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

Chapter 14. The Ring Tailed Panther

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Texas was then a vague and undetermined name in the minds of many. It might extend to the Rio Grande or it might extend only to the Nueces, but to most the Rio Grande was the boundary between them and Mexico. So felt Ned and all his comrades. They were now on the soil which might own the overlordship of Mexico, but for which they, the Texans, were spending their blood. It was strange what an attachment they had for it, although not one of them was born there. Beyond, in the outer world, there was much arguing about the right or wrong of their case, but they knew that they would have to fight for their lives, and for the homes they had built in the wilderness on the faith of promises that had been broken. That to them was the final answer and to people in such a position there could be no other.

The sight of Texas, green and fertile, with much forest along the streams was very pleasant to Ned, and those rough frontiersmen in buckskin who rode with him were the very men whom he had chosen. He had been in a great city, and he had talked with men in brilliant uniforms, but there everything seemed old, so far away in thought and manner from the Texans, and he could never believe the words of the men in brilliant uniforms. There, the land itself looked ancient and worn, but here it was fresh and green, and men spoke the truth.

They rode until nearly noon, when they stopped in a fine grove of oaks and pecans by the side of a clear creek. The grass was also rich and deep here, and they did not take the trouble to tether their horses. Ned was exceedingly glad to dismount as he was stiff and sore from the long ride, and he was also as hungry as a wolf.

"Lay down on the grass, Ned, an' stretch yourself," said Karnes. "When you're tired the best way to rest is to be just as lazy as you can be. The ground will hold you up an' let your lungs do their own breathin'. Don't you go to workin' 'em yourself."

Ned thought it good advice and took it. It was certainly a great luxury to make no physical exertion and just to let the ground hold him up, as Karnes had said. Obed imitated his example, stretching himself out to his great thin length on the soft turf.

"Two are company and twenty are more so," he said, "especially if you're in a wild country. My burden of care isn't a quarter as heavy since we met Jim Bowie, and all the rest of these sure friends and sure shots. This isn't much like San Juan de Ulua is it, Ned? You wouldn't like to be back there."

The boy looked up at the vast blue dome of the heavens, then he listened a moment to the sigh of the free wind which came unchecked a thousand miles and he replied with so much emphasis that his words snapped:

"Not for worlds, Obed!"

Obed White laughed and rolled over in the grass.

"I do believe you mean that, Ned," he said, "and the sentiments that you speak so well are also mine own."

Smith and Karnes went a little distance up the creek, and found some buffalo feeding. They shot a young cow, and in an incredibly short space tender steaks were broiling over a fire. After dinner all but two went to sleep. They understood well the old maxim that the more haste the less speed, and that the sleep and rest through the hours of the afternoon would make them fit for the long riding that was yet before them.

At five o'clock they were in the saddle again, and rode until midnight. The next morning the party separated. The men were to carry the blazing torch throughout the settlements, telling all the Texans that the Mexicans were coming and that they were bringing war with them. But Bowie, "Deaf" Smith and Karnes kept on with Ned and Obed.

"We're taking you to Sam Houston," said Bowie to Ned. "He's to be the general of all the Texan forces, we think, and we want you to tell him what you've told us."

They began now to see signs of settlements in the river bottoms where the forests grew. There were stray little log cabins, almost hidden among the oaks and pecans. Women and children came forth to see the riders go by. The women were tanned like the men, and often they, too, were clothed in buckskin. The children, bare of foot and head, seemed half wild, but all, despite the sun, had the features of the Northern races.

Ned could not keep from waving his hand to them. These were his people, and he was thankful that he should have so large a part in the attempt to save them. But he only had fleeting glimpses because they rode very fast now. He was going to Sam Houston, famous throughout all the Southwest, and Houston was at one of the little new settlements some distance away. He would tell his story again, but he knew that the Texans were already gathering. The messengers detached from the group had now carried the alarm to many a cabin.

Several times at night they saw points of fire on the horizon and they would pause to look at them.

"That's the Texans signaling to one another," said "Deaf" Smith. "They're passing the word westward. They're calling in the buffalo hunters and those who went out to fight the Comanches and Lipans."

Ned had alternations of hope and despondency. He saw anew how few the Texans were. Their numbers could be counted only in thousands, while the Mexicans had millions. Moreover, the tiny settlements were scattered widely. Could such a thin force make a successful defense against the armies of Cos and Santa Anna? But after every moment of despair, the rebound came, and he saw that the spirit of the people was indomitable.

At last, they rode into a straggling little village by the side of a wide and shallow river. All the houses were built of logs or rough boards, and Ned and his companions dismounted before the largest. They had already learned that Sam Houston was inside. Ned felt intense curiosity as they approached. He knew the history of Houston, his singular and picturesque career, and the great esteem in which he was held by the Texans. A man with a rifle on his shoulder stood by the door as guard, but he recognized Smith and Karnes, and held the door open for the four, who went inside without a word.

Several men, talking earnestly were sitting in cane-bottomed chairs, and Ned, although he had never seen him before, knew at once which was Houston. The famous leader sat in the center of the little group. He was over six feet high, very powerful of build, with thick, longish hair, and he was dressed carefully in a suit of fine dark blue cloth. He rose and saluted the four with great courtesy. Despite his long period of wild life among the Indians his manners were distinguished.

"We welcome you, Smith and Karnes, our faithful scouts," he said, "and we also welcome those with you who, I presume, are the two escaped from the City of Mexico."

It was evident that the story of Ned and Obed had preceded them, but Karnes spoke for them.

"Yes, General," he said. "They are the men, or rather the man and the boy. These are Obed White and Ned Fulton, General Houston."

Houston's glance ran swiftly over them. Evidently he liked both, as he smiled and gave each a hearty hand.

"And now for your story," he said.

Obed nodded toward Ned.

"He's the one who saw it all," he said, "and he's the one who brings the warning."

Ned was a little abashed by the presence of Houston and the other important Texans, but he told the tale once more rapidly and succinctly. Every one listened closely. They were the chief members of the temporary Texan government, but the room in which they met was all of the frontier. Its floor was of rough boards. Its walls and ceilings were unplastered. There was not a single luxury and not all of the necessities.

When Ned finished, Houston turned to the others and said quietly:

"Gentlemen, we all know that this is war. I think there need be no discussion of the point. It seems necessary to send out more messengers gathering up every Texan who will fight. Do you agree with me?"

All said yes.

"I think, too," said Houston, "that Santa Anna may now send Mr. Austin back to us. He does not know how well informed we are, and doubtless he will believe that such an act will keep us in a state of blindness."

"And you, my brave and resourceful young friend, what do you want to do?"

"Fight under you."

Houston laughed and put his hand affectionately on the boy's shoulder.

"I see that there is something of the courtier in you, too," he said. "It is not a bad quality sometimes, and you shall have the chance that you ask, later on. But meanwhile, you and Mr. White would better rest here, a while. You may have some scouting and skirmishing to do first. We must feel our way."

Ned and Obed now withdrew, and received the hospitality of the little town which was great, at least so far as food was concerned. They longed for action, but the rest was really necessary. Both body and spirit were preparing for greater deeds. Meanwhile, Houston, the scouts and the Texan government went away, but Ned and Obed stayed, awaiting the call. They knew that the signals had now passed through all Texas and they did not think that they would have to remain there long.

They heard soon that Houston's prediction in regard to Austin had come true. Santa Anna had released him, and he had arrived in Texas. But he had not been cajoled. His eyes had been opened at last to the designs of the dictator and immediately upon his return to Texas he had warned his countrymen in a great speech. Meanwhile, the army of Cos was approaching San Antonio, preceded by the heralds of coming Texan ruin.

Ned and Obed sat under the shade of some live oaks, when a horseman came to the little village. He was a strange man, great in size, dressed in buckskin, very brown of countenance and with long hair, tied as the western Indians would wear it. He was something of a genial boaster, was this man, and he was known up and down the Texas border as the Ring Tailed Panther although his right name was Martin Palmer. But he had lived long among the Osage, Kiowa and Pawnee Indians, and he was renowned throughout all the Southwestern country for his bravery, skill and eccentricity. An Indian had killed a white man and eaten his heart. He captured the Indian and compelled him to eat until he died. When his favorite bear dog died he rode sixty miles and brought a minister to preach a sermon over his body. A little boy was captured on the outskirts of a settlement by some Comanche Indians. He followed them alone for three hundred miles, stole the boy away from them in the night, and carried him back safely to his father and mother.

Such was the Ring Tailed Panther, a name that he had originally given to himself and which the people had adopted, one who boasted that he feared no man, the boast being true. He was heavily armed and he rode a black and powerful horse, which he directed straight toward the place where Ned and Obed were sitting.

"You are Ned Fulton an' Obed White, if report tells no lie?" he said in a deep growling voice.

"We are," said Ned, who did not know the identity of their formidable visitor.

"So I knew. I just wanted to see if you'd deny it. Glad to meet you, gentlemen. As for me, I'm the Ring Tailed Panther."

"The Ring Tailed Panther?"

"Exactly. Didn't you hear me say so? I'm the Ring Tailed Panther, an' I can whip anything livin', man or beast, lion or grizzly bear. That's why I'm the Ring Tailed Panther."

"Happy to know you, Mr. Ring Tailed Panther," said Ned, "and having no quarrel with you we don't wish to fight you."

The man laughed, his broad face radiating good humor.

"And I don't want to fight you, either," he said, "'cause all of us have got to fight somebody else. See here, your name's Obed an' yours is Ned, and that's what I'm goin' to call you. No Mistering for me. It don't look well for a Ring Tailed Panther to be givin' handles to people's names."

"Ned and Obed it is," said Ned with warmth.

"Then, Ned an' Obed, it's Mexicans. I've been fightin' Indians a long time. Besides bein' a Ring Tailed Panther, I'm three parts grizzly bear an' one part tiger, an' I want you both to come with guns."

"Is it fighting?" asked Ned, starting up.

"It's ridin' first an' then fightin'. Our people down at Gonzales have a cannon. The Mexicans are comin' to take it away from them, an' I think there's goin' to be trouble over the bargain. The Texans got the gun as a defense against the Indians an' they need it. Some of us are goin' down there to take a hand in the matter of that gun, an' you are goin' with us."

"Of course we are!" said Ned and Obed together. In five minutes they were riding, fully armed, with the Ring Tailed Panther over the prairie. He gave them more details as they rode along.

"Some of our people had been gatherin' at San Felipe to stop the march of Cos if they could," he said, "but they've been drawn off now to help Gonzales. They're comin' from Bastrop, too, an' other places, an' if there ain't a fight then I'm the Ring Tailed Panther for nothing. If we keep a good pace we can join a lot of the boys by nightfall."

"We'll keep it," said Ned. The boy's heart was pounding. Somehow he felt that an event of great importance was at hand, and he was glad to have a share in it. But the three spoke little. The Panther led the way. Ned saw that despite his boasting words he was a man of action. Certainly he was acting swiftly now, and it was quite evident that he knew what he was doing. At last he turned to Ned and said:

"You're only a boy. You know what you're goin' into, of course?"

"A fight, I think."

"And you may get killed?"

"I know it. One can't go into a fight without that risk."

"You're a brave boy. I've heard of what you did, an' you don't talk much. I'm glad of that. I can do all the talkin' that's needed by the three of us. The Lord created me with a love of gab."

The man spoke in a whimsical tone and Ned laughed.

"You can have all my share of the talking, Mr. Palmer," he said.

"The Ring Tailed Panther," corrected the man. "I told you not to be Misterin' me. I like that name, the Ring Tailed Panther. It suits me, because I fit an' I fight till they get me down, then I curl my tail an' I take another round. Once in New Orleans I met a fellow who said he was half horse, half alligator, that he could either claw to death the best man living, stamp him to pieces or eat him alive. I invited him to do any one of these things or all three of them to me."

"What happened?" asked Ned.

A broad smile passed over the man's brown face.

"After they picked up the pieces an' put him back together," he said, "I told him he might try again whenever he felt like it, but he said his challenge was directed to human beings, not to Ring Tailed Panthers. Him an' me got to be great friends an' he's somewhere in Texas now. I may run acrost him before our business with the Mexicans is over, which I take it is goin' to last a good while."

It was now late in the afternoon, and dismounting at a clump of trees the Panther lighted the end of a dead stick and waved the torch around his head many times.

"Watch there in the west for another light like this," he said.

Ned, who sat on his horse, was the first to see the faint circling light far down under the horizon. It was so distant that he could not have seen it had he not been looking for it, but when he pointed it out the Panther ceased to whirl his own torch.

"It's some friends," he said, "an' they're answerin'. They're sayin' that they've seen us an' that they're waitin'. When they get through we'll say that we understan' an' are comin'."

The whirling torch on the horizon stopped presently. The Panther whirled his own for half a minute, then he sprang back upon his horse and the three rode rapidly forward.

The sight of the lights sparkling in the twilight so far across the prairie thrilled Ned. He felt that he was in very truth riding to a fight as the Panther had said. Perhaps it was a part of the force of Cos that was coming to Gonzales. Cos himself had turned from the land route with a part of his force and, coming by sea, had landed at Copano about two weeks before. Ned, having full cause, hated this brutal man, and he hoped that the Texans would come to grips with him.

The night was at hand when they reached four men sitting on horseback and waiting for them. They greeted the Ring Tailed Panther with few words but with warmth. They gave to Ned and Obed, too, the strong handclasp which men in danger give to friends who come. Ned thrilled once more with pride that he should be associated with heroes in great deeds. Such they undoubtedly were to him.

"The Mexicans will be at Gonzales to-morrow," said one of the men. "The place, as you know, has refused to give up its cannon and has defied them, but it's almost bare of men. I don't think they have a dozen there."

"The battle is generally to the strong if they get there in time," said Obed, "and here are seven of us on good horses."

"Not countin' the fact that one of us is a Ring Tailed Panther with claws a foot long an' two sets of teeth in his mouth," said Palmer. "Ride on, boys, an' ride hard."

They urged their horses into a gallop and sped over the prairie. At midnight they clattered into the tiny village of Gonzales on the Guadalupe River, where everybody except the little children was awake and watching. Lights flared from the cabins, and the alarm at first, lest they were Mexicans, changed to joy when they were disclosed as Texans.

But the armed force of the place, though stout of heart, was pitifully small. They found only eleven men in Gonzales capable of bearing arms, and no more help could be expected before the Mexicans came the next day. But eleven and seven make eighteen, and now that they were joined, and communicating spirit and hope to one another, the eighteen were more than twice as strong as the eleven had been. The Ring Tailed Panther poured forth a stream of cheer and encouragement. He grew more voluble at the approach of danger. Never had his teeth and claws been longer or sharper.

"I'm afraid of nothin' except that they won't come," he said. "If they don't, my health will give way. I'll be a-droopin' an' a-pinin' an' I'll have to go off an' fight the Comanches an' Lipans to get back my strength."

But he was assured that his health would not suffer. Mexican cavalry, a hundred strong, were coming under a captain, Castenada, sent by Ugartchea, the Mexican commander at San Antonio de Bexar. Scouts had brought that definite news. They were riding from the west and they would have to cross the Guadalupe before they could enter Gonzales. There were fords, but it would be a dangerous task to attempt their passage in face of the Texan rifles.

The ferryboat was tied safely on the Gonzales side, and then the eighteen, every one a fine marksman, distributed themselves at the fords. Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther stayed together. They did not anticipate the arrival of the Mexican forces before dawn, but Castenada might send spies ahead, and the Mexican scouts were full of wiles and stratagems.

"At any rate," said the Panther, "if we catch any Mexican prowling around here we'll throw him into the river."

"All things, including Mexicans, come to him who waits," said Obed, "and speaking for myself I'd rather they wouldn't come until day. It's more comfortable to sit quiet in the dark."

These three and six others had taken a position under a great oak tree, where they were well shaded but could easily see anyone who approached the ford on the opposite side. Back of them a few lights burned in the little town, where the anxious women watched, but no noise came from it or the second ford, where the other half of the eighteen were on guard. Their horses were tethered some distance in the rear and they, too, rested in quiet.

The tree sent up a great gnarled root and Ned sat on the ground, leaning against it. It just fitted into the curve of his back and he was very comfortable. But he did not allow his comfort to lull him into lethargy. Always he watched the river and the farther shore. He had now become no mean scout and sentinel. The faculties develop fast amid the continuous fight for life against all kinds of dangers. Above all, that additional sense which may be defined as prescience, and, which was a development of the other five, was alive within him, ready to warn him of a hostile presence.

But Ned neither saw nor heard anything, nor did his sixth sense warn him that an enemy was near. The Guadalupe, wide, yellow and comparatively shallow like most of the Texas rivers, flowed slowly and without sound. Now and then Obed and the Panther walked down to the other ford, where all, too, was quiet, but Ned kept his place against the root. Toward morning the Panther sat down beside him there.

"Waitin's hard," he said. "I like to jump on the enemy with claws an' nails an' have it out right there an' then. I like to roar an' bite. That's why I'm a Ring Tailed Panther."

Ned laughed.

"If Castenada is coming, and they say he surely is," he said, "we'll soon have use for all our claws and teeth."

"Patience will bring our Mexicans," said Obed White.

At daylight women from the cabins brought them all coffee and warm food, for which they were very grateful. Then the sun rose, and the morning was fresh and crisp, it now being autumn. The men remained by the river, still watching intently and Ned caught a sudden sharp glint which was not that of the sun, far out on the prairie. He knew that it was a brilliant ray reflected from the polished head of a lance, and he said as he pointed a finger:

"The Mexicans are coming."

"So they are," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "I see a horseman, an' another, an' another, an' now a lot of 'em. They must be a hundred at least. It's the troop of Castenada, an' they're after that cannon. Well, I'm glad."

The man seemed to swell and his eyes darkened. He was like some formidable beast about to spring. The boaster was ready to make good his boast.

"Run down to the other ford, Ned," said Palmer, "an' tell the men there that the Mexicans are at hand."

Ned did his errand, but returned very quickly. He was anxious to see the advance of Castenada's troop. The Mexicans, about half of whom were lancers and the rest armed with muskets, came on very steadily. An officer in fine uniform, whom Ned took to be Castenada himself, rode at their head. When they came within rifle shot a white flag was hoisted on a lance.

"A white flag! This is no time for white flags," growled the Ring Tailed Panther. "Never have any faith in a Mexican comin' under a white flag. What we've got to do now is to roar an' rip an' claw."

"Still," said Obed, "it's evil to him who evil does, and we've got to wait till these Mexicans do it. First we've got to hear what they say, and if the saying isn't to our liking, as I'm thinking it won't be, then it's ripping and roaring and clawing and all the other 'ings' to our taste as long as we can stand it."

"Go ahead," growled the Ring Tailed Panther, "I'm not much on talkin'. Fightin's more in my line an' when it's that I come with a hop, a skip an' a jump, teeth an' claws all ready."

"Ned," said Obed, "you speak the best Spanish, so go down there to the bank of the river, and hear what they have to say. Just remember that we're not giving up the cannon, and clothe the answers in what fine words you please. There isn't any rock here, but sooner this rock shall fly from its firm base than the Texans will yield their cannon when they are sure to be attacked by Indians and maybe Mexicans too."

Ned walked down to the edge of the river and the officer, whom he rightly supposed to be Castenada, dismounting, came to the shore at an opposite point.

"What do you want?" cried Ned in pure Spanish across the water.

"Are you empowered to speak for the people of Gonzales?"

"You hear me speaking and you see the other Texans listening."

"Then I have to say that on the order of General Cos I demand your cannon in the name of General Santa Anna and Mexico."

"We've made up our minds to keep it. We're sure to need it later on."

"This is insolent. If you do not give it we shall come and take it."

"Tell him, Ned," growled the Ring Tailed Panther, "that we just hope he'll come an' try to take it, that I'm here roarin' all the time, that I've filed my teeth an' nails 'till they're like the edge of a razor, an' that I'm just hungerin' to rip an' claw."

"The men of Gonzales mean to defend their cannon and themselves," called Ned across the river. "If you come to take the gun it means war. It means more, too. It means that you will lose many of your soldiers. The Texans, as you know, are both able and willing to shoot."

"This is rebellion and treason!" cried Castenada. "The great Santa Anna will come with a mighty force, and when he is through not a Texan will trouble the surface of the earth."

A roar of approval came from the men behind the Mexican captain, but Ned replied:

"Until the earth is rid of us we may make certain spots of it dangerous for you. So, I warn you to draw back. Our bullets carry easily across this river."

Captain Castenada, white with rage, retired with his troop beyond the range of the Texan rifles. _

Read next: Chapter 15. The First Gun

Read previous: Chapter 13. The Texans

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