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

Chapter 18. In San Antonio

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It was a crisp October morning, and as he galloped through the fresh air, all of Ned's spirits came back to him. He would soon be with the full array of the Texans, marching forward boldly to meet Cos himself and all his forces. The great strain of the fight the night before passed away as he inhaled the sparkling air. The red came back to his cheeks, and he felt that he was ready to go wherever the boldest of the Texans led. The Ring Tailed Panther shared his emotions.

"Fine, isn't it?" said he. "Great valley, too, but it oughtn't to belong to the Mexicans. It's been going down under them for a long time. They haven't been able to protect it from Comanches, Apaches and Lipans. The old convent that we held last night had been abandoned for fear of the Indians, an' lots of other work that the Spaniards an' Mexicans did has gone the same way."

The beauty of the country increased, as they rode. Fine springs of cold water gushed from the hills and flowed down into the clear green stream of the San Antonio. The groves of oaks and pecans were superb, but they passed more desolate and abandoned buildings and crossed more irrigation ditches choked up with refuse.

Bowie called Ned up to his side, and had him to relate again all that he had seen and heard in Mexico.

"Mr. Austin is at the camp," said Fannin, "and he has been asking about you."

Ned's heart thrilled. There was a strong bond between him and the gentle, kindly man who strove so hard to serve both Texas and Mexico, and whom Santa Anna had long kept a prisoner for his pains.

"When will we reach the camp?" he asked Bowie.

"In less than a half hour. See, the scouts have already sighted us."

The scouts came up in a few moments, and then they drew near the camp. Ned, eager of eye, observed everything.

The heart of the camp was in the center of a pecan grove, where a few tents for the leading men stood, but the Texans were spread all about in both groves and meadows, where they slept under the open sky. They wore no uniforms. All were in hunting suits of dressed deerskin or homespun, but they were well armed with the long rifles which they knew how to use with such wonderful skill. They had no military tactics, but they invariably pressed in where the foe was thickest and the danger greatest. They were gathered now in hundreds from all the Texas settlements to defend the homes that they had built in the wilderness, and Cos with his Mexican army did not dare to come out of San Antonio.

The Texans welcomed Bowie and his men with loud acclaim. Ned and his comrades unsaddled, tethered their horses and lay down luxuriously in the grass. Mr. Austin was busy in his tent at a conference of the leaders and Ned would wait until the afternoon to see him. Obed suggested that they take a nap.

"In war eat when you can and sleep when you can," he said. "Sleep lost once is lost forever."

"Obed has got some sense if he don't look like it," chuckled the Ring Tailed Panther. "Here's to followin' his advice."

Ned took it, too, and slept until the afternoon, when a messenger asked him to come to Mr. Austin's tent, a large one, with the sides now open. Obed was invited to come with him, and, as Ned stood in the door of the tent the mild, grave man advanced eagerly, a glow of pleasure and affection on his face.

"My boy! my boy!" he said, putting both hands on Ned's shoulders. "I was sure that I should never see you again, after you made your wonderful escape from our prison in Mexico. But you are here in Texas none the worse, and they tell me you have passed through a very Odyssey of hardship and danger."

Water stood in Ned's eyes. He rejoiced in the affection and esteem of this man, and yet Mr. Austin was very unlike the rest of the Texans. They were rough riders; men of the plains always ready to fight, but he, cultivated and scholarly, was for peace and soft words. He had used his methods, and they had failed, inuring only to the advantage of Santa Anna and Mexico. He had failed most honorably, but he looked very much worn and depressed. He was now heart and soul for the war, knowing that there was no other resort, but for battle he did not feel himself fitted.

Ned introduced Obed as the companion of most of his wanderings, and Obed received a warm greeting. Then other men in the great tent came forward, and Ned, surprised, saw that one of them was Urrea, dressed neatly, handsome and smiling. But the boy was glad to see him.

"Ah, Senor Ned," he said, "you did not expect that I would get here before you. I came by another way, and I have brought information for our leader."

Ned met the other men in the tent, all destined to become famous in the great war, and then he gave in detail once more all that he knew of the Mexicans and their plans. Mr. Austin sat on a little camp stool, as he listened, and Ned noticed how pale and weak he looked. The boy's heart sank, and then flamed up again as he thought of Santa Anna. It was he who had done this. Away from Santa Anna and free from his magnetism he had a heart full of hatred for him. Yet it depressed him to see Mr. Austin who, good man, was obviously unfit for the leadership of an army, about to enter upon a desperate war against great odds.

When Ned was excused, and left the tent he found that Smith, Karnes and the rest of their force had come up. The camp which was more like that of hunters than of an army, was in joyous mood. Several buffaloes had been killed on the plains and the men had brought them in, quartered. Now they were cooking the meat over great fires, scattered about the groves. The younger spirits were in boisterous mood. Several groups were singing, and others were dancing the breakdowns of the border.

Ned and Obed were joined by the Ring Tailed Panther and then by Urrea. Ned felt the high spirits of the young Texans, but he did not join in the singing and dancing. He learned from Urrea that Houston would arrive in a day or two with more volunteers from Eastern Texas, and the young Mexican also told him something about San Antonio.

"Cos has a large force of regular troops," he said, "but he is alarmed. He did not think that the Texans were in such earnest, and that they would dare so much. Now, he is barricading the streets and building breastworks."

The Texans were so resolute and confident that the next day they sent a demand to Cos for his surrender. He would not receive it, and threatened that if another white flag appeared he would fire upon it. A day or two later, Houston and the Eastern Texans arrived, and Ned, Obed, the Ring Tailed Panther and Urrea planned a daring adventure for the following night. They had heard how Cos was fortifying San Antonio, and as they expected the Texan army to make an assault they intended to see just what he was doing.

They made their way very cautiously toward the town, left on foot when the full dark had come. It was only four miles to San Antonio, and they could reach the line of Mexican sentinels within an hour. The Ring Tailed Panther was growling pleasantly between his teeth. He had tired of inaction. His was a character such as only the rough world of the border could produce. If he did not live by the sword he lived by the rifle, and since childhood he had been in the midst of alarms. Long habit had made anything else tiresome to him beyond endurance, but he was by nature generous and kindly. Like Obed he had formed a strong attachment for Ned who appealed to him as a high-souled and generous youth.

They made their way very cautiously toward the town, passing by abandoned houses and crossing fields, overgrown with weeds. Both the Ring Tailed Panther and Urrea knew San Antonio well, and Obed had been there once. They were of the opinion that the town with its narrow streets, stone and adobe houses was adapted particularly to defense, but it was of the greatest importance to know just where the new outworks were placed.

The four came within sight of Mexican lights about nine o'clock. The town was in the midst of gently rolling prairies and as nearly as they could judge these lights--evidently those of camp fires--were about a quarter of a mile from San Antonio. They were three in number and appeared to be two or three hundred yards apart. They watched a little while but they did not see any human outlines passing in front of the fires.

"They are learnin' caution," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "They are afraid of the Texan rifles, an' while those fires light up a lot of ground they keep their own bodies back in the shadow."

"Wise men," said Obed.

The Ring Tailed Panther looked his companions in the eye, one by one.

"We come out here for business," he said. "What we want to acquire is learnin', learnin' about the new defenses of San Antonio, an' we'd feel cheap if we went back without it. Now, I don't care to feel cheap myself. Good, careful, quiet fellows could slip between them sentinels, an' get into San Antonio. I mean to do it. Are you game to go with me?"

"I am," said Urrea, speaking very quickly and eagerly.

"And I," said Ned.

"To turn back is to confess one's weakness," said Obed.

The Ring Tailed Panther roared gently, and with satisfaction.

"That's the talk I like to hear an' expected to hear," he said. "You boys ain't afraid of rippin' an' tearin', when it's in a good cause. There's pretty good grass here. We'll just kneel down in it, an' crawl."

The Panther marked a point about midway between the nearest two lights and they advanced straight for it on hands and knees, stopping at intervals of a hundred yards or so to rest, as that method of locomotion was neither convenient nor comfortable. As they drew near to the fires they saw the sentinels some distance back of them, and entirely in the shadow, pacing up and down, musket on shoulder. The four were now near enough to have been seen had they been standing erect, but they lay very close to the earth, while they conferred a moment or two.

"There's a patch of bushes between those two sentinels," whispered the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' I think we'd better creep by in its shelter. If either of the sentinels should look suspicious every one of us must lay flat an' hold his breath. We could handle the sentinels, but what we want to do is to get into San Antonio."

They continued their slow and tiresome creeping. Only once did they stop, and then it was because one of the sentinels paused in his walk and took his musket from his shoulder. But it was only to light a cigarette and, relieved, they crept on until they were well beyond the fires, and within the ring of sentinels. Then at the signal of the Ring Tailed Panther they rose to their feet, and stretched their cramped limbs.

"It is certainly good," whispered Obed, "to stand up on two legs again and walk like a man."

They were now very near to the town and they saw the dark shapes of houses, in some of which lights burned. It was the poorer portion of San Antonio, where the Mexican homes were mostly huts or jacals, made of adobe, and sometimes of mere mud and wattles. As all the four spoke Spanish, they advanced, confident in themselves, and the protecting shadows of the night. A dog barked at them, but Obed cursed him in good, strong Mexican, and he slunk away. Two peons wrapped to the eyes in serapes passed them but Obed boldly gave them the salutations of the night and they walked on, not dreaming that the dreaded Texans were by.

Fifty yards further they saw a long earthwork, with the spades and shovels lying beside it, as if the Mexicans expected to resume work there in the morning. Toward the north they saw another such defense but they did not go very near, as Mexican soldiers were camped beside it. But Ned retained a very clear idea of the location of the two earthworks.

Then they curved in toward the more important portion of the town, the center of which was two large squares, commonly called Main Plaza and Military Plaza, separated only by the church of San Fernando. Here were many houses built heavily of stone in the Spanish style. They had thick walls and deep embrasured windows. Often they looked like and were fortresses.

Ned and his comrades were extremely anxious to approach those squares, but the danger was now much greater. They saw barricades on several important streets and many soldiers were passing. They learned from a peon that both the squares and many other open places also were filled with the tents of the soldiers.

Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther having seen so much were eager to see more, but Urrea hung back. He thought they should return with the information they had obtained already, and not risk the loss of everything by capture, but the Ring Tailed Panther was determined.

"I know San Antonio by heart," he said, "an' there's somethin' I want to see. Down this street is the house of the Vice-Governor, Veramendi, and I want to see what is going on there. If the rest of you feel that the risk ain't justified you can turn back, but I'm goin' on."

"If you go I'm going with you," said Ned.

"Me, too," said Obed.

Urrea shrugged his shoulders.

"Very well," he said. "It's against my judgment, but I follow."

They had pulled their slouch hats down over their faces, in the Mexican style, and they handled their rifles awkwardly, after the fashion of Mexican recruits. The Ring Tailed Panther led boldly down the street, until they came to the stone house of Veramendi. Lights shone from the deep embrasured windows of both the first and second floors. The Ring Tailed Panther saw a small door in the stone wall, and he pushed it open.

"Come in! Come quick!" he said to his comrades.

His tone was so sharp and commanding that they obeyed him by impulse, and he quickly closed the door behind the little party. They stood in a small, dark alley that ran beside the house and they heard the sound of music. Crouching against the wall they listened, and heard also the sounds of laughter and feminine voices.

The Ring Tailed Panther grinned in the darkness.

"Some kind of a fandango is goin' on," he said. "It's just like the Mexicans to dance and sing at such a time. I wouldn't be s'prised if Cos himself was here, an' I mean to see."

He led the way down the little alley, which was roughly paved with stone, and, as they advanced, the sounds of music and laughter increased. Unquestionably Governor Veramendi was giving a ball, and Ned did not doubt that the Panther's surmise about the presence of Cos would prove correct.

They found a little gate opening from the alley into a large patio or enclosed court. This gate, like the first, was not locked and the Ring Tailed Panther pushed it open also. The patio was filled with palms, flowering plants and a dense shrubbery.

The Ring Tailed Panther again led boldly on, and entered the patio, hiding instantly among the palms and flowers. The others followed and did likewise. Ned quivered with excitement. He knew that the danger was great. He knew also that if they lay close and waited they were likely to hear what was worth hearing.

The boy was in a dense mat of shrubbery. To his right was Obed and to his left were the Ring Tailed Panther and Urrea. He saw that the patio was faced on three sides by piazzas or porticos, from which wide doors opened into the house. He heard the music now as clearly as if it were at his side. It was the music of a full band, and it was played with a mellow, gliding rhythm. He saw, also, officers in brilliant uniform and handsome women, as in the dance they passed and repassed the open doors. It was Spanish, Mexican to the core, full of the South, full of warmth and color. The lean, brown Texans crouching in the shrubbery furnished a striking contrast.

While they waited, several officers and ladies came out on the piazzas, ate ices and drank sweet drinks. They were so near that the four easily heard all they said. It was mostly idle chatter, high-pitched compliments, allusions to people in the distant City of Mexico, and now and then a jest at the expense of the Texans. Ned realized that many of the younger Mexicans did not take the siege of San Antonio seriously. They could not understand how a strong city, held by an army of Mexican regulars, could have anything to fear from a few hundred Texan horsemen, mostly hunters in buckskin.

The music began again and the officers and women went in, but presently several older men, also in uniform, came out. Ned instantly recognized in the first the square figure and the dark, lowering face of Cos.

"De La Garcia, Ugartchea, Veramendi," whispered the Ring Tailed Panther, indicating the others. "Now we may hear something."

Cos stood at the edge of the piazza and his face was troubled. He held in his hand a small cane, with which he cut angrily at the flowers. The others regarded him uneasily, but for a while he said nothing. Ned hardly breathed, so intense was his interest and curiosity, but when Cos at last spoke his disappointment was great.

The General complimented Veramendi on his house and hospitality, and the Vice-Governor thanked him in ornate sentences. Some more courtesies were exchanged, but Cos continued to cut off the heads of the flowers with his cane, and Ned knew now that they had come from the ballroom to talk of more important things. Meanwhile, the music flowed on. It was the swaying strains of the dance, and it would have been soothing to anyone, whose mind was not forced elsewhere. The flowers and the palms rippled gently under a light breeze, but Ned did not hear them. He was waiting to hear Cos speak of what was in the mind of himself and the other men on the piazza, the same things that were in the minds of the Texans in the shrubbery.

"Have you any further word from the Texan desperadoes, General?" asked Veramendi, at last.

Swish went the general's cane, and a flower fell from its stem.

"Nothing direct," he replied, his voice rising in anger.

"They have not sent again demanding my surrender knowing that a messenger would be shot. The impudence of these border horsemen passes all belief. How dare a few hundred such men undertake to besiege us here in San Antonio? What an insult to Mexico!"

"But they can fight," said Ugartchea. "They ride and shoot like demons. They will give us trouble."

"I know it," said Cos, "but the more trouble they make us the more they shall suffer. It was an evil day when the first American was allowed to come into Texas."

"Yet they will attack us here," persisted Ugartchea, "They have driven our men off the prairies. Our lances are not a match for their rifles. Your pardon, General, but it will be wise for us to fortify still further."

Cos frowned and made another wicked sweep with the cane. But he said:

"What you say is truth, Colonel Ugartchea, but with qualifications. Our men are not a match for them on the open prairie, but should they attack us here in the city they will be destroyed."

Then he asked further questions about the fortifications, and Ugartchea, who seemed to be in immediate charge, began to repeat the details. It was for this that the Texans had come into the patio, and Ned leaned forward eagerly. He saw Obed on one side of him and the Ring Tailed Panther on the other do the same. Suddenly there was a noise as of something falling in the shrubbery, and then a sharp whistle. The men on the piazza instantly looked in the direction of the hidden Texans. Cos and Ugartchea drew pistols.

The Ring Tailed Panther acted with the greatest promptness and decision.

"We must run for it, boys," he exclaimed in a loud whisper. "Something, I don't know what, has happened to warn them that we are here. Keep your heads low."

Still partly hidden by the palms and flowers they ran for the gate. Cos and Veramendi fired at the flitting forms and shouted for soldiers. Ned felt one of the bullets scorch the back of his hand, but in a few moments he was out of the gate and in the little dark alley. The Ring Tailed Panther was just before him, and Obed was just behind. The Panther, instead of running toward the street continued up the alley which led to a large building of adobe, in the rear of the governor's house.

"It's a stable and storehouse," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' we'll hide in it while the hunt roars on through the city."

He jerked open a door, and they rushed in. Ned in the dusk saw some horses eating in their stalls, and he also saw a steep ladder leading to lofts above. The Ring Tailed Panther never hesitated, but ran up the ladder and Ned followed sharply after him. He heard Obed panting at his heels.

The lofts contained dried maize and some vegetables, but they were mostly filled with hay. The fugitives plunged into the hay and pulled it around them, until only their heads and the muzzles of their rifles protruded. They lay for a few moments in silence, save for the sound of their own hard breathing, and then Ned suddenly noticed something. They were only three!

"Why, where is Urrea?" he exclaimed.

"Yes, where in thunder is Don Francisco?" said the Ring Tailed Panther in startled tones.

Urrea was certainly missing, and no one could tell when they had lost him. Their flight had been too hurried to take any count of numbers. There could be only one conclusion. Urrea had been taken in the patio. The Ring Tailed Panther roared between his teeth, low but savagely.

"I don't like many Mexicans," he said, "but I got to like Don Francisco. The Mexicans have shorely got him, an' it will go 'specially hard with him, he bein' of their own race."

Ned sighed. He did not like to think of Don Francisco at the mercy of Cos. But they could do nothing, absolutely nothing. To leave the hay meant certain capture within a few minutes. Already they heard the sounds of the hunt, the shouts of soldiers and the mob, of men calling to one another. Through the chinks in the wall they saw the light of torches in the alley. They lay still for a few minutes and then the noise of the search drifted down toward the plazas. The torches passed out of the alley.

"Did you hear that whistle just before Cos and Ugartchea fired?" asked Ned.

"I did," replied Obed. "I don't understand it, and what I don't understand bothers me."

The Ring Tailed Panther growled, and his growl was the most savage that Ned had ever heard from him. The growl did not turn into words for at least a minute. Then he said:

"I'm like you, Obed; I hate riddles, an' this is the worst one that I was ever mixed up with. Somethin' fell in the shrubbery; then came the whistle, the Mexicans shot, away we went, lickety split, an' now we're here. That's all I know, an' it ain't much."

"I wonder if we'll ever find out," said Ned.

"Doubtful," replied the Ring Tailed Panther. "I'm afeard, boys, they won't waste much time on Urrea, he bein' a spy an' of their own blood, too. It's war an' we've got to make the best of it."

But Ned could not make very well of it. A fugitive hidden there in the hay and the dark, the fate of Urrea seemed very terrible to him. The three sank into silence. Occasionally they heard cries from distant parts of the town, but the hunt did not seem to come back toward them. Ned was thankful that the Ring Tailed Panther had been so ready of wit. The Mexicans would not dream that the Texans were hiding in the Vice-Governor's own barn, just behind the Vice-Governor's own house. He made himself cozy in the hay and waited.

After about an hour, the town turned quiet, and Ned inferred that the hunt was over. The Mexicans, no doubt, would assume that the three had escaped from San Antonio, and they would not dare to hunt far out on the prairies. But what of Urrea! Poor Urrea! Ned could not keep from thinking of him, but think as hard as he could he saw no way to find out about his fate. Perhaps the Ring Tailed Panther was right. They would never know.

The three did not stir for a long time. Ned felt very comfortable in the hay. The night was cold without, but here he was snug and warm. He waited for those older and more experienced than himself to decide upon their course and he knew that Obed or the Ring Tailed Panther would speak in time. He was almost in a doze when Obed said that it must be about one o'clock in the morning.

"You ain't far wrong," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "but I'd wait at least another hour. That ball will be over then, if we didn't break it up when we were in the garden."

They waited the full hour, and then they stole from the hay. Veramendi's house was silent and dark, and they passed safely into the street. Ned had a faint hope that Urrea would yet appear from some dark hiding place, but there was no sign of the young Mexican.

They chose the boldest possible course, thinking that it would be safest, claiming to one soldier whom they passed that they were sentinels going to their duty at the farthest outposts. Luck, as it usually does, came to the aid of courage and skill, and they reached the outskirts of San Antonio, without any attempt at interference.

Once more, after long and painful creeping, they stole between the sentinels, took mental note of the earthworks again, and also a last look at the dark bulk that was the town.

"Poor Urrea!" said Ned.

"Poor Urrea," said Obed. "I wonder what in the name of the moon and the stars gave the alarm!"

"Poor Urrea!" said the Ring Tailed Panther. "This is the worst riddle I ever run up ag'inst an' the more I think about it the more riddlin' it gets."

The three sighed together and then sped over the prairie toward the camp on the Salado. _

Read next: Chapter 19. The Battle By The River

Read previous: Chapter 17. The Old Convent

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