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

Chapter 19. The Battle By The River

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It was not yet daylight when they approached the Texan camp. Despite the fact that the Texan force was merely a band of volunteer soldiers there was an abundance of sentinels and they were halted when they were within a half mile of the Salado. But they were recognized quickly, and they passed within the lines, where, in the first rosy shoot of the dawn, they saw Bowie going the rounds of the outposts.

"What!" he exclaimed. "Back already! Then you did not get into the town!"

"We went right into it. We split it wide open," said the Ring Tailed Panther.

Bowie's blue eyes glittered.

"But you are only three," he said. "Where is Urrea?"

"We lost him an' we don't know how it happened. We know that he's gone, an' that's all."

Bowie took them to Mr. Austin's tent, where they told to him, Houston, Fannin and the others all that they had seen in San Antonio. In view of the fact, now clearly proved, that Cos was fortifying night and day, Bowie and all the more ardent spirits urged a prompt attack, but Mr. Austin, essentially a man of peace, hung back. He thought their force too small. He was confirmed, too, in the belief of his own unfitness to be a leader in war.

"General," he said, turning to Houston, "you must take the command here. It would be impossible to find one better suited to the place."

But Houston shook his head. He would not agree to it. Able and ambitious, he refused, nevertheless. Perhaps he did not yet understand the full fighting power of the Texans, and he feared to be identified with failure, in case they made the assault upon San Antonio.

When Ned and his comrades withdrew from the tent they went to one of the breakfast fires, where they ate broiled strips of buffalo and deer, and drank coffee. Then Ned rolled in his blankets, and slept under an oak tree. When he awoke about noon he sprang to his feet with a cry of joy and surprise. Urrea was standing beside him, somewhat pale, and with his left hand in a sling, but the young Mexican himself, nevertheless. Ned seized his right hand and gave it a powerful grip.

"We thought you as good as dead, Don Francisco," he said. "We were sure that you had been taken by Cos."

"I thought both things myself for a few wild moments," said Urrea, smiling. "When we rushed from the patio one of the bullets grazed me, but in my excitement as we passed the gate I ran down the alley toward the street, instead of turning in toward the barn, as I have since learned from Mr. White that you did. My wrist was grazed by one of the bullets, fired from the piazza, but fortunately I had the presence of mind to wrap it in the serape that I wore.

"When I reached the street there was much excitement and many soldiers running about, but being a Mexican it was easy for me to pass unsuspected in the crowd. I reached the home of a relative, at heart a sympathizer with Texas and liberty, where my wound was bound up, and where I lay hidden until morning, when I was smuggled out of the town. Then I made my way among the oaks and pecans, until I came here to our camp on the Salado. I had inquired for you during the night, and, not hearing any news of your capture, I was sure that you were in hiding as I was, and when I came here my best hopes were confirmed by the news of your complete escape. Mr. White has already given me all the details. We have been very lucky indeed, and we should be thankful."

"We are! We truly are!" exclaimed Ned, grasping his hand again.

The news brought by Ned and his comrades was so important that the Texans could not be restrained. A few mornings later Bowie called upon the boy, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther for a new service.

"Mr. Austin has told me to take a strong party," he said, "and scout up to the very suburbs of San Antonio, because we are going to choose a new and closer position. There are to be ninety of us, including you three, 'Deaf' Smith and Henry Karnes, and we are to retire if the Mexicans undertake an attack upon us, that is, if we have time--you understand, if we have time."

Ned saw Bowie's big eyes glitter, and he understood. The party, the envy of all the others, rode out of the camp in the absence of Urrea. Bowie had not asked him, as he did not seem to fancy the young Mexican, but Ned put it down to racial prejudice. Urrea had not been visible when they started, but Ned thought chagrin at being ignored was the cause of it. Fannin also went along, associated with Bowie in the leadership, but Bowie was the animating spirit. They rode directly toward San Antonio, and, as the distance was very short, they soon saw Mexican sentinels on horseback, some carrying lances and some with rifles or muskets. They would withdraw gradually at the appearance of the Texans, keeping just out of gunshot, but always watching these dangerous horsemen whom they had learned to fear. The Texans were near enough to see from some points the buildings of the town, and the veins of the Ring Tailed Panther swelled with ambition.

"Ned," he said to the boy who rode by his side, "if Bowie would only give the word we would gallop right into town, smashing through the Mexicans."

"We might gallop into it," said Ned, laughing, "but we couldn't gallop out again. No, no, Panther, we mustn't forget that the Mexicans can fight. Besides, Bowie isn't going to give the word."

"No, he ain't," said the Ring Tailed Panther with a sigh, "an' we won't get the chance to make one of the finest dashes ever heard of in war."

"He who doesn't dash but rides away will live to dash another day," said Obed White oracularly.

They rode on in a half circle about the town, keeping a fairly close array, every man sitting his saddle erect and defiant. It seemed to Ned that they were issuing a challenge to the whole army of Cos, and he enjoyed it. It appealed to his youthful spirit of daring. They practically said to the Mexican army in the town: "Come out and fight us if you dare!"

But the Mexicans did not accept the challenge. Save for the little scouting parties that always kept a watch at a safe distance they remained within their intrenchments. But Bowie and Fannin were able to take a look at the fortifications, confirming in every respect all that Ned and his comrades had told them.

They ate in the saddle at noon, having provided themselves with rations when they started, and then rode back on their slow half circle about the town, Mexican scouts riding parallel with them on the inner side of the circle, five hundred yards away. The Texans said little, but they watched all the time.

It made a powerful appeal to Ned, who had been a great reader, and whose mind was surcharged with the old romances. It seemed to him that his comrades and he were like knights, riding around a hostile city and issuing a formal challenge to all who dared to meet them. He was proud to be there in such company. The afternoon waned. Banks of vapor, rose and gold, began to pile up in the southwest, their glow tinting the earth with the same colors. But beauty did not appeal just then to the Ring Tailed Panther, who began to roar.

"A-ridin', an' a-ridin'," he said, "an' nothin' done. Up to San Antonio an' back to camp, an' things are just as they were before."

"A Texas colonel rode out on the prairie with ninety men, and then rode back again," said Obed.

"But we are not going back again!" cried Ned joyfully.

Bowie, who was in the lead, suddenly turned his horse away from the camp and rode toward the river. The others followed him without a word, but nearly every man in the company drew a long breath of satisfaction. Ned knew and all knew that they were not going back to camp that night.

Ned eagerly watched the leader. They rode by the Mission Concepcion, passed through a belt of timber and came abruptly to the river, where Bowie called a halt, and sprang from his horse. Ned leaped down also, and he saw at once the merits of the position into which Bowie had led them. They were in a horseshoe or sharp bend of the river, here a hundred yards in width. The belt of thick timber curved on one side while the river coiled in a half-circle about them and in front of the little tongue of land on which they stood, the bank rose to a height of eighteen feet, almost perpendicular. It was a secluded place, and, as no Mexicans had been following them in the course of the last hour, Ned believed that they might pass a peaceful night there. But the Ring Tailed Panther had other thoughts, although, for the present, he kept them to himself.

They tethered the horses at the edge of the wood, but where they could reach the grass, and then Bowie placed numerous pickets in the wood through which an enemy must come, if he came. Ned was in the first watch and Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther were with him. Ned stood among the trees at a point where he could also see the river, here a beautiful, clear stream with a greenish tint. He ate venison from his knapsack as he walked back and forth, and he watched the last rays of the sun, burning like red fire in the west, until they went out and the heavy twilight came, trailing after it the dark.

Ned's impression of mediaevalism that he had received in the day when they were riding about San Antonio continued in the night. They had gone back centuries. Hidden here in this horseshoe, water on one side and wood on the other, they seemed to be in an absolutely wild and primitive world. Centuries had rolled back. His vivid imagination made the forest about them what it had been before the white man came.

The surface of the river was now dark. The stream flowed gently, and without noise. It, too, struck upon the boy's imagination. It would be fitting for an Indian canoe to come stealing down in the darkness, and he almost fancied he could see it there. But no canoe came, and Ned walked back and forth in a little space, always watching the wood or the river.

The night was very quiet. The horses, having grazed for an hour or two, now rested content. The men not on guard, used to taking their sleep where they could find it, were already in slumber. There was no wind.

The dark hours as usual were full of chill, but Ned's vigorous walk back and forth kept him warm. He was joined after a while by the famous scout, Henry Karnes, who, like "Deaf" Smith, seemed to watch all the time, although he came and went as he pleased.

"Well, boy," said Karnes, "do you find it hard work, this watching and watching and watching for hours and hours?"

"Not at all," replied Ned, responding to his tone of humorous kindness. "I might have found it so once, but I don't now. I'm always anxious to see what will happen."

"That's a good spirit to have," said Karnes, smiling, "and you need it down here, where a man must always be watching for something. In Texas boys have to be men now."

He walked back and forth with Ned, and the lad felt flattered that so famous a scout should show an interest in him. The two were at the edge of the wood and they could see duskily before them a stretch of bare prairie. Karnes was watching this open space intently, and Ned was watching it also.

The boy saw nothing, but suddenly he heard, or thought he heard, a low sound. It was faint, but, unconsciously bending forward a little, he heard it again. It was a metallic rattle and instantly he called the attention of Karnes to it. The scout stopped his walk and listened. Then Ned saw his form grow rigid and tense.

"Let's put our ears to the ground, Ned," said he.

The two stretched out ear to earth, and then Ned not only heard the noise much more distinctly, but he knew at once what it was. He had heard it more than once in the marching army of Cos. It was the sound made by the approaching wheel of a cannon.

"Artillery," he said in a whisper.

"Beyond a doubt," said Karnes. "It means that the Mexicans have crossed the river--there's a ford two or three hundred yards above--and mean to attack us. It was your good ear, Ned, that gave us the first warning."

Ned flushed with pleasure at the compliment, but, a moment or two later, they saw dark figures rising out of the prairie and advancing toward them.

"Mexicans!" cried Karnes, and instantly fired at a dusky outline. The figures flitted away in the dusk, but the camp of Bowie was aroused at once. Inside of a minute every man was on his feet, rifle in hand, facing the open place in the horseshoe. They knew that they could not be attacked from the river. Bowie came to the side of Ned and Karnes.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Ned heard a sound," Karnes replied, "and when we put our ears to the earth we knew that it was made by artillery. Then I saw their scouts and skirmishers and fired upon them. They must have crossed the river in strong force, Colonel."

"Very likely," said Bowie. "Well, we shall be ready for them. Henry, you and Smith and the Ring Tailed Panther scout across the prairie there, and see what has become of them."

"Can't I go, too?" asked Ned.

Bowie patted him on the shoulder.

"You young fire eater!" he replied. "Haven't you done enough for one night? You gave us the first warning that the Mexicans were at hand. I think you'd better rest now, and let these old boys do this job."

The three chosen men disappeared in the darkness, and Ned sat down among the trees with Obed. They, like everybody else, waited as patiently as they could for the reports of the scouts.

"Obed," said Ned, "do you think we're going to have a battle?"

"The signs point that way."

Bowie set everybody to work cutting out undergrowth, in order that they might have a clear field for the work that they expected. By the time this task was completed the scouts returned and their report was alarming.

The Mexicans had crossed the river in heavy force, outnumbering the troop of Texans at least five to one. They had artillery, infantry and cavalry, and they were just out of range, expecting to attack at dawn. The avenue of escape was cut off already.

"Very good," said Bowie. "We'll wait for them."

It was too dark to see, but Ned knew that his blue eyes were glittering. He advanced to the point where the bluff rose nearly ten feet to the edge of the prairie, and took a long look.

"I can see nothing," he said, "but I know you men are right. Now we'll cut steps all along the edge of this bluff, in order that our men can stand in them, and fire at the enemy as he comes. Then we'll have as fine a fort here as anybody could ask."

The men fell to work with hatchets and big knives, cutting steps in the soft earth, at least a hundred of them in order that everybody might have a chance. Meanwhile the hour of dawn was at hand, but a heavy mist had thickened over prairie and river. Beyond the mists and vapors, the sun showed only a yellow blur, and it did not yet cast any glow over the earth.

But Ned could clearly hear the Mexicans; officers shouting to men; men shouting to horses; horses neighing and mules squealing, and he knew from these noises that the report of their great force by the scouts was correct. He also heard the clank of the artillery wheels again, and he feared that the cannon would prove a very dangerous foe to them. All the pulses in his body began to beat fast and hard.

"Will the sun ever get through the fog and let us see?" he exclaimed impatiently. It was hard to wait at such a time.

"It's comin' through now," said the Ring Tailed Panther.

The pale yellow light turned suddenly to full red gold. The banks of mist and vapor dissolved under the shining beams, and floated away in shreds and patches. The river, the forest and the prairie rose up into the light, everything standing out, sharp and clear.

Ned drew a deep breath. There was the Mexican array, massed along the entire open space of the horseshoe, at least five to the Texan one, as the scouts had said, and now not more than two hundred yards from them. Five companies of cavalry were gathered ready to charge; infantry stood just behind them and back of the infantry Ned caught the gleam of the cannon he had heard in the night. Evidently the Mexicans had not yet brought it to the front, because its fire would interfere with the charge of the cavalry which they expected would end the battle in five minutes. There was no chance for the Texans to retreat, but it was not of retreat that they were thinking.

"How's your pulse, Ned?" asked the Ring Tailed Panther.

"It's beating fast and hard, I won't deny that," replied Ned, "but I believe my finger will be steady when it presses the trigger."

"Fine feathers make fine Mexicans," said Obed White. "How they do love color! That's a gorgeous array out there, and it seems a pity to break it up."

The Mexican force certainly looked well. The cavalry, in brilliant uniforms, presented a long front, their lances gleaming. The Texans, standing in the steps that they had cut in the earth, were in sober attire, but resolute eyes looked out from under their caps or the wide brims of their hats.

"They'll charge in a moment," said Obed, "and they'll try to break their way through the wood. They cannot ride down this bluff."

The Ring Tailed Panther raised his rifle, and looked down the sights. His eyes were glittering. He drew the trigger and the sharp lashing report ended the silence. A Mexican officer fell from his horse, and then, with a great shout, the Mexican horsemen charged, presenting a gallant array as they bent forward, their rifles and lances ready. The beat of their horses' hoofs came over the prairie like roiling thunder. They wheeled suddenly toward the wood, and then the infantry, advancing, opened heavy and repeated volleys upon the Texans. The horsemen also fired from their saddles.

It was the heaviest fire under which Ned had ever come, and, for a few moments, he quivered all over. He saw a great blaze in front, above it a cloud of lifting smoke, and he heard over his head the hum of many bullets, like the whistling of hail, driven by a heavy wind. But he was experienced enough now to note that the Mexican fire was wasted. That bank was a wonderful protection.

"It's almost a shame to shoot 'em," roared the Ring Tailed Panther who had reloaded. But up went his rifle, his finger pressed the trigger and another Mexican officer fell from his horse. All along the Texan front ran the rifle fire, a rapid crackling sound like the ripping apart of some great cloth. But the Texans were taking aim. There was no confusion among the hardy veterans of the plains. Lying against the face of the bluff they were sending in their bullets with deadly precision. Horse after horse in the charging host galloped away riderless over the prairie, and the front rank of the infantry was shot down.

Ned, like the others, was loading and firing swiftly, but with care. The imminent danger kept down any feeling that he would have had otherwise. The Mexicans sought their lives, and he must seek theirs. The smoke and the odor of burned gunpowder inflamed him. There was still a blaze in front of him, but he also saw the brown faces of the Mexicans yet pressing forward, and he yet heard the continued thunder of the charging hoofs.

"Another bullet, Ned," roared the Ring Tailed Panther and he and the others around him sent a fresh volley at the horsemen. The Mexican cavalry could stand no more. Five companies strong, they broke and galloped away, seeking only to escape from the deadly fire of the Texan rifles. The infantry also gave back and for a few minutes there was a lull.

"That's the end of Chapter One," said Obed White. "Our Mexican friends came in haste and they will repent at a distance."

The smoke lifted and Ned saw many fallen, both men and horses, on the plain in front of them, and there was confusion in the Mexican force, which was now out of gunshot. Never had the Texan rifles done more deadly service. The Texan loss was small.

Ned dropped down from the steps and sat on the grass. His face was wet with perspiration, and he wiped it on his sleeve. He was compelled to cough once or twice to clear his throat of the smoke. The Ring Tailed Panther also was warm, but satisfied.

"A Texan does best in a fight against odds," he said, "an' we have the odds to-day. But don't you think, Ned, that it's over already?"

"I don't," said Ned. "I know that they will be up to some new trick soon. They will realize that they underrated us at first."

He sprang back into the steps that he had cut in the bluff, and took a good look at the Mexicans.

"They are nearly ready with Chapter Second, Obed," he said. "They are bringing up that cannon."

"Should have used it in the first place," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "They didn't show much sense."

The Mexicans were running the gun forward to a little mound, whence they could drop shells and shot over the edge of the bluff, directly among the Texans. It was a far more formidable danger than the impulsive charge, and Bowie at once took measures to meet it. He called the best rifle shots. Among them were Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther.

"There are fifteen of you," said the dauntless leader, "and your rifles will reach that gun. Shoot down every man who tries to handle it. The rest of us will attend to the new charge that is coming."

The second attack was to be more formidable than the first. The Mexican cavalry had massed anew. Ned saw the officers, driving the men into place with the flats of swords, and he heard the note of a trumpet, singing loud and clear over the prairie. Then his eyes turned back to the gun, because there his duty lay.

Ned heard the trumpet peal again, and then the thud of hoofs. He saw the rammers and spongers gather about the gun. The rifle of the Ring Tailed Panther cracked, and the man with the rammer fell. Another picked it up, but he went down before the bullet of Obed. Then a sponger fell, and then the gunner himself was slain by the bullet. The Texans were doing wonderful sharpshooting. The gun could not be fired, because nobody could live near it long enough to fire it. Its entire complement was cleared away by the swift little bullets.

Off to right and left, Ned heard again the rising crackle of the rifle fire, and he also heard the steady monotonous beat of the hoofs. He knew that the charge was still coming on, but Bowie would attend to that. He and his immediate comrades never took their eyes from the gun. New cannoneers, an entire complement, were rushing forward to take the place of their fallen comrades. The Mexicans showed plenty of courage that day but the deadly sharpshooters were slaying them as fast as they came. They were yet unable to fire the gun. Nor could they draw it back from its dangerous position. A second time all about it were slain, but a third body came forward for the trial.

"Greasers or no greasers," cried Obed, "those are men of courage!"

But he continued to shoot straight at them nevertheless, and the third group of cannoneers was fast melting away.

"Some of you aim at the mules hitched to the caisson," cried the Ring Tailed Panther. "I hate to kill a mule, but it will be a help now."

One of the mules was slain and two others, wounded, dashed wildly through the Mexican infantry, adding to the confusion and turmoil. The last of the third group of cannoneers fell and the gun stood alone and untouched, the shell still in place. No one now dared to approach it. The dead now lay in a group all about it. Meanwhile, the second charge broke like the first and the cavalry galloped wildly away.

Ned could turn his eyes now. He saw more riderless horses than before, while the fallen, lying still on the prairie, had doubled in number. Then his eyes turned back to the gun, standing somber and silent among those who had died for it. The battle-fire gone, for the present, Ned felt pity for the Mexicans who lay so thick about the cannon. Nor did he fail to admire the courage that had been spent so freely, but in vain.

"They won't come again," said the Ring Tailed Panther, dropping to the grass. "They have had enough."

"I don't blame 'em," said Obed, lying down by his side. "They must have lost a third of their number, and they'd have lost another third if they had charged once more."

"They're not going away," said Ned, who had remained on his perch. "They're coming again."

A third time the Mexicans charged and a third time they were driven back by the rifles. Then they formed on the prairie beyond gunshot, and marched away to San Antonio, leaving behind the mournful and silent cannon as proof alike of their courage and defeat. _

Read next: Chapter 20. The Wheel Of Fire

Read previous: Chapter 18. In San Antonio

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