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

Chapter 13. The Texans

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Late in the afternoon Ned's nerves began to affect him again. Once more, the old longing for action took such strong hold upon him that he could not cast it off for a long time. But he hid his face from Obed. He did not want his older comrade to see that he was white and trembling. Finally, he took some food from his pack and bit fiercely upon it, as he ate. It was not for the food that he cared, but it was a relief to bring his teeth together so hard. Obed looked at him approvingly.

"You're setting a good example, Ned," he said, "and I'll follow it."

He too ate, and then took a satisfactory drink from his water bottle. Meanwhile the sun was setting in a cloudless sky, and both noticed with satisfaction that it would be a clear night. Eyes, trained like theirs, could see even in the dusk an enemy trying to creep upon them.

"Do you think you could sleep a while, Ned?" said Obed, persuasively. "Of course, I'll awake you at the first alarm, if the alarm itself doesn't do it. Sleep knits us up for the fray, and a man always wants to be at his best when he goes into battle."

"How could a fellow sleep now?"

"Only the brave and resolute can do it," replied Obed, cunningly. "Napoleon slept before Austerlitz, and while no Austerlitz is likely to happen down here in the wilderness of Northern Mexico there is nothing to keep those who are able from copying a great man."

The appeal to Ned's pride was not lost.

"I think I'll try it," he said.

He lay down behind the log with his rifle by his side, and closed his eyes. He had no idea that he could go to sleep, but he wished to show Obed his calmness in face of danger. Yet he did sleep, and he did not awaken until Obed's hand fell upon his shoulder. He would have sprung up, all his faculties not yet regained, but Obed's hand pressed him down.

"Don't forget where you are, Ned," said the Maine man, "and that we are still besieged."

Yet the night was absolutely still and Ned, from his recumbent position, looked up at a clear sky and many glittering stars.

"Has anything happened?" he asked.

"Not a thing. No Lipan has shown himself even among the trees."

"About what time do you think it is?"

"Two or three hours after midnight, and now I'm going to take a nap while you watch. Ned, do you know, I've an idea those fellows are going to sit in the woods indefinitely, safe, beyond range, and wait for us to come out. Doesn't it make you angry?"

"It does, and it makes me angry also to think that they have our horses. Those were good horses."

Obed slept until day, and Ned watched with a vigilance that no creeping enemy could pass. The Lipans made no movement, but the siege, silent and invisible, went on. Ned had another attack of the nerves, but, as his comrade was sleeping soundly, he took no trouble to hide it, and let the spell shake itself out.

The day was bright, burning and hot, and it threatened to pass like its predecessor, in silence and inaction. Ned and Obed had been lying down or sitting down so long that they had grown stiff, and now, knowing that they were out of range they stood up and walked boldly about, tensing and flexing their muscles, and relieving the bodily strain. Ned thought that their appearance might tempt the Lipans to a shot or some other demonstration, but no sound came from the woods, and they could not see any human presence there. "Maybe they have gone away after all," said Ned hopefully.

"If you went over there to the woods you'd soon find out that they hadn't."

"Suppose they really went away. We'd have no way of knowing it and then we'd have to sit here forever all the same."

Obed laughed, despite the grimness of their situation.

"That is a problem," he said, "but if you can't work a problem it will work itself if you only give it enough time."

The morning was without result, but in the afternoon they saw figures stirring in the wood and concluded that some movement was at hand.

"Ned," said Obed, "I think we've either won in the contest of patience, or that something else has occurred to disturb the Lipans. Don't you see horses as well as Indians there among the trees?"

"I can count at least five horses, and I've no doubt there are others."

"All of which to my mind indicates a rush on horseback. Perhaps they think they can gallop over us. We'd better lay our pistols on the logs, where we can get at 'em quick, and be ready."

Ned's sharp eye caught sight of more horses at another point.

"They're coming from all sides," he said.

"You face to the right and I'll face to the left," said Obed, "and be sure your bullet counts. If we bring down a couple of them they will stop. Indians are not fond of charging in the open, and, besides, it will be hard for them to force their horses in among these logs and trees of ours."

Ned did not answer, but he had listened attentively. The muzzle of his rifle rested upon the log beside his pistol, and, with his eye looking down the sights, he was watching for whatever might come.

A sharp whistle sounded from the wood. At the same instant, three bands of Lipans galloped from the trees at different points, and converged upon the little fortress. They were all naked to the waist, and the sun blazed down upon their painted bodies, lighting up their lean faces and fierce eyes. They uttered shout after shout, as they advanced, and as they came closer, bent down behind the shoulders of their ponies or clung to their sides.

The tremor of the nerves seized Ned again, but it was gone in a moment. Then a fierce passion turned the blood in his veins to fire. Why were these savages seeking his life? Why had they hung upon his trail for days and days? And why had they kept up that silent and invincible siege so long? Yet he did not forget his earlier resolution to watch for a good shot, knowing that his life hung upon it. But it was hard to hold one's fire when the thud of those charging hoofs was coming closer.

The horsemen in front of him were four in number, and the leader who wore a brilliant feathered headdress, seemed to be a chief. Ned chose him for his target, but for a few moments the Lipan made his pony bound from side to side in such a manner that he could not secure a good aim. But his chance came. The Lipan raised his head and opened his mouth to utter a great shout of encouragement to his followers. The shout did not pass his lips, because Ned's bullet struck him squarely in the forehead, and he fell backward from his horse, dead before he touched the ground.

Ned heard Obed's rifle crack with his own, but he could not turn his head to see the result. He snatched up his pistol and fired a second shot which severely wounded a Lipan rider, and then all three parties of the Lipans, fearing the formidable hedge, turned and galloped back, leaving two of their number lifeless upon the ground.

Obed had not fired his pistol, but he stood holding it in his hand, his eyes flashing with grim triumph. Ned was rapidly reloading his rifle.

"If we didn't burn their noble Lipan faces then I'm mightily mistaken," said Obed, as he too began to reload his rifle. "A charge that is not pressed home is no charge at all. Hark, what is that?"

There was a sudden crash of rifle shots in the forest, the long whining whoop of the Lipans and then hard upon it a deep hoarse cheer.

"White men!" exclaimed Ned.

"And Texans!" said Obed. "Such a roar as that never came from Mexican throats. It's friends! Do you hear, Ned, it's friends! There go the Indians!"

Across the far edge of the open went the Lipans in wild flight, and, as they pressed their mustangs for more speed, bullets urged them to efforts yet greater. Fifteen or twenty men galloped from the trees, and Ned and Obed, breaking cover, greeted them with joyous shouts, which the men returned in kind.

"You don't come to much," exclaimed Ned, "but we can say to you that never were men more welcome."

"Which I beg to repeat and emphasize," said Obed White.

"Speak a little louder," said the foremost of the men, leaning from his horse and couching one hand behind his ear.

Ned repeated his words in a much stronger tone, and the man nodded and smiled. Ned looked at him with the greatest interest. He was of middle age and medium size. Hair and eyes were intensely black, and his complexion was like dark leather. Dressed in Indian costume he could readily have passed for a warrior. Yet this man had come from the far northern state of New York, and it was only the burning suns of the Texas and North Mexican plains that had turned him to his present darkness.

"Glad to meet you, my boy," he said, leaning from his horse and holding out a powerful hand, burnt as dark as his face. "My name's Smith, Erastus Smith."

Ned grasped his hand eagerly. This was the famous "Deaf" Smith--destined to become yet more famous--although they generally pronounced it D-e-e-f in Texas.

"Guess we didn't come out of season," said Smith with a smile.

"You certainly didn't," broke in Obed. "There's a time for all things, and this was your time!"

"I believe they're real glad to see us. Don't you think so, Jim?" said Smith with a smile.

The man whom he called Jim had been sitting on his horse, silent, and he remained silent yet, but he nodded in reply. Ned's gaze traveled to him and he was certainly a striking figure. He was over six feet in height, with large blue eyes and fair hair. His expression was singularly gentle and mild, but his appearance nevertheless, both face and figure, indicated unusual strength. Obed had not noticed him before, but now he exclaimed joyfully:

"Why, it's Colonel Jim Bowie! Jim, it's me, Obed White! Shake hands!"

"So it is you, Obed," said the redoubtable Bowie, "and here we shake."

The hands of the two met in a powerful clasp. Then they all dismounted and another man, short and thick, shook Obed by the hand and called him by his first name. He was Henry Karnes, the Tennesseean, great scout and famous borderer of the Texas plains.

Ned looked with admiration at these men, whose names were great to him. On the wild border where life depended almost continually upon skill and quickness with weapons, "Deaf" Smith, Jim Bowie and Henry Karnes were already heroes to youth. Ned thrilled. He was here with his own people, and with the greatest of them. He had finished his long journey and he was with the Texans. The words shaped themselves again and again in his brain, the Texans! the Texans! the Texans!

"You two seem to have given the Lipans a lot of trouble," said Bowie, looking at the two fallen warriors.

"We were putting all the obstacles we could in the way of what they wanted," said Obed modestly, "but we don't know what would have happened if you hadn't come. Those fellows had been following us for days, and they must have had some idea that you were near, or they would have waited still longer."

"They must not have known that we were as near as we were," said Bowie, "or they would not have invited our attack. We heard the firing and galloped to it at once. But you two need something better than talk."

He broke off suddenly, because Ned had sat down on one of the logs, looking white and ill. The collapse had come after so many terrible trials and privations, and not even his will could hold him.

"Here, you take a drink of this water, it's good and cold," said "Deaf" Smith kindly as he held out a canteen. "I reckon that no boy has ever passed through more than you have, and if there's any hero you are one."

"Good words," said Bowie.

Ned smiled. These words were healing balm to his pride. To be praised thus by these famous Texans was ample reward. Besides, he had great and vital news to all, and he knew that Obed would wait for him to tell it.

"I think," said Bowie, "that we'd better camp for the night in the clump of trees that served you two so well, and, before it's dark, we'll look around and see what spoil is to be had."

They found three rifles that had been dropped by slain or wounded Lipans, and they were well pleased to get them, as rifles were about to become the most valuable of all articles in Texas. They also recovered Ned and Obed's horses, which the Indians had left in the valley, evidently expecting to take them away, when they secured the scalps of the two fugitives.

Ned, after the cold water and a little rest, fully recovered his strength and poise, but the men would not let him do any work, telling him that he had already done his share. So he sat on his log and watched them as they prepared camp and supper. Besides being the Texans and his own people, to whom he had come after the long journey of perils, they made a wonderful appeal. These were the bold riders, the dauntless, the fearless. He would not find here the pliancy, the cunning, the craft and the dark genius of Santa Anna, but he would find men who talked straight, who shot straight, and who feared nobody.

They were sixteen in number, and all were clad wholly in buckskin, with fur caps upon their heads. They were heavily armed, every man carrying at least a rifle, a pistol, and a formidable knife, invented by Bowie. All were powerful physically, and every face had been darkened by the sun. Ned felt that such a group as this was a match for a hundred Mexicans or Lipans.

They worked dextrously and rapidly, unsaddling their horses and tethering them where they could graze in the open, drawing up the dead wood until it made a heap which was quickly lighted, and then cooking strips of venison over the coals. There was so much life, so much cheerfulness, and so much assurance of strength and invincibility that Ned began to feel as if he did not have a care left. All the men already called him Ned, and he felt that every one of them was his friend.

Karnes put a strip of venison on the sharp end of a stick, and broiled it over the blaze. It gave out a singularly appetizing odor, and when it was done he extended it to the boy.

"Here, Ned," he said, "take this on the end of your knife and eat it. I'll wager that you haven't had any good warm victuals for a week, and it will taste mighty well."

Ned ate it and asked for more. He would have done his own cooking, but they would not let him. They seemed to take a pleasure in helping him, and, used as they were to hardships and danger, they admired all the more the tenacity and courage that had brought a boy so far.

"We can promise you one thing, Ned," said "Deaf" Smith. "We'll see that you and Obed have a full night's good sleep and I guess you'll like that about as much as a big supper."

"We certainly will," said Obed. "Sleep has got a lot of knitting to do in my case."

"The same is true of me," said Ned, who had now eaten about all he wanted, "but before I roll up in the blankets I want to say something to you men."

His voice had suddenly become one of great gravity, and, despite his youth, it impressed them. The darkness had now come, but the fire made a center of light. They had put themselves in easy attitudes about it, while the horses grazed just beyond them.

"I come from Texas myself," said Ned, "although I was born in Missouri. My parents are dead, and I thought I could make my way in Texas. I met Mr. Austin who is related to me, and he was good to me more than once. When he went to Mexico to talk with the rulers there about our troubles I went with him. I was a prisoner with him in the City of Mexico, and I often saw the dictator, Santa Anna, and his brother-in-law, General Cos."

Ned paused and a deep "Ah!" came from the men. They felt from his face and manner that he was telling no idle tale.

"They said many fine words to Mr. Austin," said Ned, "and always they promised that they were going to do great things for Texas. But much time passed and they did nothing. Also they kept Mr. Austin a prisoner. Then I escaped. I believed that they were preparing to attack Texas. I was right. I was recaptured and both President Santa Anna and General Cos told me so. They told me because they did not believe I could escape again, as they sent me to one of the submarine dungeons under the castle of San Juan de Ulua. But even under the sea I found a friend, Obed here, and we escaped together. We have since seen the army of General Cos, and it is marching straight upon Texas. Santa Anna means to crush us and to execute all our leaders."

Again came that deep murmurous "Ah!" and now it was full of anger and defiance.

"You say you saw the army of Cos?" asked Bowie.

"Yes," replied Ned, "I saw it before I was taken to the castle of San Juan de Ulua and afterward in Northern Mexico, marching straight toward Texas. It is a large force, cannon and lancers, horse and foot."

"And so Santa Anna has been lulling us with promises, while sending an army to destroy us."

Bowie's tone, so gentle and mild before, grew hard and bitter. The firelight flickered across his face and to Ned the blue eyes looked as cold and relentless as death. He had heard strange stories of this man, tales of desperate combats in Mississippi and Louisiana, and he believed now that they were true. He could see the daring and determined soul behind the blue eyes.

While Ned was talking "Deaf" Smith was leaning forward with his hand behind his ear. When the story was finished the dark face grew still darker, but he said nothing. The others, too, were silent but Ned knew their minds. It was a singular little company drawn from different American states, some from the far north, but all alike in their devotion to the vague region then known as Texas.

"I think, Ned," said Bowie, "that you have served Texas well. We have been divided among ourselves. Many have believed in propitiating Santa Anna and Mexico, but how can you propitiate a tiger that is about to devour you? We cannot trust Mexico, and we cannot trust Santa Anna. Your message settles all doubt and gives us time to arm. Thank God we refused to give up our rifles, because we are going to need them more than anything else on earth. It was surely more than luck that brought us this way. We came down here, Ned, on an expedition, half for hunting and half for scouting, and we've found more than we expected. We must start for Texas in the morning. Is it not so, boys?"

"Yes," they answered all together.

"Then, Ned," said Bowie, "you can tell your story to Sam Houston and all our leaders, and I think I know what they will say. We are few, but Santa Anna and all Mexico cannot ride over Texas. And now it's time for you and Obed to go to sleep. I should think that after being chased nearly a week you'd be glad to rest."

"We are," said Obed, answering for them both, "and once more we want to thank you. If you hadn't come the Lipans would certainly have got us."

The night, as usual, was chilly, and Ned spread his blankets in front of the fire. His saddle formed a pillow for his head, and with one blanket beneath him, another above him, and the stalwart Texans all about him, he felt a deep peace, nay more, a great surge of triumph. He had made his way through everything. Santa Anna and Cos could not attack the Texans, unwarned. Neither Mexicans nor Lipans, neither prisons nor storms nor deserts had been able to stop him.

After the triumphant leap of his blood the great peace possessed him entirely. His mind and body relaxed completely. His eyelids drooped and the flames danced before him. The figures of the men became dusky. Sometimes he saw them and sometimes he did not. Then everything vanished, and he fell into a long and sound sleep.

While Ned and Obed slept, the Texans conferred earnestly. They knew that every word Ned had told was true, and they felt that the trouble between Texas and Mexico had now come to a head. It must be war. They were fully aware of the fearful odds, but they did not believe the Texans would flinch. Three or four rode a long distance around the camp and scouted carefully. But, as they had expected, they saw no sign of the Lipans, who undoubtedly were still fleeing southward, carrying in their hearts a healthy fear of the long rifles of the Texans.

After the scouts came back most of the men went to sleep, but Bowie and "Deaf" Smith watched all through the night. Ned moved a little toward the morning and displaced the blanket that lay over him. Bowie gently put it back.

"He's a good boy as well as a brave one," he said to Smith, "and we owe him a lot."

"Never a doubt of that," said Smith, "and he'll be with us in the coming struggle."

When Ned awoke the dawn was barely showing, but all the horses, including his own, were saddled and ready. They ate a brief breakfast, and then they galloped northward over a good country. They did not trouble to look for the army of Cos, as they knew that it was coming and it was their object to spread the alarm as soon as possible through all the Texas settlements. Ned, refreshed and strong, was in the center of the troop and he rode with a light heart. Obed was on one side of him, and "Deaf" Smith on the other.

"To-night," said Smith, "we water our horses in the Rio Grande."

"And then ho for Texas!" said Obed.

On they sped, their even pace unbroken until noon, when they made a short rest for food and water. Then they sped north once more, Bowie, Smith and Karnes leading the way. They said very little now, but every one in the group was thinking of the scattered Texans, of the women and children in the little cabins beyond the Rio Grande, harried already by Comanches and Lipans and now threatened by a great Mexican force. They had come from different states and often they were of differing counsels, but a common danger would draw them together. It was significant that Smith, the New Yorker, and Bowie, the Georgian, rode side by side.

All through the hot sun of the afternoon they rode on. Twilight found them still riding. Far in the night they waded and swam the Rio Grande, and the next morning they stood on the soil that now is Texas. _

Read next: Chapter 14. The Ring Tailed Panther

Read previous: Chapter 12. The Trial Of Patience

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