It was a wise idea, as they traded it in the village for two large water bottles. The people there were so indifferent to their identity that they sat in the plaza in the evening, and watched the young people dance the fandango.

It was only a crude little village in the Mexican wilderness. The people were more Indian than Mexican. There was not much melody in their music, and not much rhythm in their dance, but they were human beings, enjoying themselves after labor and without fear. Both Ned and Obed, sitting outside the circle of light with their rifles across their knees, felt it. The sense of human companionship, even of strangers, was very pleasant. The music and the glowing faces appealed very strongly to the boy. Silent, thoughtful, and compelled by circumstances to live a hard life, he was nevertheless young with all the freshness of youth. Obed saw, and he felt a deep sympathy for this lad who had wrapped himself like a younger brother around his heart.

"Just you wait, Ned," he said, "until we reach our own people across the Rio Grande. Then we'll have lots of friends and they'll be friends all the stronger, because you will be the first to bring them news of the treacherous attack that is to be made upon them."

"If we get there in time," said Ned, "and, Obed, I am beginning to believe that we will get there in time."

They passed for hunters, and that night they slept in the village, where they received kindness, and departed again the next morning on the long, long journey that always led to the north. _

Read next: Chapter 10. Cactus And Mexicans

Read previous: Chapter 8. The Black Jaguar

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