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

Chapter 15. The First Gun

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"Well, Ned, it's sometimes ask and ye shall not receive, isn't it?" said Obed White, looking at the retreating Mexicans.

But the Ring Tailed Panther growled between his shut teeth. Then he opened his mouth and gave utterance to his dissatisfaction.

"It's a cheat, a low Mexican trick," he said, "to come here an' promise a fight an' then go away. I'm willin' to bet my claws that them Mexicans will hang around here two or three days, without tryin' to do a thing."

"An' won't that be all the better for us?" asked Ned. "We're only eighteen and we surely need time for more."

"That's so," admitted the Ring Tailed Panther, "but when you've got all your teeth and claws sharpened for a fight you want it right then an' not next week."

The Mexicans tethered their horses and began to form camp about a half mile from the river. They went about it deliberately, spreading tents for their officers and lighting fires for cooking. The Texans could see them plainly and the Mexicans showed the carelessness and love of pleasure natural to children of the sun. Some lay down on the grass and three or four began to strum mandolins and guitars.

There was a sterner manner on the Texan side of the Guadalupe. The watch at the fords was not relaxed, but Ned went back into the little town to carry the word to the women and children. Most of the women, like the men, were dressed in deerskin and they, too, volunteered to fight if they were needed. Ned told them what Castenada had asked, and he also told them the reply which was received with grim satisfaction. The women were even more bitter than the men against the Mexicans.

Ned passed a long day by the Guadalupe, keeping his place most of the time at the ford with the Ring Tailed Panther, who was far less patient than he.

"My teeth an' claws will shorely get dull with me a-settin' here an' doin' nothin'," said Palmer. "I can roar an' I can keep on roarin' but what's the good of roarin' when you can't do any bitin' an' tearin'?"

"Patience will have its perfect fight," said Obed, giving one of his misquotations. "I've always heard that every kind of panther would lie very quiet until the chance came for him to spring."

The Ring Tailed Panther growled between his shut teeth.

The sight of the Mexican force in the afternoon became absolutely tantalizing. Although it was early autumn the days were still very hot at times and Castenada's men were certainly taking their ease. Ned could see many of them enjoying the siesta, and through a pair of glasses he saw others lolling luxuriously and smoking cigarettes. It was especially irritating to the Ring Tailed Panther, who grew very red in the face but who now only emitted growls between his shut teeth.

It was evident that the Mexicans were going to make no demonstration just yet and the night came, rather dark and cloudy. Now the anxiety in Gonzales increased since the night can be cover for anything, and, besides guarding the fords, several of the defenders were placed at intermediate points.

Ned took a station with Obed in a clump of oaks that grew to the very edge of the Guadalupe. There they sat a long time and watched the surface of the river grow darker and darker. The Mexican camp had been shut from sight long since, and no sounds now came from it. Ned appreciated fully the need of a close watch. The Mexicans might swim the river on their horses in the darkness, and gallop down on the town. So he never ceased to watch, and he also listened with ears which were rapidly acquiring the delicacy and sensitiveness peculiar to those of expert frontiersmen.

Ned was not warlike in temper. He knew, from his reading, all the waste and terrible passions of war, but he was heart and soul with the Texans. He was one of them, and to him the coming struggle was a fight for home and liberty by an oppressed people. With the ardor of youth flaming in him he was willing for that struggle to begin at once.

Night on the Guadalupe! He felt that the darkness was full of omens and presages for Texas and for him, too, a boy among its defenders. His pulses quivered, and a light moisture broke out on his face. His prescience, the gift of foresight, was at work. It was telling him that the time, in very truth, had come. Yet he could not see or hear a single thing that bore the remotest resemblance to an enemy.

The boy stepped from a clump of trees in order that he might get a better look down the river. There was a crack on the farther shore, a flash of fire, and a bullet sang past his ear. He caught a hasty glimpse of a Mexican with a smoking rifle leaping to cover, and he, too, sprang back into the shelter of the trees.

It was the first shot of the great Texan struggle for independence!

Ned felt all of its significance even then, and so did Obed.

"You saw him?" asked the Maine man.

"I did, and I felt the breath of his bullet on my face, but he gained cover too quick for me to return his fire."

"The first shot was theirs and it was at you. It seems odd, Ned, that you should have been used as a target for the opening of the war."

"I'm proud of the honor."

"So would I be in your place."

Others came, drawn by the shot.

"Was it a Mexican?" asked the Ring Tailed Panther eagerly. "Tell me it was a Mexican and make me happy."

"You can be happy," said Obed. "It was a Mexican and he was shooting with what the law would define as an intent to kill. He sent a rifle bullet across the Guadalupe, aimed at our young friend, Edward Fulton. Ned did not see the bullet, but his sensitiveness to touch showed that it passed within an inch of his face."

Now the Ring Tailed Panther roared, but it was not between his shut teeth.

"By the great horn spoon, I'm glad!" he said, "All the waitin' an' backin' an' fillin' are over. We do our talkin' now with cannon an' rifles."

But not another shot was fired that night. It was merely some scout or skirmisher who had sent the fugitive bullet across the river, but it was enough. The Mexican intentions were now evident.

Ned went off duty toward morning and slept a few hours in one of the cabins. When he awoke he ate a hearty breakfast and went back to the river. About half of the eighteen had taken naps, but they were all gathered once more along the Guadalupe. Ned observed the Mexican camp and saw some movement there. Presently all the soldiers rode out, with Castenada at their head.

"They're comin' to our ford! By the great horn spoon, they are comin'!" roared the Ring Tailed Panther.

It seemed that he was right as the Mexicans were approaching at a gallop, making a gallant show, their lances glittering in the sun.

"Lay down, all!" said the Ring Tailed Panther. "The moment they strike the water turn loose with your rifles an' roar an' scratch an' claw!"

But when they were within one hundred yards of the Guadalupe the Mexicans suddenly sheered off. Evidently they did not like the looks of the Texan rifles which they could plainly see. The defenders of the fords uttered a derisive shout, and some of the Mexicans fired. But their bullets fell short, only a single one of them coming as far as the edge of the Guadalupe. The Texans did not reply. They would not waste ammunition in any such foolish fashion.

The Mexicans stopped, when four or five hundred yards away, and began to wave their lances and utter taunting shouts. The Texans only laughed, all except the Ring Tailed Panther, who growled.

"You see, Ned," said Obed, "that one charge does not make a passage. It appears to me that our friend Castenada does not want his uniform or himself spoiled by our good Texas lead. Now, I take it, we can rest easy awhile longer."

He lay down in the grass under the trees and Ned did likewise, but the Ring Tailed Panther would not be consoled. An opportunity had been lost, and he hurled strange and miscellaneous epithets at the distant Mexicans. Standing upon a little hillock he called them more bad names than Ned had ever before heard. He aspersed the character of their ancestors even to the eighth generation and of their possible descendants also to the eighth generation. He issued every kind of challenge to any kind of combat, and at last, red and panting, descended the hillock.

"Do you feel better?" asked Obed.

"I've whispered a few of my thoughts. Yes, I can re'lly say that the state of my health is improvin'."

"Then sit down and rest. It's never too late to try, try again. Remember that the day is long and the Mexicans may certainly have a chance."

The Ring Tailed Panther growled, but sat down.

In the afternoon the Mexicans again formed in line and trotted down toward the other ford, but as before they did not like the look of the Texan rifles and turned away, after shouting many challenges, brandishing lances and firing random shots. But the Texans contented themselves again with a grim silence, and the Mexicans rode back to their camp. The disgust of the Ring Tailed Panther was so deep that he could not utter a word. But Obed was glad.

"More men will come to-night," he said to Ned. "You know that requests for help were sent in all directions by the people of Gonzales, and if I know our Texans, and I think I do, they'll ride hard to be here. Castenada, in a way, is besieging us now, but--well, the tables may be turned and he'll turn with 'em."

Just at twilight a great shout arose from the women in the village. There was a snorting of horses, a jingling of spurs and embroidered bridle reins, and twenty lean, brown men, very tall and broad of shoulder, rode up. They were the vanguard of the Texan help, and they rejoiced when they found that the Mexican force was still on the west side of the Guadalupe.

Their welcome was not noisy but deep. The eighteen were now the thirty-eight, and to-morrow they would be a hundred or more. The twenty had ridden more than a hundred miles, but they were fresh and zealous for the combat. They went down to the river, and, in the darkness, looked at the Mexican camp fires, while the Ring Tailed Panther roared out his opinion.

"The Mexicans won't bring the fight to us," he said, "so we must carry it to them. They've galloped down here twice an' they've looked at the river an' they've looked at us, an' they've galloped back again. We can't let 'em set over there besiegin' us, we must cross an' besiege them an' get to roarin' an' rippin' an' clawin'."

"To-morrow," said Obed, "more of our friends will be here and when we all get together we will discuss it and make a decision."

"Of course we'll discuss it!" roared the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' then we'll come to a decision, an' there's only one decision that we can come to. We'll cross the river an' mighty quick we'll make them Mexicans wish they'd chose a camp a hundred miles from Gonzales."

The others laughed, but after all, the Ring Tailed Panther had stated their position truly. Every man agreed with him. The watch at the river that night was as vigilant as ever, and the next morning parties of Texans arrived from different points, swelling their numbers to more than one hundred and fifty men, fully equaling the company of Castenada, after allowing for reinforcements received by the Mexican captain.

With one of the Texan troops came a quiet man of confident bearing, dressed like the others in buckskin, but with more authority in his manner. The Ring Tailed Panther greeted him with great warmth, shaking his hand and saying:

"John! John! We're awful glad you've come 'cause there's to be a lot of roarin' an' tearin' an' clawin' to be done."

The man smiled and replied in his quiet tones:

"We know it and that's why we've come. Now, I suggest that while we leave ten men at each ford, we hold a meeting in the village. Everything we have is at stake and as one Texan is as good as another we ought to talk it over."

"Who is he?" asked Ned of Obed.

"That's John Moore. He's been a great Indian fighter and one of the defenders of the frontier. I think it likely that he'll be our leader in whatever we undertake. He's certainly the man for the place."

"Oyez! Oyez!" roared the Ring Tailed Panther with mouth wide open. "Come all ye upon the common, an' hear the case of Texas against Mexico which is now about to be debated. The gentlemen representin' the other side are on the west shore of the river about a mile from here, an' after decidin' upon our argyment an' the manner of it we'll communicate it to 'em later whether they like our decision or not."

They poured upon the common in a tumultuous throng, the women and children forming a continuous fringe about them.

"I move that John Moore be made the Chairman of this here meetin' an' the leader in whatever it decides to do, 'specially as we know already what it's goin' to decide," roared the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' wherever he leads we will follow."

Ned said nothing, but his pulses were leaping. Perhaps the silent boy appreciated more than any other present that this was the beginning of a great epic in the American story. The young student, his head filled with completed dramas of the past, could look further into the future than the veteran men of action around him.

The debate was short. In truth it was no debate at all, because all were of one mind. Since the Mexicans had already fired upon them and would not go away they would cross the river and attack Castenada. As Obed had predicted, Moore was unanimously chosen leader, the title of Colonel being bestowed upon him, and they set to work at once for the attack.

Ned and Obed walked together to the cluster of oaks in which the two had spent so much time. Both were grave, appreciating fully the fact that they were about to go into battle.

"Ned," said Obed, "you and I have been through a lot of dangers together and we're not afraid to talk about dangers to come. In case anything should happen to you is there any word you want sent anybody?"

"To nobody except Mr. Austin. He's been very good to me here and in Mexico. I suppose I've got some relatives in Missouri, but they are so distant I've forgotten who they are, and probably they never knew anything about me. If it's the other way about, Obed, what word shall I send?"

"Nothing to nobody. I had a stepfather in Maine, who didn't like me, and my mother died five years after her second marriage. I'm a Texan, Ned, same as if I were born on this soil, and my best friends are around me. I'll live and die with 'em."

The two, the man and the boy, shook hands, but made no further display of feeling. The force was organized in the village, beyond the sight of the Mexicans, who were lounging in the grass, although they had posted sentinels. Every Texan was well armed, carrying a rifle, pistol and knife. Some had in addition the Indian tomahawk.

It was the first day of October and the coolness of late afternoon had come. A fresh breeze was blowing from the southwest. The little command, silent save for the hoof beats of their horses, rode down to the river. The women and children looked after them and they, too, were silent. A strange Indian stoicism possessed them all.

Ned and Obed were side by side. The breeze cooled the forehead and cheeks of the boy, but his pulses beat hard and fast. He looked back at Gonzales and he knew that he would never forget that little village of little log cabins. Then he looked straight before him at the yellow river, and the shore beyond, where the Mexican camp lay.

It was now seven o'clock and the twilight was coming.

"Isn't it late to make an attack?" he said to Obed.

"It depends on what happens. Circumstances alter battles. If we surprise them there'll be time for a fine fight. If they discover our advance it may be better to wait until morning."

They rode into the water twenty abreast, and made for the farther shore. So many horses made much splashing, and Ned expected bullets, but none came. Dripping, they reached the farther shore and went straight toward the Mexican camp. Then came sudden shouts, the flash of rifles and the singing of bullets. The Mexican sentinels had discovered the Texan advance.

Moore ordered his men to halt, and then he held a short conference with the leaders. It was very late, and they would postpone the attack until morning. Hence, they tethered their horses in sight of the Mexican camp, set many sentinels and deliberately began to cook their suppers.

It was all very strange and unreal to Ned. Having started for a battle it was battle he wanted at once and the wait of a night rested heavily upon his nerves.

"Take it easy, Ned," said Obed, who observed him. "Willful haste makes woeful fight. Eat your supper and then you'd better lie down and sleep if you can. I'd rather go on watch toward morning if I were you, because if anything happens in the night it will happen late."

Ned considered it good advice and he lay down in his blankets, having been notified that he would be called at one o'clock in the morning to take his turn. Once more he exerted will to the utmost in the effort to control nerves and body. He told himself that he was now surrounded by friends, who would watch while he slept, and that he could not be surprised. Slumber came sooner than he had hoped, but at the appointed hour he was awakened and took his place among the sentinels.

Ned found the night cold and dark, but he shook off the chill by vigorous walking to and fro. He discovered, however, that he could not see any better by use, as the darkness was caused by mists rather than clouds. Vapors were rising from the prairie, and objects, seen through them, assumed thin and distorted shapes. He saw west of him and immediately facing him flickering lights which he knew were those of the Mexican camp. The heavy air seemed to act as a conductor of sound, and he heard faintly voices and the tread of horses' hoofs. They were on watch there, also.

He walked back and forth a long time, and the air continued to thicken. A heavy fog was rising from the prairie, and it became so dense that he could no longer see the fires in the Mexican camp. Everything there was shut out from the eye, but he yet heard the faint noises.

It seemed to him toward four o'clock in the morning that the noises were increasing, and curiosity took hold of him. But the sentinel on the left and the sentinel on the right were now hidden by the fog, and, since he could not confer with them at once, he resolved to see what this increase of noise meant.

He cocked his rifle and stole forward over the prairie. He could not see more than ten or fifteen yards ahead, but he went very near to the Mexican camp, and then lay down in the grass. Now he saw the cause of the swelling sounds. The Mexican force, gathering up its arms and horses, was retreating.

Ned stole back to the camp with his news.

"You have done well, Ned, lad," said Moore. "I think it likely, however, that they are merely withdrawing to a stronger position, but they can't escape us. We'll follow 'em, and since they wanted that cannon so badly we'll give 'em a taste of it."

The cannon, a six-pounder, had been brought over on the ferryboat in the night and was now in the Texan camp.

"Ned," said Moore, "do you, Obed and the Panther ride after those fellows and see what they do. Then come back and report."

It was a dangerous duty, but the three responded gladly. They advanced cautiously through the fog and the Ring Tailed Panther roared softly.

"Runnin' away?" he said. "I'd be ashamed to come for a cannon an' then to slink off with tail droopin' like a cowardly coyote. By the great horn spoon, I hope they are merely seekin' a better position an' will give us a fight. It would be a mean Mexican trick to run clean away."

"The Mexicans are not cowards," said Ned.

"Depends on how the notion strikes 'em," said the Panther. "Sometimes they fight like all creation an' sometimes they hit it for the high grass an' the tall timber. There's never any tellin' what they'll do."

"Hark!" said Obed, "don't you hear their tramp there to our left?"

The three stopped and listened, and they detected sounds which they knew were made by the retreating force. But they could see nothing through the heavy white fog which covered everything like a blanket of snow.

"Suppose we ride parallel with them," whispered Ned. "We can go by the sounds and by the same means we can tell exactly what they do."

"A good idea," said Obed. "We are going over prairie which affords easy riding. We've got nothing to fear unless some lamb strays from the Mexican flock, and blunders upon us. Even then he's more likely to be shorn than to shear."

They advanced for some time, guided by the hoofbeats from the Mexican column. But before the sun could rise and dispel the fog the sound of the hoofbeats ceased.

"They've stopped," whispered the Ring Tailed Panther, joyously. "After all they're not goin' to run away an' they will give us a fight. They are expectin' reinforcements of course, or they wouldn't make a stand."

"But we must see what kind of a position they have taken up," said Obed. "Seeing is telling and you know that when we get back to Colonel Moore we've got to tell everything, or we might as well have stayed behind."

"You're the real article, all wool an' a yard wide, Obed White," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "Now I think we'd better hitch our horses here to these bushes an' creep as close as we can without gettin' our heads knocked off. They might hear the horses when they wouldn't hear us."

"Good idea," said Obed White. "Nothing risk, nothing see."

They tethered the horses to the low bushes, marking well the place, as the heavy, white fog was exceedingly deceptive, distorting and exaggerating when it did not hide. Then the three went forward, side by side. Ned looked back when he had gone a half dozen yards, and already the horses were looming pale and gigantic in the fog. Three or four steps more and they were gone entirely.

But they heard the sounds again in front of them, although they were now of a different character. They were confined in one place, which showed that the Mexicans had not resumed their march, and the tread of horses' hoofs was replaced by a metallic rattle. It occurred to Ned that the Mexicans might be intrenching and he wondered what place of strength they had found.

The boy had the keenest eyes of the three and presently he saw a dark, lofty shape, showing faintly through the fog. It looked to him like an iceberg clothed in mist, and he called the attention of his comrades to it. They went a little nearer, and the Ring Tailed Panther laughed low between his shut teeth.

"We'll have our fight," he said, "an' these Mexicans won't go back to Cos as fine as they were when they started. The tall an' broad thing that you see is a big mound on the prairie an' they're goin' to make a stand on it. It ain't a bad place. A hundred Texans up there could beat off a thousand Mexicans."

They went a little nearer and saw that a fringe of bushes surrounded the base of the mound. Further up the Mexicans were digging in the soft earth with their lances as best they could and throwing up a breastwork. The horses had been tethered in the bushes. Evidently they felt sure that they would be attacked by the Texans. They knew the nature of these riders of the plains.

"I think we've seen enough," said Obed. "We'll go back now to Colonel Moore and the men."

They found their horses undisturbed and were about to gallop back to the main body with the news that the Mexicans were on the mound, when some Mexican sentinels saw them and uttered a shout. The three exchanged shots with them but knowing that a strong force would be upon them in an instant returned to their original intention and went at full speed toward the camp. It was lucky that the fog still held, as the pursuing bullets went wide, but Ned heard more than one sing. The Mexicans showed courage and followed the three until they reached the Texan camp. As Ned and his comrades dismounted they shouted that the Mexicans were on a hill not far away and were fortifying.

Moore promptly had his men run forward that bone of contention, the cannon, and a solid shot was sent humming toward those who had pursued the three. The heavy report came back in sullen echoes from the prairie, and the stream of fire split the fog asunder. But in a moment the mists and vapors closed in again, and the Mexicans were gone. Then the little army stood for a few moments, motionless, but breathing heavily. The cannon shot had made the hearts of everyone leap. They were inured to Indian battle and every kind of danger, but this was a great war.

"Boys," said Moore, "we are here and the enemy is before us."

A deep shout from broad chests and powerful lungs came forth. Then by a single impulse the little army rushed forward, led by Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther, who took them straight toward the mound. As they ran, the great Texan sun proved triumphant. It seemed to cleave the fog like a sword blade, and then the mists and vapors rolled away on either side, to right and to left of the Texans. The whole plain, dewy and fresh, sprang up in the light of the morning.

They saw the steep mound crowned by the Mexicans, and men still at work on the hasty trench. Again that full-throated cheer came from the Texans and they quickened their pace, but Captain Castenada came down from the mound and a soldier came with him bearing a white flag.

"Now, what in thunder can he want?" growled the Ring Tailed Panther to Ned and Obed. "Shorely he ain't goin' to surrender. He's jest goin' to waste our time in talk."

Deep disgust showed on his face.

"By waiting we will see," quoth Obed oracularly. "Now, Panther, don't you be too impatient. Remember that the tortoise beat the hare in the great Greek horse race."

Moore waved his hand and the Texans halted. Castenada on foot came on. Moore also dismounted, and, calling to Ned and Obed to accompany him, went forward to meet him. Ned and Obed, delighted, sprang from their horses, and walked by his side. The Ring Tailed Panther growled between his teeth that he was glad to stay, that he would have no truck with Mexicans.

Castenada, with the soldier beside him, came forward. He was rather a handsome young man of the dark type. As the two little parties met midway between the lines, the forces on the hill and on the plain were alike silent. Every trace of the fog was now gone, and the sun shone with full splendor upon brown faces, upon rifles and lances.

Castenada saluted in Mexican fashion.

"What do you want?" he asked in Spanish, which all understood.

"Your surrender," replied Moore coolly, "either that or the sworn adherence of you and your men to Texas."

Castenada uttered an angry exclamation.

"This is presumption carried to the last degree," he said. "My own honor and the honor of Mexico will not allow me to do either."

"It is that or fight."

"I bid you beware. General Cos is coming with a force that all Texas cannot resist, and after him comes our great Santa Anna with another yet greater. If the Texans make war they will be destroyed. The buffalo will feed where their houses now stand."

"You have already made war. Accept our terms or fight. We deal with you now. We deal with Cos and Santa Anna later on."

"There is nothing more to be said," replied Castenada with haughtiness. "We are here in a strong position and you cannot take us."

He withdrew and Moore turned back with Ned and Obed.

"I don't think he ever meant this parley for anything except to gain time," said Moore. "He's expecting a fresh Mexican force, but we'll see that it comes too late."

Then raising his voice, he shouted to his command:

"Boys, they've chosen to fight, and they are there on the hill. A man cannot rush that hill with his horse, but he can rush it with his two legs."

The face of the Ring Tailed Panther became a perfect full moon of delight. Then he paled a little.

"Do you think there can yet be any new trick to hold us back?" he asked Obed anxiously.

"No," replied Obed cheerfully. "Time and tide wait for no Mexicans, and the tide's at the flood. We charge within a minute."

Even as he spoke, Moore shouted:

"Now, boys, rush 'em!"

For the third time the Texans uttered that deep, rolling cheer. The cannon sent a volley of grape shot into the cluster on the mound and then the Texans rushed forward at full speed, straight at the enemy.

The Mexicans opened a rapid fire with rifles and muskets and the whole mound was soon clothed in smoke. But the rush of the Texans was so great that in an instant they were at the first slope. They stopped to send in a volley and then began the rush up the hill, but there was no enemy.

The Mexicans gave way in a panic at the very first onset, ran down the slope to their horses, leaped upon them and galloped away over the prairie. Many threw away their rifles and lances, and, bending low on the necks of their horses, urged them to greater speed.

Ned had been in the very front of the rush, Obed on one side and the Ring Tailed Panther on the other. His heart was beating hard and there was a fiery mist before his eyes. He heard the bullets whiz past, but once more Providence was good to him. None touched him, and when the first tremors were over he was as eager as any of them to reach the crest of the mound, and come to grips with the enemy. Suddenly he heard a tremendous roar of disgust. The Ring Tailed Panther was the author of it.

"Escaped after all!" he cried. "They wouldn't stay an' fight, when they promised they would!"

"At least, the Mexicans ride well," said Obed.

Ned gazed from the crest of the mound at the flying men, rapidly becoming smaller and smaller as they sped over the prairie. _

Read next: Chapter 16. The Coming Of Urrea

Read previous: Chapter 14. The Ring Tailed Panther

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