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

Chapter 22. The Taking Of The Town

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The December sun, clear and cold, bathed the whole town in light. Houses, whether of stone, adobe or wood, were tinted a while with gold, but everywhere in the streets and over the roofs floated white puffs of smoke from the firing, which had never ceased on the part of the Mexicans. The crash of rifles and muskets was incessant, and every minute or two came the heavy boom of the cannon with which Cos swept the streets. The Texans themselves now pulled the trigger but little, calmly waiting their opportunity.

Ned and his comrades still lay on the roof of the Veramendi house. The boy's heart beat fast but the scene was wild and thrilling to the last degree. He felt a great surge of pride that he should have a share in so great an event. From the other side of the river came the rattle of rifle fire, and he knew that it was the detachment from Burleson attacking the Alamo. But presently the sounds there died.

"They are drawing off," said Obed, "and it is right. It is their duty to help us here, but I don't see how they can ever get into San Antonio. I wish the Mexicans didn't have those cannon which are so much heavier than ours."

The Texans had brought with them a twelve pounder and a six pounder, but the twelve pounder had already been dismounted by the overpowering Mexican fire, and, without protection they were unable to use the six pounder which they had drawn into the patio, where it stood silent.

Ned from his corner could see the mouths of the guns in the heavy Mexican battery at the far end of the plaza, and he watched the flashes of flame as they were fired one by one. In the intervals he saw a lithe, strong figure appear on the breastwork, and he was quite sure that it was Urrea.

An hour of daylight passed. From the house of De La Garcia the other division of Texans began to fire, the sharp lashing of their rifles sounding clearly amid the duller crash of musketry and cannon from the Mexicans. The Texans in the lower part of the Veramendi house were also at work with their rifles. Every man was a sharpshooter, and, whenever a Mexican came from behind a barricade, he was picked off. But the Mexicans had also taken possession of houses and they were firing with muskets from windows and loopholes.

"We must shoot down the cannoneers," shouted the Ring Tailed Panther to "Deaf" Smith.

Smith nodded. The men on the roof were fifteen in number and now they devoted their whole attention to the battery. Despite the drifting smoke they hit gunner after gunner. The fever in Ned's blood grew. Everything was red before him. His temples throbbed like fire. The spirit of battle had taken full hold of him, and he fired whenever he caught a glimpse of a Mexican.

"Deaf" Smith was on Ned's right, and he picked off a gunner. But to do so he had lifted his head and shoulders above the coping. A figure rose up behind the Mexican barricade and fired in return. "Deaf" Smith uttered a little cry, and clapped his hand to his shoulder.

"Never mind," he said in reply to anxious looks. "It's in the fleshy part only, and I'm not badly hurt."

The bullet had gone nearly through the shoulder and was just under the skin on the other side. The Ring Tailed Panther cut it out with his bowie knife and bound up the wound tightly with strips from his hunting shirt. But Ned, although it was only a fleeting glimpse, had recognized the marksman. It was Urrea who had sent the bullet through "Deaf" Smith's shoulder. He was proving himself a formidable foe.

But the men on the roof continued their deadly sharpshooting, and now, the battery, probably at Urrea's suggestion, began to turn its attention to them. Ned was seized suddenly by Obed and pulled flat. There was a roaring and hissing sound over his head as a twelve pound cannon ball passed, and Ned said to Obed: "I thank you." The cannon shot was followed by a storm of bullets and then by more cannon shots. The Mexican guns were served well that day. The coping was shot away and the Texans were in imminent danger from the flying pieces. They were glad when the last of it was gone.

But they did not yet dare to raise themselves high enough for a shot. Balls, shell, and bullets swept the roof without ceasing. Ned lay on his side, almost flat. He listened to the ugly hissing and screaming over his head until it became unbearable. He turned over on his other side and looked at Smith, their leader. Smith was pale and weak from his wound, but he smiled wanly.

"You don't speak, but your face asks your question, Ned," he said. "I hate to say it, but we can't hold this roof. I never knew the Mexicans to shoot so well before, and their numbers and cannon give them a great advantage. Below, lads, as soon as you can!"

They crept down the stairway, and found that the house itself was suffering from the Mexican cannon. Holes had been smashed in the walls, but here the Texans were always replying with their rifles. They also heard the steady fire in the house of De La Garcia and they knew that their comrades were standing fast. Ned, exhausted by the great tension, sat down on a willow sofa. His hands were trembling and his face was wet with perspiration. The Ring Tailed Panther sat down beside him.

"Good plan to rest a little, Ned," he said. "We've come right into a hornets' nest an' the hornets are stingin' us hard. Listen to that, will you!"

A cannon ball smashed through the wall, passed through the room in which they were sitting, and dropped spent in another room beyond. Obed joined them on the sofa.

"A cannon ball never strikes in the same place twice," misquoted Obed. "So it's safer here than it is anywhere else in this Veramendi house. I'd help with the rifles but there's no room for me at the windows and loopholes just now."

"Our men are giving it back to them," said Ned. "Listen how the rifles crackle!"

The battle was increasing in heat. The Mexicans, despite their artillery, and their heavy barricades, were losing heavily at the hands of the sharpshooters. The Texans, sheltered in the buildings, were suffering little, but their position was growing more dangerous every minute. They were inside the town, but the force of Burleson outside was unable to come to their aid. Meanwhile, they must fight five to one, but they addressed themselves with unflinching hearts to the task. Even in the moment of imminent peril they did not think of retreat, but clung to their original purpose of taking San Antonio.

Ned, tense and restless, was unable to remain more than a few minutes on the sofa. He wandered into another room and saw a large table spread with food. Bread and meat were in the dishes, and there were pots of coffee. All was now cold. Evidently they had been making ready for early breakfast in the Veramendi house when the Texans came. Ned called to his friends.

"Why shouldn't we use it!" he said, "even if it is cold?"

"Why shouldn't we?" said Obed. "Even though we fight we must live."

They took the food and coffee, cold as it was, to the men, and they ate and drank eagerly. Then they searched everywhere and found large supplies of provisions in the house, so much, in fact, that the Ring Tailed Panther growled very pleasantly between his teeth.

"There's enough here," he said, "to last two or three days, an' it's well when you're in a fort, ready to stand a siege, to have something to eat."

Some of the men now left the windows and loopholes to get a rest and Ned found a place at one of them. Peeping out he saw the bare street, torn by shot and shell. He saw the flash of the Texan rifles from the De La Garcia house and he saw the blaze of the Mexican cannon in the plaza. Mexican men, women and children on the flat roofs, out of range, were eagerly watching the battle. Clouds of smoke drifted over the city.

While Ned was at the window, a second cannon ball smashed through the wall of the Veramendi house, and caused the debris to fall in masses. The Colonel grew uneasy. The cannon gave the Mexicans an immense advantage, and they were now using it to the utmost. The house would be battered down over the heads of the Texans, and they could not live in the streets, which the Mexicans, from their dominating position, could sweep with cannon and a thousand rifles and muskets. A third ball crashed through the wall and demolished the willow sofa on which the three had been sitting. Plaster rained down upon the Texans. They looked at one another. They could not stay in the house nor could they go out. A boy suddenly solved the difficulty.

"Let's dig a trench across the street to the De La Garcia house!" cried Ned, "and join our comrades there!"

"That's the thing!" they shouted. They had not neglected to bring intrenching tools with them, and they found spades and shovels about the house. But in order to secure the greatest protection for their work they decided to wait until night, confident that they could hold their present position throughout the day.

It was many hours until the darkness, and the fire rose and fell at intervals. More shattered plaster fell upon them, but they were still holding the wreck of a house, when the welcome twilight deepened and darkened into the night. Then they began work just inside the doorway, cutting fast through plaster and adobe, and soon reaching the street. They made the trench fairly wide, intending to get their six pounder across also. Just behind those who worked with spade and shovel came the riflemen.

A third of the way across, and the Mexicans discovered what was going on. Once more a storm of cannon, rifle and musket balls swept the street, but the Texans, bent down in their trench, toiled on, throwing the dirt above their heads and out on either side. The riflemen behind them, sheltered by the earth, replied to the Mexican fire, and, despite the darkness, picked off many men.

Ned was just behind Obed, and the Ring Tailed Panther was following him. All three were acting as riflemen. Obed was seeking a glimpse of Urrea, but he did not get it. Ned was watching for a shot at the gunners.

Once the Mexicans under the cover of their artillery undertook to charge down the street, but the sharpshooters in the trench quickly drove them back.

Thus they burrowed like a great mole all the way across Soledad Street, and joined their comrades in the strong house of De La Garcia. They also succeeded in getting both of their cannon into the house, and, now united, the Texans were encouraged greatly. Ned found all the rooms filled with men. A party broke through the joint wall and entered the next house, thus taking them nearer to the plaza and the Mexican fortifications.

All through the night intermittent firing went on. The Mexicans increased their fortifications, preparing for a desperate combat on the morrow. They threw up new earthworks, and they loopholed many of the houses that they held. Cos, his dark face darker with rage and fury, went among them, urging them to renewed efforts, telling them that they were bound to take prisoners all the Texans whom they did not slay in battle, and that they should hang every prisoner. Great numbers of the women and children had hidden in the Alamo on the other side of the river. San Antonio itself was stripped for battle, and the hatred between Texan and Mexican, so unlike in temperament, flamed into new heat.

Ned was worn to the bone. His lips were burnt with his feverish breath. The smoke stung his eyes and nostrils, and his limbs ached. He felt that he must rest or die, and, seeing two men sound asleep on the floor of one of the rooms, he flung himself down beside them. He slept in a few minutes and Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther seeing him there did not disturb him.

"If any boy has been through more than he has," said Obed, "I haven't heard of him."

"An' I guess that he an' all of us have got a lot more comin'," said the Ring Tailed Panther grimly. "Cos ain't goin' to give up here without the terriblest struggle of his life. He can't afford to do it."

"Reckon you're right," said Obed.

Ned awoke the next morning with the taste of gunpowder in his mouth, but the Texans, besides finding food in the houses, had brought some with them, and he ate an ample breakfast. Then ensued a day that he found long and monotonous. Neither side made any decided movement. There was occasional firing, but they rested chiefly on their arms. In the course of the second night the Mexicans opened another trench, from which they began to fire at dawn, but the Texan rifles quickly put them to flight.

The Texans now began to grow restless. Cooped up in two houses they were in the way of one another and they demanded freedom and action. Henry Karnes suggested that they break into another house closer to the plaza. Milam consented and Karnes, followed closely by Ned, Obed, the Ring Tailed Panther and thirty others, dashed out, smashed in the door of the house, and were inside before the astonished Mexicans could open an accurate fire upon them. Here they at once secured themselves and their bullets began to rake the plaza. The Mexicans were forced to throw up more and higher intrenchments.

Again the combat became intermittent. There were bursts of rifle fire, and occasional shots from the cannon, and, now and then, short periods of almost complete silence. Night came on and Ned, watching from the window, saw Colonel Milam, their leader, pass down the trench and enter the courtyard of the Veramendi house. He stood there a moment, looking at the Mexican position. A musket cracked and the Texan, throwing up his arms, fell. He was dead by the time he touched the ground. The ball had struck him in the center of the forehead.

Ned uttered a cry of grief, and it was taken up by all the Texans who had seen their leader fall. A half dozen men rushed forward and dragged away his body, but that night they buried it in the patio. His death only incited them to new efforts. As soon as his burial was finished they rushed another house in their slow advance, one belonging to Antonio Navarro, a solid structure only one block from the great plaza. They also stormed and carried a redoubt which the Mexicans had erected in the street beside the house. It now being midnight they concluded to rest until the morrow. Meanwhile, they had elected Johnson their leader.

Ned was in the new attack and with Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther he was in the Navarro house. It was the fourth that he had occupied since the attack on San Antonio. He felt less excitement than on the night before. It seemed to him that he was becoming hardened to everything. He looked at his comrades and laughed. They were no longer in the semblance of white men. Their faces were so blackened with smoke, dirt and burned gunpowder that they might have passed for negroes.

"You needn't laugh, Ned," said Obed. "You're just as black as we are. This thing of changing your boarding house every night by violence and the use of firearms doesn't lead to neatness. If fine feathers make fine birds then we three are about the poorest flock that ever flew."

"But when we go for a house we always get it," said the Ring Tailed Panther. "You notice that. This place belongs to Antonio Navarro. I've met him in San Antonio, an' I don't like him, but I'm willin' to take his roof an' bed."

Ned took the roof but not the bed. He could not sleep that night, and it was found a little later that none would have a chance to sleep. The Mexicans, advancing over the other houses, the walls of all of which joined, cut loopholes in the roof of the Navarro house and opened fire upon the Texans below. The Texans, with surer aim, cleared the Mexicans away from the loopholes, then climbed to the roof and drove them off entirely.

But no one dared to sleep after this attack, and Ned watched all through the dark hours. Certainly they were having action enough now, and he was wondering what the fourth day would bring forth. From an upper window he watched the chilly sun creep over the horizon once more, and the dawn brought with it the usual stray rifle and musket shots. Both Texan and Mexican sharpshooters were watching at every loophole, and whenever they saw a head they fired at it. But this was only the beginning, the crackling prelude to the event that was to come.

"Come down, Ned," said Obed, "and get your breakfast. We've got coffee and warm corn cakes and we'll need 'em, as we're already tired of this boarding house and we intend to find another."

"Can't stay more than one night in a place while we're in San Antonio," said the Ring Tailed Panther, growling pleasantly. "A restless lot we are an' it's time to move on again."

Ned ate and drank in silence. His nerves were quite steady, and he had become so used to battle that he awaited whatever they were going to attempt, almost without curiosity.

"Ain't you wantin' to know what we're goin' to do, Ned?" asked the Ring Tailed Panther.

"I'm thinking that I'll find out pretty quick," replied Ned.

"Now this boy is shorely makin' a fine soldier," said the Panther to Obed. "He don't ask nothin' about what he's goin' to do, but just eats an' waits orders."

Ned smiled and ate another corn cake.

"Maybe," said Obed, "we'll meet our friend Urrea in the attack we're going to make. If so, I'll take a shot at him, and I won't have any remorse about it, either, if I hit him."

They did not wait long. A strong body of the Texans gathered on the lower floor, many carrying, in addition to their weapons, heavy iron crowbars. The doors were suddenly thrown open and they rushed out into the cool morning air, making for a series of stone houses called the Zambrano Row, the farthest of which opened upon the main plaza, where the Mexicans were fortified so strongly. Scattering shots from muskets and rifles greeted them, but as usual, when any sudden movement occurred, the Mexicans fired wildly, and the Texans broke into the first of the houses, before they could take good aim.

Ned was one of the last inside. He had lingered with the others to repel any rush that the Mexicans might make. He was watching the Mexican barricade, and he saw heads rise above it. One rose higher than the rest and he recognized Urrea. The Mexican saw Ned also, and the eyes of the two met. Urrea's were full of anger and malice, and raising his rifle he fired straight at the boy. Ned felt the bullet graze his cheek, and instantly he fired in reply. But Urrea had quickly dropped down behind the barricade and the bullet missed. Then Ned rushed into the house.

The boy was blazing with indignation. He had spared Urrea's life, and yet the Mexican had sought at the first opportunity to kill him. He could not understand a soul of such caliber. But the incident passed from his mind, for the time being, in the strenuous work that they began now to do.

They broke through partition wall after wall with their powerful picks and crowbars. Stones fell about them. Plaster and dust rained down, but the men relieving one another, the work with the heavy tools was never stopped until they penetrated the interior of the last house in the row. Then the Texans uttered a grim cry of exultation. They looked from the narrow windows directly over the main plaza and their rifles covered the Mexican barricades. The Mexicans tried to drive them out of the houses with the guns, but the solid stone walls resisted balls and shells, and the Texan rifles shot down the gunners.

Then ensued another silence, broken by distant firing, caused by another attack upon the Texan camp outside the town. It was driven off quickly and the Texans in the houses lay quiet until evening. Then they heard a great shouting, the occasion of which they did not know until later. Ugartchea with six hundred men had arrived from the Rio Grande to help Cos. But it would not have made any difference with the Texans had they known. They were determined to take San Antonio, and all the time they were pressing harder on Cos.

That night, the Texans, Ned with them, seized another large building called the Priests' House, which looked directly over the plaza, and now their command of the Mexican situation was complete. Nothing could live in the square under their fire, and in the night Ned saw the Mexicans withdrawing, leaving their cannon behind.

Exhaustion compelled the boy to sleep from midnight until day, when he was roused by Obed.

"The Mexicans have all gone across the river to the Alamo," said the Maine man. "San Antonio is ours."

Ned went forth with his comrades. Obed had told the truth. The great seat of the Mexican power in the north was theirs. Three hundred daring men, not strongly supported by those whom they had left behind, had penetrated to the very heart of the city through house after house, and had driven out the defenders who were five to their one.

The plaza and Soledad Street presented a somber aspect. The Mexican dead, abandoned by their comrades, lay everywhere. The Texan rifles had done deadly work. The city itself was silent and deserted.

"Most of the population has gone with the Mexican army to the Alamo," said Obed. "I suppose we'll have to attack that, too."

But Cos, the haughty and vindictive general, did not have the heart for a new battle with the Texans. He sent a white flag to Burleson and surrendered. Ned was present when the flag came, and the leader of the little party that brought it was Urrea. The young Mexican had lost none of his assurance.

"You have won now," he said to Ned, "but bear in mind that we will come again. You have yet to hear from Mexico and Santa Anna."

"When Santa Anna comes he will find us here ready to meet him," replied Ned.

The Texans in the hour of their great and marvelous victory behaved with humanity and moderation. Cos and his army, which still doubled in numbers both the Texans who had been inside and outside San Antonio, were permitted to retire on parole beyond the Rio Grande. They left in the hands of the Texans twenty-one cannon and great quantities of ammunition. Rarely has such a victory been won by so small a force and in reality with the rifle alone. All the Texans felt that it was a splendid culmination to a perilous campaign.

Ned, Obed and the Ring Tailed Panther, seated on their horses, watched the captured army of Cos march away.

"Well, Texas is free," said the Ring Tailed Panther.

"And San Antonio is ours," said Obed.

"But Santa Anna will come," said Ned, remembering the words of Urrea.

Joseph A. Altsheler's Novel: Texan Star: The Story of a Great Fight for Liberty


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