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

Chapter 17. The Old Convent

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The Texans gathered up the arms of the fallen Mexicans, except the lances for which they had no use, finding several good rifles and a number of pistols of improved make which were likely to prove of great value, and then they rode on as briskly as if nothing had happened.

The next day they drew near to San Antonio and entered the beautiful valley made by the San Antonio River and the creek to which the Mexicans gave the name San Pedro. Ned found it all very luxuriant and very refreshing to eyes tired of the prairies and the plains. Despite the fact that it was the middle of October the green yet endured in that southern latitude. Splendid forests still in foliage bounded both creek and river. They rode through noble groves of oak and tall pecans. They saw many fine springs spouting from the earth, and emptying into river and creek.

It was a noble land, but, although it had been settled long by Spaniard and Mexican, the wilderness still endured in many of its aspects. Now and then a deer sprang up from the thickets, and the wild turkeys still roosted in the trees. Churches and other buildings, many of massive stone adorned with carved and costly marbles, extended ten or twelve miles down the river, but most of them were abandoned and in decay. The Comanche and his savage brother, the Apache, had raided to the very gates of San Antonio. The deep irrigation ditches, dug by the Spanish priests and their Indian converts, were abandoned, and mud and refuse were fast filling them up. Already an old civilization, sunk in decay, was ready to give place to another, rude and raw, but full of youth and vigor.

It was likely that Ned alone felt these truths, as they reached the lowest outskirts of the missions, and stopped at an abandoned stone convent, built at the very edge of the San Antonio, where the waters of the river, green and clear, flowed between banks clothed in a deep and luxuriant foliage. Half of the troop entered the convent, while the others watched on the horses outside. It impressed Ned with a sense of desolation fully equal to that of the ancient pyramid or the lost city. Everything of value that the nuns had not taken away had been stripped from the place by Comanche, Apache or Lipan.

It was nearly night when they arrived at the convent. The Texan camp still lay some miles away, their horses were very tired, and Bowie decided to remain in the ruined building until morning. The main portion of the structure was of stone, two stories high, but there were some extensions of wood, from one of which the floor had been taken away by plunderers. It was Ned who discovered this floorless room and he suggested that they lead the horses into it, especially as the night was turning quite cold, and there were signs of rain.

"A good thought," said Bowie. "We'll do it."

The horses made some trouble at the door, but when they were finally driven in, and unsaddled and unbridled they seemed content. Two windows, from which the glass was long since gone, admitted an abundance of air, and Ned and several others, taking their big bowie knives, went out to cut grass for them.

On foot, Ned was impressed more than ever by the desolation and loneliness of the place. The grounds had been surrounded by an adobe wall, now broken through in many places. On one side had been a little flower garden, and on the other a larger kitchen garden. One or two late roses bloomed in the flower garden, but most of it had been destroyed by weather.

Ned and the others cut armfuls of grass in a little meadow, just beyond the adobe wall, and they hastened the work. They did not like the looks of the night. The skies were darkening very fast, and they saw occasional flashes of lightning in the far southwest. Ned looked back at the convent. It was now an almost formless bulk against the somber sky, its most prominent feature being the cupola in which a bronze bell still hung.

The wind rose and cold drops of rain struck him. He shivered. It promised to be one of those raw, cold nights frequent in the southwest, and he knew that the rain would be chill and penetrating. He was glad that they had found the convent.

They gave the grass to the horses, and then they went into the main portion of the convent, where Bowie and the rest were already at work. Here the ruin was not so great, as the Spaniards had built in a solid manner, according to their custom. They found a large room, with an open fireplace, in which Ned would have been glad to see wood blazing, but Bowie did not consider it worth while to gather materials for a fire. Adjoining this room was a chapel, in which a pulpit, a desecrated image of the Virgin, and some frames without the pictures, yet remained. Anger filled Ned's heart that anyone should plunder and spoil such a place, and he turned sorrowfully away.

Back of the large rooms were workrooms, kitchen and laundry, all stripped of nearly everything. The narrow stairway that led to the upper floor was in good condition, and, when Ned mounted it, he saw rows of narrow little cell-like rooms in which the nuns had slept. All were bleak and bare, but, from a broken window at the end of the corridor, he looked out upon the San Antonio and the forests of oak and pecan. He could barely see the river, the night had grown so dark. The cold rain increased and was lashed against the building by a moaning wind. Once more Ned shivered, and once more he was glad that they had found the old convent. He was glad to return to the main room, where Bowie and the others were gathered.

The room had been lighted by two windows, facing the San Antonio and two on the side. They had been closed originally by shutters, which were now gone, but as the windows were narrow the driving rain did not enter far. One or two of the men, sharing Ned's earlier feeling, spoke up in favor of a fire. They wanted the cheerfulness that light and warmth give. But Bowie refused again.

"Not necessary," he said. "We are here in the enemy's country, and we do not want to give him warning of our presence. We met the lancers to-day, and we have no desire to meet them again to-night."

"Right," the Ring Tailed Panther roared gently to Ned. "When you're makin' war you must fight first an' take your pleasure afterward."

It was warm enough in the room and the open windows gave them all the air they needed. Every man, except those detailed for the guard, spread his blankets and went to sleep. Ned was on the early watch. He, too, would have liked sleep. He could have felt wonderfully fine rolled in the blankets with the cold rain pattering on the walls outside. But he was chosen for the first watch, and his time would come later.

Ned was posted at a broken door that led to the extension in which the horses were sheltered. The remaining sentinels, three in number, including the Ring Tailed Panther, were stationed in different parts of the building. The boy from his position in the broken doorway could see into the room where his comrades slept, and, when he looked in the other direction, he could also see the horses, some of which were now lying down.

It was all very still in the old convent. So deep was this silence that Ned began to fancy that he heard the breathing of his sleeping comrades. It was only fancy. The horses had ceased to stir. Perhaps they were as glad as the men that they had found shelter. But outside Ned heard distinctly the moaning of the wind, and the lashing of the cold rain against roof and walls.

On the right where the extension had been connected with the main building of stone there was a great opening, and through this Ned looked down toward the adobe wall and the San Antonio. He saw dimly across the river a dark waving mass which he knew to be the pecan trees, bending in the wind, but on his own side of the stream he could distinguish nothing. But he watched there unceasingly, save for occasional glances at the horses or his sleeping comrades.

He could now see objects very well within the room. He was able to count his comrades sleeping on the floor. He saw two empty picture frames on the wall, and, near by, a rope, which he surmised led to the bell in the cupola, and which some chance had allowed to remain there. Now and then Ned and one of his comrades of the watch met and exchanged a few words, but they always spoke in whispers, lest they awaken the sleeping men. After these brief meetings Ned would return to his watch at the opening.

The character of the night did not change as time trailed its slow length away. One solid black cloud covered the sky from horizon to horizon. The wind out of the southwest never ceased to moan, and the cold rain blew steadily upon the walls and roof of the ruined convent. It was not a night when either Texans or Mexicans would wish to be abroad, and, as the chill grew sharper and more penetrating, Ned wrapped one of his blankets about his shoulders.

As the night advanced, Ned's sense of oppression deepened. He felt once more as he had felt at the pyramid, that he was among old dead things. Ghosts could walk here as truly as they could walk on the banks of the Teotihuacan. Sometimes as the great cloud lightened the least bit he caught glimpses of the grass and weeds that grew between him and the broken adobe wall which was about fifteen yards away.

Only an hour more, and the second watch would come on. Ned began to think of his place on the floor, and of the deep and dreamless sleep that he knew would be his. Then he was attracted by a glimpse of the adobe wall. It seemed to him that he had seen a projection, where there was none before. He looked a second time, and he did not see it. Fancy played strange tricks at midnight in the enemy's country, and in the desolate silence.

Ned shook himself. Although a vivid imagination might be excusable at such a time even in a man, a veteran of many campaigns, he was essentially an uncompromising realist, and he wished to see facts exactly as they were. The work upon which he was engaged allowed no time for the breeding of fancy.

He looked again and there were two projections where he had seen only one before. They resembled knobs on the adobe wall, rising perhaps half a foot above it, and the sight troubled Ned. Was fancy to prove too strong, when he had drilled himself so long to see the real? Was he to be played with by the imagination, as if he had no will of his own?

He thought once of speaking to the sentinels at the other doors, but he could not compel himself to do it. They would laugh at him, and it is a bitter thing to be laughed at. So he kept his watch, and while he looked the projections appeared, disappeared and appeared once more.

He could stand it no longer. Putting his rifle under his blanket in order to keep the weapon dry he stepped out of doors, but flattened himself against the wall of the convent. The rain and wind whipped him unmercifully, and the cold ran through him, but he was resolved to see what was happening by the adobe wall. The projections were there and they had increased to four. They did not go away.

Ned was now convinced that it was not fancy. His mind had obeyed his will, and he was the true realist, no victim of the imagination. He was about to kneel down in the grass, and crawl toward the wall, when something caused him to change his mind. One of the projections suddenly extended a full yard above the wall, and resolved itself into the shape of a man. But what a man! The body from the waist up was naked, and above it rose a head crested with long hair, black and coarse. Other heads and bodies also savage and naked rose up beside it on the wall. Ned knew in an instant and springing back within the convent he cried:

"Comanches! Comanches! Up men, up!"

At the same moment, acting on impulse, he seized the rope that hung by the wall and pulled it hard, fast and often. Above in the cupola the great bronze bell boomed forth a tremendous solemn note that rose far over the moaning of the wind. From the adobe wall came a fierce yell, a sinister cry that swelled until it became a high and piercing volume of sound, and then died away in a menacing note like the howl of wolves. But Ned, impulse still his master, never ceased to pull the bell.

All the Texans were on their feet at once, wide awake, rifles in their hands.

"Lie down, men, by the doors!" cried Bowie, "and shoot anything that tries to come in. Ned, let go the rope, you are in range there, and lie down with us! But you have done well, boy! You have done well! You have saved us all from being scalped, and perhaps the booming of the big bell will bring us help that we may need badly!"

Ned threw himself on the floor just in time to avoid a bullet that sang in at the open doorway. But no other shot was fired then. The Comanches in silence sank back into the darkness and the rain. The defenders lay on the floor, guarding the doorways with open rifles. They could not see much, but they could hear well, and since Ned had given the warning in time every one of the little party felt that they held a fortress.

Ned's pulses were still leaping, but great pride was in his heart. It was he, not one of the veterans, who had saved them, and Bowie had instantly spoken words of high approval. He was now lying flat on the floor, but he looked out once more at the same opening. There were certainly no projections on the wall now, but he could not tell whether the Comanches were inside it or outside. If they crept to the sides of the convent's stone walls the riflemen could not reach them there. He wondered how many they were and how they had happened to raid so near to San Antonio at this time.

Then ensued a long and trying period of silence. Less experienced men than the Texans might have thought that the Comanches had gone away after the failure of their attempt at surprise, but these veterans knew better. Bowie and all of them were trying to divine their point of attack and how to meet it. For the present, they could do nothing but watch the doorways, and guard themselves against a sudden rush of their dangerous foe.

"Panther," said Obed White, "it seems to me that you're getting all the ripping and tearing and chawing that you want on this trip."

"It ain't what you might call monotonous," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "I agree to that much."

It had been fully an hour now since Ned had rung the great bell, and they had heard no noises save the usual ones of that night, the wind and the rain. He surmised at last that the Comanches had taken advantage of the war between the Texans and Mexicans to make a raid on the San Antonio Valley, expecting to gallop in, do their terrible work, and then be away. Doubtless it had not occurred to them that they would meet such a group as that led by Bowie and the Ring Tailed Panther.

"Ned," said Bowie, "creep across the floor there to that rope and ring the bell again. Ring it a long time. Either it will hurry the Comanches into action, or friends of ours will hear it. It's likely that all the Mexicans have now withdrawn into San Antonio, and that only Texans, besides this band of Comanches, are abroad in the valley."

Ned wormed himself across the floor, and then, pressing himself against the wall, reached up for the rope. A strange thought darted into his brain. He had a deep feeling for music, and he could play both the violin and piano. He could also ring chimes. He was keyed to the utmost, every pulse and vein surcharged with the emotion that comes from a desperate situation and a great impulse to save it.

The great bell suddenly began to peal forth the air of The Star Spangled Banner. Some of the notes may have gone wrong, there may have been errors of time and emphasis, but the old tune, then young, was there. Every man lying on the floor, every one of whom was born in the States, knew it, and every heart leaped. Elsewhere it might have been a commonplace thing to do, but there in the night and the storm, surrounded by enemies, on a vast and lonely frontier it was an inspiration. Every Texan in the valley who heard it would know that it was the call of a friend asking for help, and he would come.

Not a Texan moved, but they breathed heavily. Overhead the great bell boomed solemnly on, and Ned, his hand on the rope, put all his heart and strength into the task. A rifle cracked and a bullet entered the doorway, but it passed over the heads of the Texans, and flattened against the stone wall beyond. A rifle inside cracked in response, and a Comanche in the grass and weeds uttered a death yell.

"I was watchin' for just such a chance," said the Ring Tailed Panther in satisfied tones. "I saw him when he rose to fire. Just as you thought, Mr. Bowie, the bell is makin' their nerves raw, an' they feel that they must do somethin' right away."

"What a queer note that was in Ned's tune!" suddenly exclaimed Obed.

Bowie laughed.

"An angry Comanche shot at the bell and hit it. That's what happened," he said. "They can waste as many bullets as they please that way."

But the Comanches wasted no more just then. A noise came from the horses. The shots evidently had alarmed them, and they were beginning to stamp and rear. Four men, at the order of Bowie, slipped into the improvised stable and sought to quiet them. They also remained there to keep a guard at the broken windows. Ned, unconscious how much time had passed, was still ringing the bell.

"You can rest now, Ned," said Bowie. "That was a good idea of yours and you can repeat it later on. I'm thinking that the Comanches will soon act, if they are going to act at all."

But nothing occurred for nearly an hour, when the horses began to rear and stamp again. Two or three of them also uttered shrill neighs. Bowie, with Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther joined the four already in the improvised stable. The horses would not be quieted. It was quite evident that instinct was warning them of something that human beings could not yet detect.

Ned wondered. He put his hand on the neck of his own horse which knew him well, yet the beast trembled all over, and uttered a sudden shrill neigh. It was quite dark in the place, only a little light coming through the broken windows, yet Ned was quite sure that no Comanches had managed to get inside, and lie in hiding there.

A few moments later the Ring Tailed Panther uttered a fierce cry.

"I smell smoke!" he cried. "That's why the horses are so scared. The demons have managed to set fire to this place which is wood. That's why they've been so quiet!"

Ned, too, now smelt the strong odor of smoke, and a spurt of fire appeared at a crack between two of the planks at the far end of the place. The struggles of the horses increased. They were wild with fright.

Ned instantly recognized the danger. The burning wooden building would fill the stone convent itself with flame and smoke, and make it untenable. The sparks already had become many, and the odor of smoke was increasing. Their situation, suddenly become desperate, was growing more so every instant. But they were Texans, inured to every kind of danger. Bowie shouted for more men to come from the convent, leaving only five or six on guard there.

Then the Texans began to bring method and procedure out of the turmoil. Some held the horses, others, led by Bowie, kicked loose the light planks where the fire had been started, and hurled them outward. They were nearly choked by the smoke but they worked on.

The Comanches, many of whom were hugging the wall, shouted their war cry, and began to fire into the opening that Bowie and his men had made. They could not take much aim, because of the smoke, but their bullets wounded two Texans. Despite the danger Bowie and most of his men were still compelled to work at the fire. The room was full of smoke, and behind them the horses were yet struggling with those who held them.

The Ring Tailed Panther lay down and resting himself on one elbow took aim with his rifle. He was almost clear of the smoke which hung in a bank above him. Ned noticed him and imitated him. He saw a dusky figure outside and when he fired it fell. The Ring Tailed Panther did as well, and Obed joined them. While Bowie and the others were dashing out the fire, three great marksmen were driving back the Comanches who sought to take advantage of the diversion.

"Good! good!" cried Bowie, as they knocked out the last burning plank.

"That ends the fire," said Obed, "and now we've got a hole here which is not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a barn door, but I do not think it will suffice for our friends, the Comanches."

All the men turned their attention to the enemy, and, lying on the ground, they took as good aim as the darkness would permit. The Texan rifles cracked fast and, despite the darkness, the bullets often found the chosen targets. The Comanches had been shouting the war whoop continuously, but now their cries began to die, and their fire died with it. Never a very good marksman, the Indian was no match for the Texans, every one of whom was a sharpshooter, armed with a fine rifle of long range.

The Texans also fired from the shelter of the building, and, as the great cloud was now parting, letting through shafts from the moon, the Comanches were unable to find good hiding in the weeds and grass. The bullets pursued them there. No matter how low they lay the keen eye of some Texan searched them out, and sent in the fatal or wounding bullet. Soon they were driven to the shelter of the adobe wall, where they lay, and for a little while returned a scattering fire which did no harm. After it ceased no Comanche uttered a war whoop and there was silence again, save for the rain which now trickled down softly.

Bowie distributed sentinels at the openings, including the new one made by the fire, and then the Texans took count of themselves. They had not escaped unscathed. One lying on the floor had received a bullet in his head and had died in silence, unnoticed in the battle. Two men had suffered wounds, but they were not severe, and would not keep them from taking part in a renewal of the combat, should it come.

All this reckoning was made in the dusk of the old convent, and with the weariness of both body and soul that comes after a period of great and prolonged exertion. Within the two rooms that they had defended, the odor of burned gunpowder was strong, stinging throat and nostrils. Eddies of smoke hung between floor and ceiling. Many of the men coughed, and it was long before they could reduce the horses to entire quiet.

They wrapped the dead man in his blankets and laid him in the corner. They bound up the hurts of the others, as best they could and then, save for the watching, they relaxed completely. Ned, his back against the wall, sat with his friends Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther. He was utterly exhausted, and even in the dusk the men noticed it.

"Here, Ned," said Obed, "take a chew of this. You may not feel that you need it, but it will be a good thing for you."

He extended a strip of dried venison. Ned thanked him and ate, although he had not felt hungry. By and by he grew stronger, and then Bowie called to him.

"Ned," he said, "crawl across the floor again. Be sure you do not raise your head until you reach the wall. Then ring the bell, until I tell you to stop. I've a notion that somebody will come by morning. Boys, the rest of you be ready with your rifles. It was the bell before that brought on the attack."

Ned slid across the floor, and once more pulled the rope with the old fervor, sending the notes of the tune that he could play best far out over the valley of the San Antonio. But no reply came from the Comanches. They did not dare to rush the place again in the face of those deadly Texan rifles. They made no sound while the bell played on, but the Texans knew that they still lay behind the adobe wall, ready for a shot at any incautious head.

Ned rang for a full half hour, before Bowie told him to quit. Then he crept back to his place. He put his head on his folded blanket and, although not intending it, fell asleep, despite the close air of the place. But he awoke before it was dawn, and hastily sat up, ashamed. When he saw in the dark that half the men were asleep he was ashamed no longer. Bowie, who was standing by one of the doors, but sheltered from a shot, smiled at him.

"The sun will rise in a half hour, Ned," he said, "and you've waked up in time to hear the answer to your ringing of the bell. Listen!"

Ned strained his ears, and he heard a faint far sound, musical like his own call. It seemed to him to be the note of a trumpet.

"Horsemen are coming," said Bowie, "and unless I am far wrong they are Texans. Ring again, Ned."

The bell boomed forth once more, and for the last time. Clear and sharp, came the peal of the trumpet in answer. One by one the men awoke. The light was now appearing in the East, the gray trembling into silver. From the valley came the rapid beat of hoofs, a rifle shot and then three or four more. Bowie ran out at the door, and Ned followed him. Across the meadows the Comanches scurried on their ponies, and a group of white men sent a volley after them. Then the white men galloped toward the convent. Bowie walked forward to meet them.

"You were never more welcome, Fannin," he said to the leader of the group.

The man sprang from his horse, and grasped Bowie's hand.

"We rode as fast as we could, but I didn't know it was you, Jim," he said. "Some of our scouts heard a bell somewhere playing The Star Spangled Banner in the night. We thought they were dreaming, but they swore to it. So we concluded it must be a call for help and I came with the troop that you see here. We lost the direction once or twice, but the bell called us back."

"For that," said Bowie, "you have to thank this boy here, a boy in years only, a man in action, and two men in mind and courage. This is Ned Fulton, Colonel Fannin."

Ned blushed and expostulated, but Bowie took nothing back. Fannin looked about him curiously.

"You seem to have had something of a fight here," he said. "Down in the grass and weeds we saw several Comanches who will trouble no more."

"We had all we wanted," said Bowie, "and we shall be glad to ride at once with you to camp. I bring some good men for the cause, and there are more behind."

They buried the fallen man in the old flower garden, and then rode swiftly for the Texan camp on the Salado. _

Read next: Chapter 18. In San Antonio

Read previous: Chapter 16. The Coming Of Urrea

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