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

Chapter 12. The Trial Of Patience

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The hours of the afternoon trailed slowly away, one by one. Perspiration appeared at last upon the glossy skins of the horses, but their stride did not abate. The powerful muscles still worked with their full strength and ease. Ned never felt a tremor in the splendid horse beneath him. But when he looked back again there were the Lipans, a little further away, but hanging on as grimly as before, still riding in a close group.

Ned began to understand now the deadly nature of the pursuit. These Lipans would follow not merely for hours, but into the night, and if he and Obed were lost to sight in the darkness they would pick up the trail the next day by the hoof prints on the plain. He felt with absolute certainty that chance had brought upon them one of the deadliest dangers they had yet encountered.

"It's growing a little cooler, Obed," he said.

"So it is. The evening wanes. But, Ned, do you see any sign of forest or high hills ahead?"

"I do not, Obed. There is nothing but the plain which waves like the ripples on a lake, the bunches of buffalo grass here and there, and now and then an ugly yucca."

"You see just what I see, Ned, and as there is no promise of shelter we'd better ease our horses a little. Our lives depend upon them, and even if the Lipans do regain some of their lost ground now it will not matter in the end."

They let the horses drop into a walk, and finally, to put elasticity back into their own stiffened limbs, they dismounted and walked awhile.

"If the Lipans don't rest their horses now they will have to do it later," said Obed, "but as they're mighty crafty they'll probably slow down when we do. Do you see them now, Ned?"

"Yes, there they are on the crest of a swell. They don't seem to gain on us much. I should say they are a full mile away."

"A mile and a half at least. The air of these great uplands is very deceptive, and things look much nearer than they really are."

"Look how gigantic they have grown! They stand squarely in the center of the sun now."

The sun was low and the Lipans coming out of the southwest were silhouetted so perfectly against it that they seemed black and monstrous, like some product of the primitive world. The fugitives felt a chill of awe, but in a moment or two they threw it off, only to have its place taken a little later by the real chill of the coming night. A wind began to moan over the desolate plain, and their faces were stung now and then by the fine grains of sand blown against them. But as the Lipans were gaining but little, Ned and Obed still walked their horses.

They went on thus nearly an hour. The night came, but it was not dark, and they could yet see the Lipans following as certain as death. Before them the plain still rolled away, bare and brown. There was not a sign of cover. Ned's spirits began to sink. The silent and tenacious pursuit weighed upon him. It was time to rest and sleep. The Lipans had been pursuing for seven or eight hours now, and if they could not catch fugitives in that time they ought to turn back. Nevertheless, there they were, still visible in the moonlight and still coming.

Ned and Obed remounted and rode at a running walk, which was easy but which nevertheless took them on rapidly. But it became evident that the Lipans had increased their pace in the same ratio, as the distance of a mile and a half named by Obed did not decrease. Ned looked up longingly at the sky. There was not a cloud. The moon, round and full, never shone more brightly, and it seemed that countless new stars had arrived that very night. He sighed. They might as well have been riding in broad daylight.

Toward midnight the swells and dips of the plain became accentuated, and they lost sight of the pursuing Lipans. But there was yet no forest to hide them, only the miserable mesquite and the ragged yucca. Save for them the plain stretched away as bare and brown as ever. Two hours more with the Lipans still lost to view, Obed called a halt.

"The Lipans will pick up our trail in the morning," he said. "Though lost to sight we are to their memory dear, and they will hang on. But our horses are faster than theirs, and as they cannot come near us on this bare plain, without being seen we can get away. Whereas, I say, and hence and therefore we might as well rest and let our good steeds rest, too."

"What time would you say it is?"

"About two o' the morning by the watch that I haven't got, and it will be four or five hours until day. Ned, if I were you I'd lie down between blankets. You can relax more comfortably and rest better that way."

Ned did not wish to do it, but Obed insisted so strongly, and was so persuasive that he acceded at last. They had chosen a place on a swell where they could see anything that approached a quarter of a mile away, and Obed stood near the recumbent boy, holding the bridles of the two horses in one hand and his rifle in the other.

The man's eyes continually traveled around the circle of the horizon, but now and then he glanced at the boy. Ned, brave, enduring and complaining so little, had taken a great hold upon his affection. They were comrades, tried by many dangers, and no danger yet to come could induce him to desert the boy.

The moon and stars were still very bright, and Obed, as his eyes traveled the circle of the horizon, saw no sign of the Indian approach. But that the Lipans would come with the dawn, or some time afterward, he did not have the slightest doubt. He glanced once more at Ned and then he smiled. The boy, while never meaning it, was sleeping soundly, and Obed was very glad. This was what he intended, relying upon Ned's utter exhaustion of body and mind.

All through the remaining hours of the night the man, with the bridles of the two horses in one hand and the rifle in the other, kept watch. Now and then he walked in a circle around and around the sleeping boy, and once or twice he smiled to himself. He knew that Ned when he awoke would be indignant because Obed let him sleep, but the man felt quite able to stand such reproaches.

Obed, staunch as he was, felt the weirdness and appalling loneliness of time and place. A wolf howled far out on the plain, and the answering howl of a wolf came back from another point. He shivered a little, but he continued his steady tread around and around the circle.

Dawn shot up, gilding the bare brown plain with silver splendor for a little while. Obed awoke Ned, and laughed at the boy's protests.

"You feel stronger and fresher, Ned," he said, "and nothing has been lost."

"What of you?"

"I? Oh, I'll get my chance later. All things come to him who works while he waits. Meanwhile, I think we'd better take a drink out of our water bottles, eat a quick breakfast and be off before we have visitors."

Once more in the saddle, they rode on over a plain unchanged in character, still the same swells and dips, still the same lonesome yuccas and mesquite, with the occasional clumps of bunch grass.

"Don't you think we have shaken them off?" asked Ned.

"No," replied Obed. "They would scatter toward dawn and the one who picked up the trail would call the others with a whoop or a rifle shot."

"Well, they've been called," said Ned, who was looking back. "See, there, on the highest ridge."

A faint, dark blur had appeared on a crest three or four miles behind them, one that would have been wholly invisible had not the air been so clear and translucent. It was impossible at the distance to distinguish shapes or detach anything from the general mass, but they knew very well that it was the Lipans. Each felt a little chill at this pursuit so tenacious and so menacing.

"I wish that we had some sort of a place like that in which we faced the Mexicans, where we could put our backs to the wall and fight!" exclaimed Ned.

"I know how you feel," said Obed, "because I feel the same way myself, but there isn't any such place, Ned, and this plain doesn't ever give any sign of producing one, so we'll just ride on. We'll trust to time and chance. Something may happen in our favor."

They strengthened their hearts, whistled to their horses and rode ahead. As on the day before the interminable pursuit went on hour after hour. It was another hot day, and their water bottles were almost emptied. The horses had had nothing to drink since the day before and the two fugitives began to feel for them, but about noon they came to a little pool, lying in a dip or hollow between the swells. It was perhaps fifty feet either way, less than a foot deep and the water was yellowish in color, but it contained no alkali nor any other bitter infusion. Moreover, grass grew around its edges and some wild ducks swam on its surface. It would have been a good place for a camp and they would have stayed there gladly had it not been for that threat which always hung on the southern horizon.

The water was warm, but the horses drank deeply, and Ned and Obed refilled their bottles. The stop enabled the pursuing Lipans to come within a mile of them, but, moving away at an increased pace, they began to lengthen the gap.

"The Lipans will stop and water their ponies and themselves just as we have done," said Obed. "Everything that we have to endure they have to endure, too. It's a poor rule that doesn't work for one side as well as the other."

"It would all look like play," said Ned, "if we didn't know that it was so much in earnest. Just as you said, Obed, they're stopping to drink at the pond."

A shadow seemed to pass between himself and the blazing glare of the sun. He looked up. It was a shadow thrown by a great bird, with black wings, flying low. Others of the same kind circled higher. Ned saw with a shiver that they were vultures. Obed saw them, too, and he also saw Ned's face pale a little.

"You take it as an omen," he said, "and maybe it is, but it's a poor omen that won't work both ways. They're flying back now towards the Indians, so I guess the Lipans had better look out."

Nevertheless, both were depressed by the appearance of the vultures and the heat that afternoon grew more intense than ever. The horses, at last, began to show signs of weariness, but Ned reflected that for every mile they traveled the Lipans must travel one also, and he recalled the words of Obed that chance might come to their aid.

Another night followed, clear and bright, with the great stars dancing in the southern skies, and Ned and Obed rode long after nightfall. Again the Lipans sank from sight, and, as before, the two stopped on one of the swells.

"Now, Obed," said Ned, "it is your time to sleep and mine to watch. I submitted last night and you must submit to-night. You know that you can't go on forever without sleep."

"Your argument is good," said Obed, "and I yield. It isn't worth while for me to tell you to watch well, because I know you'll do it."

He stretched himself out, folded between his blankets, and was soon asleep. The horses tethered to a lonesome yucca found a few blades of grass on the swell, which they cropped luxuriously. Then they lay down. Ned walked about for a long time rifle on shoulder. It turned colder and he wrapped his serape around his shoulders and chest. Finally he grew tired of walking, and sat down on the ground, holding his rifle across his lap. He sat on the highest point of the swell, and, despite the night, he could see a considerable distance.

His sight and hearing alike were acute, but neither brought him any alarm. He tried to reconstruct in his mind the Lipan mode of procedure. With the coming of the night and the disappearance of the fugitives from their sight they would spread out in a long line, in order that they might not pass the two without knowing it, and advance until midnight, perhaps. Then they, too, would rest, and pick up the trail again in the morning.

Ned did not know that time could be so long. He had not been watching more than three or four hours, and yet it seemed like as many days. But it was not long until dawn, and then it would be time for them to be up and away again. The horses reposed by the yucca, and, down the far side of the swell, close to the bottom of the dip, was another yucca. Ned's glance wandered toward the second yucca, and suddenly his heart thumped.

There was a shadow within the shadow of the yucca. Then he believed that it must be imagination, but nevertheless he rose to his feet and cocked his rifle. The shadow blended with the shadow of the yucca just behind its stern, but Ned, watching closely, saw in the next instant the two shadows detach and separate. The one that moved was that of a Lipan warrior, naked save for the breech-cloth and horrible with war paint. Ned instantly raised his rifle and fired. The Lipan uttered a cry and fell, then sprang to his feet, and ran away down the dip. In answer to the shot came the fierce note of the war whoop.

"Up, Obed, up!" cried Ned. "The Lipans are coming down upon us. I just shot at one of them in the bush!"

But Obed was up already, running toward the alarmed horses, his blankets under one arm and his rifle under the other. Ned followed, and, in an instant, they were on their horses with their arms and stores. From the next swell behind them came a patter of shots, and, for the second time, the war cry. But the two were now galloping northward at full speed.

"Good work, Ned, my lad," cried Obed. "I didn't have time to see what you shot, but I heard the yell and I knew it must have been a Lipan."

"He was stalking us, a scout, I suppose, and I just got a glimpse of him behind a yucca. I hit him."

"Good eyes and good hand. You saved us. They must have struck our trail in some manner during the night and then they thought they had us. Ah, they still think they have us!"

The last remark was drawn by a shout and another spatter of shots. Two or three bullets struck alarmingly close, and they increased the speed of their horses, while the Lipans urged their ponies to their best.

"They're too eager," said Obed. "It's time to give them a hint that their company is not wanted."

He wheeled and executed with success that most difficult of feats, a running shot. A Lipan fell from his horse, and the others drew back a little for fear of Ned, the second marksman.

"They've taken the hint," said Obed grimly, as he accomplished a second difficult feat, that of reloading his rifle while they were at full gallop. The Lipans did not utter another war cry, but settled down into a steady pursuit.

"I think I'll try a shot, Obed," said Ned.

"All right," said Obed, "but be sure that you hit something. Never waste a good bullet on empty air."

Ned fired. He missed the Lipan at whom he aimed, but he killed the pony the warrior was riding. The Indian leaped on the pony that had been ridden by the warrior slain by Obed and continued in the group of pursuers. Ned looked somewhat chagrined, and Obed noticed it.

"You did very well, Ned," he said. "Of course, no one likes to kill a horse, but it's the horses that bring on the Lipans, and the fewer horses they have the better for us."

Ned also reloaded as they galloped and then said:

"Don't you think they're dropping back a little?"

"Yes, they want to keep out of range. They know that our rifles carry farther than theirs, and they will not take any more risk until they finally corner us, of which they feel sure."

"But of which we are not so sure."

"No, and we are going to be hidden from them, for a while, by something. You haven't noticed, Ned, that the country is rapidly growing much worse, and that we are now in what is practically a sandy desert. You don't see even a yucca, but you do see something whirling there in the southwest. That's a 'dust devil,' and there's a half dozen more whirling in our direction. We're going to have a sand storm."

Ned looked with interest. The "dust devils," rising up like water spouts, danced over the surface of the sand. They were a half dozen, then a dozen, then twenty. A sharp wind struck the faces of the two fugitives, and it had an edge of fine sand that stung. All the "dust devils" were merged and the air darkened rapidly. The cloud of dust about them thickened. They drew their sombreros far down over their eyes, and rode very close together. They could not see twenty yards away, and if they became separated in the dust storm it was not likely that they would ever see each other again. But they urged their horses on at a good rate, trusting to the instinct of the animals to take them over a safe course.

Ned had not only pulled the brim of his sombrero down over his eyes, but he reinforced it with one hand to keep from being blinded, for the time, by the sand, but it was hard work. As a final resort he let the lids remain open only enough for him to see his comrade who was but three feet away. Meanwhile, he felt the sand going down his collar, and entering every opening of his clothing, scratching and stinging his skin. The wind all the time was roaring in his ears, and now and then the horses neighed in alarm. But they kept onward. Ned knew that they were passing dips and swells, but he knew nothing else.

The storm blew itself out in about three hours. Ned and Obed emerged from an obscurity as great as that of night. The wind ceased shrieking and was succeeded by a stillness that was almost deathly in comparison. The sun came out suddenly, and shone brightly over the dips and swells. But Ned and Obed looked at each other and laughed. Both were so thickly plastered with sand and dust that they had little human semblance.

Ned shook himself, and a cloud of dust flew from him, but so much remained that he could not tell the difference.

"I think we'd better take a drink out of our water bottles," said Obed. "I'd like mighty well to have a bath, too, but I don't see a bath tub convenient. Is there any sign of our friends, the enemy, Ned?"

"None," replied Ned, examining the horizon line. "There is absolutely nothing within view on the plains."

"Don't you fret about 'em. They'll come. They'll spread out and pick up our trail just as they do every morning."

Obed spoke dispassionately, as if he and Ned were not concerned in it. His predictions were justified. Before night they saw the Lipans coming as usual in a close group, now at a distance of about three miles. Ned could not keep from shuddering. They were as implacable as fate. Night, the storm and bullets did not stop them. They could not shake them off in the immense spaces of plain and desert. A kind of horror seized him. Such tenacity must triumph. Was it possible that Obed and he would fall victims after all? At least it seemed sure that in the end they would be overtaken, and Ned began to count the odds in a fight. Anything seemed better than this interminable flight.

They were cheered a little by the aspect of the country, which began to change considerably for the better. The cactus reappeared and then a few trees, lonesome and ragged, but trees, nevertheless. It is wonderful how much humanity a tree has in a sad and sandy land. The soil grew much firmer and soon they saw clumps of buffalo grass. Several small groups of buffalo were also visible.

"There's better country ahead, as you see," said Obed. "Besides, I've been along this way before. We'll strike water by dark."

They reached a tiny brook just as the twilight came, at which both they and their horses drank. They also took the time to wash their hands and faces, but they dared not delay any longer for fear of being overtaken by the Lipans. The night and the following day passed in the same manner as the others, and the horses of Ned and Obed, splendid animals though they were, began to show signs of fatigue. One limped a little. The dreaded was happening. The Indian ponies made only of bone and muscle were riding them down.

On the other hand, the character of the country now encouraged the fugitives. The yucca and the mesquite turned into oak. They passed through large groves and they hoped that they might soon enter a great forest in which they could hide their trail wholly from the Lipans. They crossed two considerable streams, knee deep on the horses, and then they entered the forest for which they had hoped so much. It was of oaks without much undergrowth and the ground was hilly. They rode through it until past midnight. Then they stopped by the edge of a blue pool, and while the other watched with the rifle each took the bath that he had coveted so long.

"I feel that I can fight battles and also run better now that I've got rid of ten pounds of sand and dust," said Obed, "and I guess you feel the same way, Ned. I suppose you've noticed that the other horse has gone lame, too?"

"Yes, I noticed it. I don't believe either could make much speed to-morrow."

"They certainly couldn't unless they had a long rest, and here we stay. There need be no secrets between you and me, Ned, about this pursuit. I think it's likely that we'll have a fight in the morning, and we might as well choose our fort."

The horses were panting and both now limped badly. It was quite evident that they were spent. Beyond the pool was a tiny valley or glade with a good growth of grass, and, after tying the reins to the pommels of the saddles, they released the two faithful beasts there. Obed thought once of tethering them but he reflected that to do so would make them sure targets of the Indian bullets or arrows. They, too, deserved a chance to escape.

Then he and Ned looked around for the fort, of which they had spoken, and they found it beyond the pool in an opening which would have been called a little prairie in the far north. In the center of this opening grew a rather thick cluster of trees, and there was some fallen wood. A rifle bullet would not reach from any point of the forest to the cluster.

They drew up all the fallen wood they could find, helping to turn the ring of trees into a kind of fortification, refilled their water bottles from the pool, and sat down to wait, with their rifles and pistols ready.

Ned felt a kind of relief, the relief that comes to one who, having faced the worst so long, now knows that it has been realized. The terrible chase had gone on for nights and days. Always the Lipans were behind them. Well, if they were so fond of pursuing, now let them come. By the aid of the dead wood they were fairly well protected from a fire in any direction, and the light was sufficient for them to see an enemy who attempted to cross the open. There was a certain grim pleasure in the situation.

"They've run us down at last," said Obed, "but they haven't got us yet. Before you scalp your man just catch him is a proverb that I would recommend to the Lipans. Now, Ned, suppose we eat a little, and brace ourselves for the arrival of the pursuit."

They ate with a good appetite and then lay propped on their elbows, where they could look just over the logs at the circling forest. It was very quiet. Nothing stirred among the trees. Their eyes, used now to the half dusk, could see almost as well as if it were daylight. Ned finally noticed some dark objects on the boughs of the trees and called Obed's attention to them.

"Wild turkeys," said Obed, after a long look. "The first we've seen and we can't take a shot at them. They must know it or they wouldn't sit there so quiet and easy."

A half hour later, Ned saw something move among the trees at the nearest point of the forest. It looked like a shadow and was gone in an instant. But his heart leaped. He felt sure that it was a Lipan, and told Obed of his suspicion.

"Of course you're right," said the Maine man. "They may have been there in the woods for an hour spying us out. They've dismounted and have left their horses further back among the trees. Suppose you watch to the right while I face to the left. I think the two of us together can cover a whole circle."

Ned felt a singular composure. It seemed to him that he had passed through so many emotions that he had none left now but calm and expectancy. As the night was somewhat cold he even remembered to throw one of the blankets over his body, as he lay behind the log. Obed noticed it and his sharp eyes brightened with approval. It was obvious that the Lipans were now in the woods about them, and that the long chase was at an end, but the boy was as steady as a rock.

Ned looked continually for the second appearance of the shadows. Nothing within the range of his half circle escaped him. He saw the wild turkeys unfold their wings, and fly heavily away, which was absolute proof of the presence of the Lipans. He finally saw the shadow for the second time, and, at almost the same moment, a pink dot appeared in the woods. The crack of a rifle followed, and a bullet knocked up a little dust at least fifty yards short of them. Obed sniffed contemptuously.

"One good bullet wasted," he said, "and one good bullet, I suppose, deserves another, but they won't fire again--yet. It shows that they know we're on guard. They won't rush us. They'll wait for time, thirst and starvation."

Obed was right. Not another shot was fired, nor did any of the Lipans show themselves. Day came, and the forest was as quiet and peaceful as if it were a park. Some little birds of brilliant plumage sang as heralds of dawn, and sunlight flooded the trees and the opening. Ned and Obed moved themselves into more comfortable positions and waited.

They were to have another terrible trial of Indian patience. No attack was made. The two lay behind the logs and watched the circle of the forest, until their eyes grew weary. The silence and peace that had marked the dawn continued through all the hours of the morning. Although the wild turkeys had flown away, the birds that lived in this forest seemed to take no alarm. They hopped peacefully from bough to bough, and sang their little songs as if there were no alien presence. But Ned and Obed had been through too many dangers to be entrapped into a belief that the Lipans had gone. They matched patience with patience. The sun went slowly up toward the zenith, and the earth grew hot, but they were protected from the fiery rays by the foliage of the trees. Yet Ned grew restless. He was continually poking the muzzle of his rifle over the log and seeking a target, although the forest revealed no human being. Finally Obed put his hand upon his arm.

"Easy, now, easy, Ned," he said. "Don't waste your strength and nerves. They can't charge us, at least in the daylight, without our seeing them, and, when they come, we want to be as strong of body and brain as possible. We won't take the fight to them. They must bring it to us."

Ned blushed. Meanwhile the afternoon dragged on, slow and silent, as the morning had been. _

Read next: Chapter 13. The Texans

Read previous: Chapter 11. The Long Chase

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