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

Chapter 20. The Wheel Of Fire

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Ned watched the Mexicans marching away until the last lance had disappeared behind a swell of the prairie. Then he joined in the cheer that the Texans gave, after which he and his comrades went out upon the field, and gazed upon their work. The killed among the Mexicans nearly equaled in numbers the whole Texan force, sixteen lying dead around the cannon alone, and many of them also had been wounded, while the Texans had escaped with only a single man slain, and but few hurt. But Ned quickly left the field. The sight of it was not pleasant to him, although he was still heart and soul with the Texans, in what he regarded as a defensive war.

Bowie drew his forces out of the horseshoe and they rode for the Texan camp, carrying with them the trophies of arms that they had taken. On their way they met Mr. Austin and a strong force who had heard of their plight and who were now coming to their relief. They, too, rejoiced greatly at the victory, and all went back in triumph to the Salado.

"Now that they have seen how we can fight I reckon that Mr. Austin and Houston will order an attack right away on San Antonio," said the Ring Tailed Panther.

"I don't believe they will," said Obed White. "Seeing is sometimes doubting. I believe that they still fear our failure."

Ned inclined to Obed's belief but he said nothing. At twilight Urrea came back, rejoicing and also full of regrets. He rejoiced over the victory and he regretted that he had not been there.

"Seems to me, Don Francisco," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "that you're missin' a lot of things."

"There's many a slip 'twixt Francisco and the fight-o," said Obed.

Ned was hurt by the irony of his friends, but Urrea only laughed as he spread his blanket in a good place, and lay down on it.

"I will admit, gentlemen," he said in his precise English, "that I seem always to be absent when anything important happens, but it is owing to the nature of the service that I can best render the Texans. Being of the Mexican race and knowing the country so thoroughly, I am of most value as a seeker after information. I had gone off on a long scout about San Antonio, and I have news which I have given to Mr. Austin."

"Spyin' is a dangerous business, but it's got to be done," said the Ring Tailed Panther. Ned saw that he again looked with disfavor upon Urrea, but he ascribed it as before to racial aversion.

Obed was right. Despite the brilliant victory of Bowie, Houston and Austin still held back, and the Ring Tailed Panther roared long and loud. But his roaring was cut short by an order for him, Obed, Ned and Urrea to ride eastward to some of the little Texan towns in search of help. The leaders were anxious that their utmost strength be gathered when they should at last make the attack upon San Antonio. Since he could not have just what he wished, the Panther was glad to get the new task, and the others were content.

They rode away the next morning, armed and provisioned well. Their horses, having rested long and fed abundantly, were strong and fresh, and they went at a good pace, until they came to the last swell from which they could see San Antonio. The town was distant, but it was magnified in the clear Texas sunlight. It looked to Ned, sitting there on his horse, like a large city. It had come to occupy a great place in his mind and just now it was to him the most important town in the world. He wondered if they would ever take it. Urrea, who was watching him, smiled.

"I know what you are thinking," he said, "and I will wager that it was just the same that I was thinking."

"I was trying to read the future and tell whether we would take San Antonio," said Ned.

"Exactly. Those were my thoughts, too."

"I reckon you two wasn't far away from my trail either," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "'cause I was figgerin' that we'd take it inside of a month."

"Count me in, too," said Obed. "Great minds go in bunches. I was calculating that we would capture it some day, but I left out the limit of time."

They turned their horses, and when they reached the crest of the next swell San Antonio was out of sight. Before them stretched the prairies, now almost as desolate as they had been when the Indians alone roamed over them. They passed two or three small cabins, each built in a cluster of trees near a spring, but the occupants had gone, fled to a town for shelter. One seemed to have been abandoned only an hour or two ago, as the ashes were scarcely cold on the hearth, and a bucket of water, with its gourd in it, still stood on the shelf. The sight moved the Ring Tailed Panther to sentiment.

"Think of the women an' children havin' to sleep out on the prairie," he said. "It ain't right an' fittin'."

"We'll bring them all back before we are through," said Obed.

They left the little cabin, exactly as they had found it, and then rode at an increased pace toward the north and the east, making for the settlements on the Brazos. A little while before nightfall, they met a buffalo hunter who told them there were reports of a Mexican cavalry force far north of San Antonio, although he could not confirm the truth of the rumors. Urrea shook his head vigorously.

"Impossible! impossible!" he said. "The Mexicans would not dare to come away so far from their base at San Antonio."

The hunter, an old man, looked at him with curiosity and disapproval.

"That's more than you an' me can say," he said, "although you be a Mexican yourself and know more about your people than I do. I jest tell what I've heard."

"Mr. Urrea is one of the most ardent of the Texan patriots," said Ned.

"I jest tell what I've heard," said the old man, whistling to his pony and riding away.

"Obstinate!" said Urrea, laughing in his usual light, easy manner. "These old hunters are very narrow. You cannot make them believe that a Mexican, although born on Texas soil, which can be said of very few Texans, is a lover of liberty and willing to fight against aggression from the capital."

At night they rode into a splendid belt of forest, and made their camp by a cool spring that gushed from a rock and flowed away among the trees. Ned and Obed scouted a little, and found the country so wild that the deer sprang up from the bushes. It was difficult to resist the temptation of a shot, but they were compelled to let them go, and returning to camp they reported to Urrea and the Ring Tailed Panther that they seemed to have the forest to themselves, so far as human beings were concerned.

"Do you think it is safe to light a fire?" asked Urrea.

"I see no danger in it," replied Obed, "that is, none in a little one. There are so many bushes about us that it couldn't be seen fifty yards away."

It was now November and as the night had become quite cold Urrea's suggestion of a fire seemed good to Ned. He showed much zeal in gathering the dry wood, and then they deftly built a fire, one that would throw out little flame, but which would yet furnish much heat. The Ring Tailed Panther, who had the most skill in wilderness life, kindled it with flint and steel, and while the flames, held down by brush, made hot coals beneath, the smoke was lost among the trees and the darkness.

The horses were tethered near, and they warmed their food by the coals before eating it. The place was snug, a little cup set all around by bushes and high trees, and the heat of the fire was very grateful. While Ned sat before it, eating his food, he noticed great numbers of last year's fallen leaves lying about, and he picked the very place where he would make his bed. He would draw great quantities of the leaves there under the big beech, and spread his blankets upon them.

They were tired after the long day's journey, and they did not talk much. The foliage about them was so thick, making it so dark within the little shade that the need of a watch seemed small, but they decided to keep it, nevertheless. The Ring Tailed Panther would take the first half of the night and Urrea the second half. The next night would be divided between Obed and Ned.

Ned raked up the leaves at the place that he had selected, folded himself between his blankets, and was asleep in five minutes. The last thing that he remembered seeing was the broad figure of the Ring Tailed Panther, sitting with his back against a tree, and his rifle across his knees.

But Ned awoke hours later--after midnight in fact--although it was not a real awakening, instead a sort of half way station from slumberland. He did not move, but opened his eyes partly, and saw that Urrea was now on guard. The young Mexican was not sitting as the Ring Tailed Panther had been, but was standing some yards away, with his rifle across his shoulder. Ned thought in a vague way that he looked trim and strong, and then his heavy lids dropped down again. But he did not fall back into the deep sleep from which he had come. The extra sense, his remarkable power of intuition or divination was at work. Without any effort of his will the mechanism of his brain was moving and gave him a signal. He heard a slight noise and he lifted the heavy lids.

Urrea had walked to the other side of the little glade, his feet brushing some of the dry leaves as he went. There was nothing unusual in such action on the part of a sentinel, but something in Urrea's attitude seemed to Ned to denote expectancy. His whole figure was drawn close together like that of one about to spring, and he leaned forward a little. Yet this meant nothing. Any good man on guard would be attentive to every sound of the forest, whether the light noise made by a squirrel, as he scampered along the bark of a tree, or a stray puff of wind rustling the leaves.

Ned made another effort of the will, and closed his eyes for the second time, but the warning sense, the intuitive note out of the infinite, would not be denied. He was compelled to open his eyes once more and now his faculties were clear. Urrea had moved again and now he was facing the sleepers. He regarded them attentively, one by one, and in the dusk he could not see that Ned's eyelids were not closed. The boy did not stir, but a cold shiver ran down his spine. He felt with all the power of second sight that something extraordinary was going to happen.

Urrea walked to the smoldering fire, and now Ned dropped his eyelids, until he looked only through a space as narrow as the edge of a knife blade. Urrea stooped and took from the dying heap a long stick, still burning at the end. Then he took another look at the three and suddenly disappeared among the bushes, carrying with him the burning stick. He was so light upon his feet that he made no sound as he went.

Ned was startled beyond measure, but he was like a spring released by a key. He felt that the need of instant action was great, and, as light of foot as Urrea himself, he sprang up, rifle in hand, and followed the young Mexican. He was thankful for the wilderness training that he had been compelled to acquire. He caught sight of Urrea about twenty yards ahead, still moving swiftly on soundless feet. He moved thus a hundred yards or more, with Ned, as his shadow, as dark and silent as he, and then he stopped by the side of a great tree.

Ned felt instinctively, when Urrea halted that he would look back to see if by chance he were followed, and he sank down in the bushes before the Mexican turned. Urrea gave only a glance or two in that direction and, satisfied, began to examine the tree which was certainly worthy of attention, as it rose to an uncommon height, much above its fellows.

Ned's amazement grew. Why should Urrea be so particular about the size or height of a tree? It grew still further, when he saw Urrea lay his rifle down at the foot of the tree, spring up, grasp the lowest branch with one hand, and then deftly draw himself up, taking with him the burning stick. He paused a moment on the bough, looked again toward the little camp and then climbed upward with a speed and dexterity worthy of a great monkey.

Ned saw the Mexican's figure going up and up, a dark blur against the stem of the tree, and it was hard to persuade himself that it was reality. He saw also the bright spark on the end of the stick that he carried with him. The tree rose to a height of nearly 150 feet, and when Urrea passed above the others that surrounded it, the moon's rays, unobstructed, fell upon him. Then, although he became smaller and smaller, Ned saw him more clearly. The boy was so much absorbed now in the story that was unfolding before him that he did not have time to wonder.

Urrea went up as high as the stem would sustain him. Then he rested his feet on a bough, wrapped his left arm around the tree, and, with his right arm, began to whirl the burning stick rapidly. The spark leaped up, grew into a blaze, and Ned saw a wheel of fire. He had seen many strange things, but this, influenced by circumstances of time and place, was the most uncanny of them all.

Far above his head, and above the body of the forest revolved the wheel of fire. Urrea's own body had melted away in the darkness, until it was fused with the tree. Ned now saw only the fiery signal, for such it must be, and his heart rose in fierce anger against Urrea. Once he lifted his rifle a little, and studied the possibilities of a shot at such range, but he put the rifle down again. He would watch and wait.

The wheel ceased presently to revolve, and Ned saw Urrea again, torch in hand, but motionless. He, too, was waiting. He did not stir for a full quarter of an hour, but all the while the torch burned steadily. Then he suddenly began to whirl it again, but in a direction opposite to that made by the first wheel of fire. Around and around went the burning brand for some minutes. When he stopped, he waited at least ten minutes longer. Then, as if he had received the answer that he wished, making the claim of communication complete, he dropped the torch. Ned saw it falling, a trail of light, until it struck among the bushes, where it went out. Then Urrea began to descend the tree, but he came down more slowly than he had gone up.

Ned slipped forward, seized Urrea's rifle, and then slipped back among the bushes. He put the Mexican's weapon at his feet, cocked his own and waited.

Urrea, coming slowly down the tree, stopped and stood there for a few moments as if in contemplation. A shaft of moonlight piercing through the foliage fell upon his face illumining the olive complexion and the well-cut features. It was hard for Ned to believe what he had seen. What could it be but a signal? and that signal to the enemies of the Texans! And yet Urrea did not look like a villain and traitor. There was certainly no malevolence in his face, which on the other hand had rather a melancholy cast, as he stood there on the bough before swinging to the ground.

Ned strengthened his will. He had seen what he had seen. Such things could not be passed over in times when lives were the forfeit of weakness. Urrea let himself lightly to the earth, and stooped down for his rifle. It was not there, and when he straightened up again Ned saw that his face was ghastly pale in the moonlight. Urrea, with his quick perceptions, was bound to know from the absence of the rifle that he had been followed and was caught. His hand went down toward his belt where a pistol hung, but Ned instantly called from the bush:

"Hands up, Don Francisco, or I shoot!"

His tone was stern and menacing, and Urrea's hands went up by the side of his head. But the paleness left his face, and his manner became careless and easy.

"Is that you, Ned?" he called in the most friendly tones. "Is it a joke that you play upon me? Ah, you Anglo-Saxons, you seem rough in your play to us Latins."

"It is no joke, Don Francisco. I was never more earnest in my life," said Ned, stepping from the bush, but still keeping Urrea covered with his rifle. "Your merits as a climber of trees are great, but you interested me more with your wheel of fire. I think I can account now for your absences, when any fighting with the Mexicans was to be done. You are a spy and you were signaling with that torch to our enemies."

Urrea laughed lightly, musically, and he regarded Ned with a look of amusement. It seemed to say to him that he was only a boy, that one so young was bound to make mistakes, but that the Mexican was not offended because he was making one now at his cost. The laugh was irritating to the last degree, and yet it implanted in the boy's mind a doubt, a fear that he might have been mistaken.

"Signaling to friends, not enemies, you mean," said Urrea. "This forest ends but a few hundred yards beyond, and I learned when I was scouting about San Antonio that some allies of ours in this region were waiting night and day for the news from us to come. I took this method to communicate with them, a successful method, too, I am happy to say, as they answered. In a wild region one must do strange things."

His tone was so light, so easy, and it rang so true that Ned hesitated. But it was only for a moment. Manner could not change substance. He cleared away the mists and vapors made by Urrea's light tone and easy assurance, and came back to the core of the matter.

"Don Francisco," he said, "I have liked you, and I believed that you were a true Texan patriot, but I cannot believe the story that you tell me. It seems too improbable. If you wished to make these signals to friends, why did you not tell us that you were going to do so?"

"I did not know of the possibility of such a signal until I saw this tree and its great height. Then, as all of you were asleep, I concluded to make my signal, achieve the result and give you a pleasant surprise. Come now, Senor Edward, hand me my rifle, and let us end this unpleasant joke."

Ned shook his head. It was hard to resist Urrea's assurance, but manner was not all. His logical mind rejected the story.

"I'm sorry, Don Francisco," he said, "but I must refer this to my comrades, Mr. Palmer and Mr. White. Meanwhile, I am compelled to hold you a prisoner. You will walk before me to the camp, keeping your hands up."

Urrea shrugged his shoulders and gave Ned a glance, which seemed to be a mixture of disgust and contempt.

"Very well, if you will have it so," he said. "There is nothing like the stubbornness of a boy."

"March!" said Ned, who felt his temper rising.

Urrea, hands up, walked toward the camp, and Ned came behind him, carrying the two rifles, one of them cocked and ready for instant use. The Mexican never looked back, but walked with unhesitating step straight to the camp. The Ring Tailed Panther and Obed were still sound asleep, but, when Ned called sharply to them, they sprang to their feet, gazing in astonishment at the spectacle of Urrea with his hands up, and the boy standing behind him with the two rifles.

"Things seem to have happened while I slept," said Obed.

"Looks as if there might have been some rippin' an' tearin'," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "What have you been up to, Urrea?"

Urrea gave the Ring Tailed Panther a malignant glance.

"I have not been up to anything, to use your own common language," he replied. "If you want any explanation, you can ask it of your suspicious young friend there. As for me, I am tired of holding my hands as high as my head, and I intend to light a cigarette. Three of you, I suppose, are sufficient to watch me."

There were still a few embers and touching his cigarette to one of them he sat down, leaned against the trunk of a tree and began to puff, as if the future of the case had no interest for him.

"Just hand me that pistol at your belt, will you?" said Obed. "There seems to be some kind of a difference of opinion between you and Ned, and, without knowing anything about it, I'm for Ned."

Urrea took the pistol and tossed it toward Obed. The Maine man caught it deftly and thrust it in his own belt. He did not seem to be at all offended by the young Mexican's contemptuous manner.

"Besides being one of the best watch makers the State of Maine ever produced," he said, "I'm pretty good at sleight-of-hand. I could catch loaded pistols all day, Urrea, if you were to pitch them at me."

Urrea did not deign a reply and Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther looked at Ned, who told them all he had seen. Urrea did not deny a thing or say a word throughout the narrative. When Ned finished the Ring Tailed Panther roared in his accustomed fashion.

"Signalin' to the enemy from a tree top while we was asleep an' he was supposed to be on guard!" he exclaimed. "What have you got to say to this, Urrea?"

"Our young paragon of knowledge and wilderness lore has given you my statement," replied Urrea. "You can believe it or not as you choose. I shall not waste another word on thickheads."

The teeth of the Ring Tailed Panther came together with a click, and he looked ominously at Urrea.

"You may not say anything," he growled, "but I will. I didn't trust you at first, Don Francisco, an' there have been times all along since then when I didn't trust you. You're a smooth talker, but your habit of disappearin' has been too much for me. I believe just as Ned does that you were signalin' to the enemy an' that you meant Texas harm, lots of harm. It was a lucky thing that the boy awoke. Now, what do you think, Obed?"

"Appearances are deceitful sometimes but not always. Don Francisco seems to have spun a likely yarn to Ned, but I've heard better and they were not so mighty much."

"You see the jury is clean ag'inst you, Don Francisco," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "an' it's goin' to hold you to a higher court. Did you hear what I said?"

Urrea nodded.

"Yes, I heard you," he replied, "but I heard only foolishness."

The Ring Tailed Panther growled, but he had the spirit of a gentleman. He would not upbraid a prisoner.

"The verdict of the jury bein' given," he said soberly, "we've got to hold the prisoner till we reach the higher court. We ain't takin' no chances, Urrea, an' for that reason we've got to tie you. Ned, cut off a piece of that lariat."

Urrea leaped to his feet. He was stung at last.

"I will not be bound," he cried.

"Yes, you will," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "I ain't goin' to hurt you, 'cause I'm pretty handy at that sort of thing, but I'll tie you so you won't get loose in a hurry. Better set down an' take it easy."

Urrea, after the single flash of anger, sat down, and resuming his careless air, held out his hands.

"Since you intend to act like barbarians as well as fools," he said, "I will not seek to impede you."

None of the three replied. The Ring Tailed Panther handily tied his wrists together, and then his ankles, but in such fashion that he could still sit in comfort, leaning against the tree, although the pleasure of the cigarette was no longer for him.

"If you don't mind," he said, "I think I shall go to sleep."

"No objections a-tall, a-tall," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "Have nice dreams."

Urrea closed his eyes, and his chest soon rose and fell in the regular manner of one who sleeps. Ned could not tell whether he really slept. A feeling of compassion for Urrea rose again in his heart. What if he should be telling the truth after all? Wild and improbable tales sometimes came true. He was about to speak of his thoughts to the men, but he checked himself. Disbelief was returning. It was best to take every precaution.

"You go to sleep, Ned," said Obed. "You've done a good job and you are entitled to a rest. The Panther and I will watch till day."

Ned lay down between his blankets and everything was so still that contrary to his expectations, he fell asleep, and did not awaken again until after dawn, when Obed told him that they would resume the march, eating their breakfast as they went. Urrea was unbound, although he was first searched carefully for concealed weapons.

"I wouldn't have a man to ride with his arms tied," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "but we'll keep on both sides of you an' you needn't try to make a bolt of it, Urrea."

"I shall not try to make any bolt of it," said Urrea scornfully, "but you will pay dearly to Austin and Houston for the indignity that you have put upon me."

The Ring Tailed Panther, true to his principle of never taunting a prisoner, did not reply, and they mounted. The Panther rode ahead and Obed and Ned, with Urrea between them, followed. Urrea was silent, his face melancholy and reproachful.

The belt of timber extended only a few hundred yards farther, when they came upon the open prairie extending to the horizon. Far to the left some antelope were feeding, but there was no other sign of life of any kind.

"I don't see anything of them friends of ours to whom you were signalin'," said the Ring Tailed Panther.

Urrea would not reply. The Panther said nothing further, and they rode on over the prairie. But both the Ring Tailed Panther and Obed were watching the ground, and, when they had gone about two miles, they reined in their horses.

"See!" they exclaimed simultaneously.

They had come to a broad trail cutting directly across their path. It was made by at least a hundred horses, and the veriest novice could not have missed it. The trail was that of shod hoofs, indicating the presence of white men.

"What is this, Don Francisco?" asked the Ring Tailed Panther.

"I do not have to reply to you unless I wish," said Urrea, "but I am willing to tell you that it is undoubtedly the trail of the Texan reinforcements to which I was signaling last night."

Ned looked quickly at him. Again the young Mexican's voice had the ring of truth. Was the wild and improbable tale now coming true? If so, he could never forgive himself for the manner in which he had treated Urrea. Still, it was for the older men to act now, and he continued his silence.

"Maybe Texans made this trail, and maybe they didn't," said Obed, "but I think we'd better follow it for a while and see. About how old would you say this trail is, Panther?"

"Not more'n two hours."

They turned their course, and followed the broad path left by the horsemen across the prairie. Thus they rode at a good pace, until nearly noon, and the trail was now so fresh that they could not be far away. The change of direction had brought them toward forest, heavy with undergrowth. It was evident that the horsemen had gone into this forest as the trail continued to lead straight to it, and the Ring Tailed Panther approached with the greatest caution.

"Can you see anything, Ned, in there among them trees an' bushes?" he asked. "You've got the sharpest eyes of all."

"Not a thing," replied Ned, "nor do I see a bough or bush moving."

"It would be hard for such a big party to hide themselves," said Obed, "so I think we'd better ride straight in."

They entered the forest, still following the trail among the trampled bushes, riding slowly over rough ground, and watching wanly to right and left. Urrea had not said a word, but when they were about a mile within the wood, he suddenly leaned from his horse, snatched the knife from the belt of the Ring Tailed Panther and slashed at him. Fortunately, the range was somewhat long for such work, and, as the Panther threw up his arm, the blade merely cut his buckskin sleeve from wrist to elbow, only grazing his skin. Urrea, quick as lightning, turned his horse, threw him against that of Obed which was staggered, and then started at a gallop among the trees.

The Ring Tailed Panther raised his rifle, but Urrea threw himself behind his horse, riding with all the dexterity of a Comanche in the fashion of an Indian who wishes to protect himself; that is, hanging on the far side of the horse by only hands and toes. The Panther shifted his aim and shot the horse through the head. But Urrea leaped clear of the falling body, avoided Obed's bullet, and darted into the thickest of the bushes. As he disappeared a sharp, piercing whistle rose. Ned did not have time to think, but when he heard the whistle, instinct warned him that it was a signal. He had heard that whistle once before in exciting moments, and by a nervous action as it were, he pulled hard upon the reins of his horse. In this emergency it was the boy whose action was the wisest.

"Come back, Obed, you and Panther!" he shouted. "He may have led us into an ambush!"

Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther were still galloping after Urrea, and, even as Ned shouted to them, a flash of flame burst from the undergrowth. He saw Obed's horse fall, but Obed himself sprang clear. The Panther did not seem to be hurt, but, in an instant, both were surrounded by Mexicans. Obed was seized on the ground and the Panther was quickly dragged from his horse. But the Maine man, even in such a critical moment, did not forget the boy for whom he had such a strong affection. He shouted at the top of his voice:

"Ride, Ned! Ride for your life!"

Ned, still guided by impulse, wheeled his horse and galloped away. It was evident that his comrades had been taken, and he alone was left to carry out their mission. Shots were fired at him and bullets whistled past, but none touched him, and he only urged his horse to greater speed.

The boy felt a second impulse. It was to turn back and fall, or be taken with the two comrades whom he liked so well. But then reason came. He could do more for them free than a captive, and now he began to take full thought for himself. He bent far over on his horse's neck, in order to make as small a target as possible, holding the reins with one hand and his rifle with the other. A minute had taken him clear of the undergrowth, and once more he was on the prairie.

Ned did not look back for some time. He heard several shots, but he judged by the reports that he was practically out of range. Now he began to feel sanguine. His horse was good and true, and he rode well. As long as the bullets could not reach and weaken, he felt that the chances were greatly in his favor. He was riding almost due north and the prairie stretched away without limit, although the forest extended for a long distance on his right.

He now straightened up somewhat in the saddle, but he did not yet look back, fearing that he might check his speed by doing so, and knowing that every moment was of the utmost value. But he listened attentively to the pursuing hoofs and he was sure that the beat was steadily growing fainter. The gap must be widening.

He glanced back for the first time and saw about twenty Mexicans spread out in the segment of a circle. They rode ponies and two or three were recoiling lariats which they had evidently got ready in the hope of a throw. Ned smiled to himself when he saw the lariats. Unless something happened to his horse they could never come near enough for a cast. He measured the gap and he believed that his rifle of long range would carry it.

One of the Mexicans rode a little in front of the others and Ned judged him to be the leader. Twisting in his saddle he took aim at him. It is difficult to shoot backward from a flying horse, but Ned had undergone the wilderness training and he felt that he could make the hit. He pulled the trigger. The jet of smoke leaped forth and the man, swaying, fell from his saddle, but sprang to his feet and clapped his hands to his shoulder, where the boy's bullet had struck.

There was confusion among the Mexicans, as it was really their leader whom Ned had wounded, and, before the pursuit was resumed with energy, the fugitive had gained another hundred yards. After that, the gap widened steadily, and, when he looked back a second time, the Mexicans were a full quarter of a mile in the rear. He maintained his speed and in another hour they were lost behind the swells.

Sure that he had now made good his escape, Ned pulled his horse down to a walk. The good animal was dripping with foam and perspiration and he did not allow him to cool too fast. Without his horse he would be lost. But when they had gone on another hour at a walk, he stopped and let him have a complete rest.

Ned was not able to see anything of the Mexicans. The prairie, as far as he could tell, was bare of human life save himself. To his right was the dark line of the forest, but everywhere else the open extended to the horizon. He had escaped!

They had started as four and now but one was left. Urrea had proved to be a traitor and his good friends, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther were captured or--he refused to consider the alternative. They were alive. Two men, so strong and vital as they, could not have fallen.

Now that his horse had rested, Ned mounted again, and rode at a trot for the forest. He knew the direction in which the settlements lay, and he could go on with his mission. Men would say that he had shown great skill and presence of mind in escaping from the ambush, when those older and more experienced had been trapped. But when the alternatives were presented to Ned's mind he had not hesitated. They were lingering before San Antonio and the call for volunteers was not so urgent. He was going back to rescue his comrades or be taken or fall in the attempt.

One of the great qualities in Ned's mind was gratitude. Had it not been for Obed he might yet be under the sea in a dungeon of the Castle of San Juan de Ulua. The Ring Tailed Panther had done him a hundred services, and would certainly risk his life, if need be, to save Ned's. He would never desert them.

The forest was not so near as it looked on the prairie, but two hours' riding brought him to it. He knew that it was the same forest in which Obed and the Panther had been taken, here extending for many miles.

He believed that the Mexicans, being far north of their usual range, would remain in the forest, and he was glad of it. He could work much better under cover than on the prairie. This was undoubtedly the Mexican band of which the old hunter had spoken, and Urrea had given his signal to it from the tree. Ned did not believe that it would remain long in this region, but would go swiftly south, probably to reinforce Cos in San Antonio. He must act with speed.

It was several hours until night, and he rode southward through the forest which consisted chiefly of oak, ash, maple and sweet gum. There was not much undergrowth here, and he did not have any great fear of ambush. Turning in, yet farther to the right, he saw a fine creek, and he followed its course until the undergrowth began to grow thick again. Then he dismounted and fastened his horse at the end of his lariat.

The boy had already come to his conclusion. The presence of the creek had decided him. He believed that the Mexicans, for the sake of water, had encamped somewhere along its course, and all he had to do was to follow its stream. He marked well the spot at which he was leaving his horse, and began what he believed to be the last stage of his journey.

Ned was glad now that the undergrowth was dense. It concealed him well, and he had acquired skill enough to go through it swiftly and without noise. He advanced two or three miles, when he saw a faint light ahead, and he was quite sure that it came from the Mexican camp. As he went nearer, he heard the sound of many voices, and, when he came to the edge of a thicket, belief became certainty.

The entire Mexican force was encamped in a semi-circular glade next to the creek. The horses were tethered at the far side, and the men, eighty or a hundred in number, were lying or standing about several fires that burned brightly. It was a cold night, and the Mexicans were making themselves comfortable. They were justified in doing so, as they knew that there was no Texan force anywhere within a day's ride. They had put out no sentinels, quite sure that wandering Texans who might see them would quickly go the other way.

Ned crept up as close as he dared, and, lying on his side in a dense thicket, watched them. Their fires were large, and a bright moon was shining. The whole glade was filled with light. The Mexicans talked much, after their fashion, and there was much moving about from fire to fire. Presently the eyes of the boy watching in the bush lighted up with a gleam which was not exactly that of benevolence.

Urrea was passing before one of the fires. Ned saw him clearly now, the trim, well-knit figure, and the handsome, melancholy face. But he was no prisoner. Many of the Mexicans made way for him and all showed him deference. Ned had liked Urrea, but he could not understand how a man could play the spy and traitor in such a manner, and his heart flamed with bitterness against him.

The Mexicans continued to shift about, and when two more men came into view Ned's heart leaped. They were alive! Prisoners they were, but yet alive. He had believed that two so vivid and vital as they could not perish, and he was right.

Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther sat with their backs against the same tree. They were unbound but the armed Mexicans were all about them, and they did not have a chance. They were thirty yards away, and Ned could see them very plainly, yet there was a wall between him and these trusty comrades of his.

Obed and the Panther remained motionless against the tree. Apparently they took no interest in the doings of the Mexicans. Ned, yet seeing no way in which he could help them, watched them a long time. He saw Urrea, after a while, come up and stand before them. The light was good enough for him to see that Urrea's expression was sneering and triumphant. Again Ned's heart swelled with rage. The traitor was exulting over the captives.

Urrea began to speak. Ned could not hear his words, but he knew by the movement of the man's lips that he was talking fast. Undoubtedly he was taunting the prisoners with words as well as looks. But neither Obed nor the Ring Tailed Panther made any sign that he heard. They continued to lean carelessly against the tree, and Urrea, his desire to give pain foiled for the time, went away.

Now Ned bestirred his mind. Here were the Mexicans, and here were his friends. How should he separate them? He could think of nothing at present and he drew back deeper into the forest. There, lying very close among the bushes, he pondered a long time. He might try to stampede the horses, but the attempt would be more than doubtful, and he gave up the idea.

It was now growing late and the fires in the Mexican camp were sinking. The wind began to blow, and the leaves rustled dryly over Ned's head. Best thoughts sometimes spring from little things, and it was the dry rustle of the leaves that gave Ned his idea. It was a desperate chance, but he must take it. The increasing strength of the wind increased his hope. It was blowing from him directly toward the camp.

He retreated about a quarter of a mile. Then he hunted until he found where the fallen leaves lay thickest, and he raked them into a great heap. Drawing both the flint and steel which he, like other borderers, always carried, he worked hard until the spark leaped forth and set the leaves on fire. Then he stood back.

The forest was dry like tinder. Ned had nothing to do but to set the torch. In an instant the leaves leaped into a roaring flame. The blaze ran higher, took hold of the trees and ran from bough to bough. It sprang to other trees, and, in an incredibly brief space, a forest fire, driven by the wind, sending forth sparks in myriads, and roaring and crackling, was racing down upon the Mexican camp.

Ned kept behind the fire and to one side. Sparks fell upon him, and the smoke was in his eyes and ears, but he thought little just then of such things. The fire, like many others of its kind, took but a narrow path. It was as if a flaming sword blade were slashed down across the woods.

Ned saw it through the veil of smoke rush upon the Mexican camp. He saw the startled Mexicans running about, and he heard the shrill neigh of frightened horses. Never was a camp abandoned more quickly. The men sprang upon their horses and scattered in every direction through the woods. Two on horseback crowded by Ned. They did not see him, nor did he pay any attention to them, but when a third man on foot came, running at the utmost speed, the boy seized him by the shoulder, and was dragged from his feet.

"It is I, Obed!" he cried. "It is I, Ned Fulton!"

Obed White stopped abruptly and the Ring Tailed Panther, unable to check himself, crashed into him. The three, men and boy, went to the ground, where they lay for a few moments among the bushes, half stunned. It was a fortunate chance, as Urrea, who had retained his presence of mind, was on horseback looking for the prisoners, and he passed so near that he would have seen them had they been standing.

The three rose slowly to their feet and the two men gazed in admiration at Ned.

"You did it!" they exclaimed together.

"I did," replied Ned with pride, "and it has worked beautifully."

"I was never so much in love with a forest fire before," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "How it roars an' tears an' bites! An' just let it roar an' tear an' bite!"

"We'd better go on the back track," said Obed. "The Mexicans are all running in other directions."

"My horse is back that way, too," said Ned. "Come on."

They started back, running along the edge of the burned area. Before they had gone far the Ring Tailed Panther caught a saddled and bridled horse which was galloping through the woods, and, they were so much emboldened, that they checked their flight, and hunted about until they found a second.

"There must be at least thirty or forty of 'em dashin' about through the woods, mad with fright," said Obed.

"Three are all we can use, includin' Ned's," said the Ring Tailed Panther, "but I wish we had more weapons."

They had found across the saddle of one of the horses a couple of pistols in holsters, but they had no other weapons except those that Ned carried. But they were free and they had horses. The Ring Tailed Panther's customary growl between his teeth became a chant of triumph.

"Did the Mexicans capture Obed an' me?" he said. "They did. Did they keep us? They didn't. Why didn't they? There was a boy named Ned who escaped. He was a smart boy, a terribly smart boy. Did he run away an' leave us? He didn't. There was only one trick in the world that he could work to save us, an' he worked it. Oh, it was funny to see the Mexicans run with the fire scorchin' the backs of their ears. But that boy, Ned, ain't he smart? He whipped a hundred Mexicans all by himself."

Ned blushed.

"Stop that, you Panther," he said, "or I'll call for Urrea to come and take you back."

"Having horses," said Obed, "there is no reason why we shouldn't ride. Here, jump up behind me, Ned."

They were very soon back at the point where Ned had left his own horse, and found him lying contentedly on his side. Then, well mounted each on his own horses they resumed their broken journey. _

Read next: Chapter 21. The Texan Star

Read previous: Chapter 19. The Battle By The River

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