"Good words," said Obed White. "A speech in time saves errors nine."
"I am glad you have put the question, Mr. Palmer," said Roylston. "Our affairs have come to a crisis, and we must consider. I, too, wish to help Texas, but I can help it more by other ways than battle."
It did not occur to any of them to doubt him. He had already established over them the mental ascendency that comes from a great mind used to dealing with great affairs.
"But we are practically dismounted," he continued. "It is winter and we do not know what would happen to us if we undertook to roam over the prairies as we are. On the other hand, we have an abundance of arms and ammunition and a large and well-built cabin. I suggest that we supply ourselves with food, and stay here until we can acquire suitable mounts. We may also contrive to keep a watch upon any Mexican armies that may be marching north. I perhaps have more reason than any of you for hastening away, but I can spend the time profitably in regaining the use of my limbs."
"Your little talk sounds mighty good to me," said the Panther. "In fact, I don't see anything else to do. This cabin must have been built an' left here 'speshully fur us. We know, too, that the Texans have all gone home, thinkin' that the war is over, while we know different an' mebbe we can do more good here than anywhere else. What do you say, boys? Do we stay?"
"We stay," replied all together.
They went to work at once fitting up their house. More firewood was brought in. Fortunately the men had been provided with hatchets, in the frontier style, which their rescuers had not neglected to bring away, and they fixed wooden hooks in the walls for their extra arms and clothing. A half dozen scraped away a large area of the thin snow and enabled the horses to find grass. A fine spring two hundred yards away furnished a supply of water.
After the horses had eaten Obed, the Panther and Ned rode away in search of game, leaving Mr. Roylston in command at the cabin.
The snow was no longer falling, and that which lay on the ground was melting rapidly.
"I know this country," said the Panther, "an' we've got four chances for game. It may be buffalo, it may be deer, it may be antelope, and it may be wild turkeys. I think it most likely that we'll find buffalo. We're so fur west of the main settlements that they're apt to hang 'roun' here in the winter in the creek bottoms, an' if it snows they'll take to the timber fur shelter."
"And it has snowed," said Ned.
"Jest so, an' that bein' the case we'll search the timber. Of course big herds couldn't crowd in thar, but in this part of the country we gen'rally find the buffalo scattered in little bands."
They found patches of forest, generally dwarfed in character, and looked diligently for the great game. Once a deer sprang out of a thicket, but sped away so fast they did not get a chance for a shot. At length Obed saw large footprints in the thinning snow, and called the Panther's attention to them. The big man examined the traces critically.
"Not many hours old," he said. "I'm thinkin' that we'll have buffalo steak fur supper. We'll scout all along this timber. What we want is a young cow. Their meat is not tough."
They rode through the timber for about two hours, when Ned caught sight of moving figures on the far side of a thicket. He could just see the backs of large animals, and he knew that there were their buffalo. He pointed them out to the Panther, who nodded.
"We'll ride 'roun' the thicket as gently as possible," he said, "an' then open fire. Remember, we want a tender young cow, two of 'em if we can get 'em, an' don't fool with the bulls."
Ned's heart throbbed as Old Jack bore him around the thicket. He had fought with men, but he was not yet a buffalo hunter. Just as they turned the flank of the bushes a huge buffalo bull, catching their odor, raised his head and uttered a snort. The Panther promptly fired at a young cow just beyond him. The big bull, either frightened or angry, leaped head down at Old Jack. The horse was without experience with buffaloes, but he knew that those sharp horns meant no good to him, and he sprang aside with so much agility that Ned was almost unseated.
The big bull rushed on, and Ned, who had retained his hold upon his rifle, was tempted to take a shot at him for revenge, but, remembering the Panther's injunction, he controlled the impulse and fired at a young cow.
When the noise and confusion were over and the surviving buffaloes had lumbered away, they found that they had slain two of the young cows and that they had an ample supply of meat.
"Ned," said the Panther, "you know how to go back to the cabin, don't you?"
"I can go straight as an arrow."
"Then ride your own horse, lead the other two an' bring two men. We'll need 'em with the work here."
The Panther and Obed were already at work skinning the cows. Ned sprang upon Old Jack, and rode away at a trot, leading the other two horses by their lariats. The snow was gone now and the breeze was almost balmy. Ned felt that great rebound of the spirits of which the young are so capable. They had outwitted Urrea, they had taken his prisoners from him, and then had escaped across the Rio Grande. They had found shelter and now they had obtained a food supply. They were all good comrades together, and what more was to be asked?
He whistled as he rode along, but when he was half way back to the cabin he noticed something in a large tree that caused him to stop. He saw the outlines of great bronze birds, and he knew that they were wild turkeys. Wild turkeys would make a fine addition to their larder, and, halting Old Jack, he shot from his back, taking careful aim at the largest of the turkeys. The huge bird fell, and as the others flew away Ned was lucky enough to bring down a second with a pistol shot.
His trophies were indeed worth taking, and tying their legs together with a withe he hung them across his saddle bow. He calculated that the two together weighed nearly sixty pounds, and he rode triumphantly when he came in sight of the cabin.
Will saw him first and gave a shout that drew the other men.
"What luck?" hailed young Allen.
"Not much," replied Ned, "but I did get these sparrows."
He lifted the two great turkeys from his saddle and tossed them to Will. The boy caught them, but he was borne to his knees by their weight. The men looked at them and uttered approving words.
"What did you do with the Panther and Obed?" asked Fields.
"The last I saw of them they had been dismounted and were being chased over the plain by two big bull buffaloes. The horns of the buffaloes were then not more than a foot from the seats of their trousers. So I caught their horses, and I have brought them back to camp."
"I take it," said Fields, "that you've had good luck."
"We have had the finest of luck," replied Ned. "We ran into a group of fifteen or twenty buffaloes, and we brought down two fine, young cows. I came back for two more men to help with them, and on my way I shot these turkeys."
Fields and another man named Carter returned with Ned. Young Allen was extremely anxious to go, but the others were chosen on account of their experience with the work. They found that Obed and the Panther had already done the most of it, and when it was all finished Fields and Carter started back with the three horses, heavily laden. As the night promised to be mild, and the snow was gone, Ned, Obed and the Panther remained in the grove with the rest of their food supply.
They also wished to preserve the two buffalo robes, and they staked them out upon the ground, scraping them clean of flesh with their knives. Then they lighted a fire and cooked as much of the tender meat as they wished. By this time it was dark and they were quite ready to rest. They put out the fire and raked up the beds of leaves on which they would spread their blankets. But first they enjoyed the relaxation of the nerves and the easy talk that come after a day's work well done.
"It certainly has been a fine day for us," said Obed. "Sometimes I like to go through the bad days, because it makes the good days that follow all the better. Yesterday we were wandering around in the snow, and we had nothing, to-day we have a magnificent city home, that is to say, the cabin, and a beautiful country place, that is to say, this grove. I can add, too, that our nights in our country place are spent to the accompaniment of music. Listen to that beautiful song, won't you?"
A long, whining howl rose, sank and died. After an interval they heard its exact duplicate and the Panther remarked tersely:
"Wolves. Mighty hungry, too. They've smelled our buffalo meat and they want it. Guess from their big voices that they're timber wolves and not coyotes."
Ned knew that the timber wolf was a much larger and fiercer animal than his prairie brother, and he did not altogether like this whining sound which now rose and died for the third time.
"Must be a dozen or so," said the Panther, noticing the increasing volume of sound. "We'll light the fire again. Nothing is smarter than a wolf, an' I don't want one of those hulkin' brutes to slip up, seize a fine piece of buffalo and dash away with it. But fire will hold 'em. How a wolf does dread it! The little red flame is like a knife in his heart."
They lighted four small fires, making a rude ring which inclosed their leafy beds and the buffalo skins and meat. Before they finished the task they saw slim dusky figures among the trees and red eyes glaring at them. The Panther picked up a stick blazing like a torch, and made a sudden rush for one of the figures. There was a howl of terror and a sound of something rushing madly through the bushes.
The Panther flung his torch as far as he could in the direction of the sounds and returned, laughing deep in his throat.
"I think I came pretty near hittin' the master wolf with that," he said, "an' I guess he's good an' scared. But they'll come back after a while, an' don't you forget it. For that reason, I think we'd better keep a watch. We'll divide it into three hours apiece, an' we'll give you the first, Ned."
Ned was glad to have the opening watch, as it would soon be over and done with, and then he could sleep free from care about any watch to come. The Panther and Obed rolled in their blankets, found sleep almost instantly, and the boy, resolved not to be a careless sentinel, walked in a circle just outside the fires.
Sure enough, and just as the Panther had predicted, he saw the red eyes and dusky forms again. Now and then he heard a faint pad among the bushes, and he knew that a wolf had made it. He merely changed from the outside to the inside of the fire ring, and continued his walk. With the fire about him and his friends so near he was not afraid of wolves, no matter how big and numerous they might be.
Yet their presence in the bushes, the light shuffle of their feet and their fiery eyes had an uncanny effect. It was unpleasant to know that such fierce beasts were so near, and he gave himself a reassuring glance at the sleeping forms of his partners. By and by the red eyes melted away, and he heard another soft tread, but heavier than that of the wolves. With his rifle lying in the hollow of his arm and his finger on the trigger he looked cautiously about the circle of the forest.
Ned's gaze at last met that of a pair of red eyes, a little further apart than those of the wolves. He knew then that they belonged to a larger animal, and presently he caught a glimpse of the figure. He was sure that it was a puma or cougar, and so far as he could judge it was a big brute. It, too, must be very hungry, or it would not dare the fire and the human odor.
Ned felt tentatively of his rifle, but changed his mind. He remembered the Panther's exploit with the firebrand, and he decided to imitate it, but on a much larger scale. He laid down his rifle, but kept his left hand on the butt of the pistol in his belt. Then selecting the largest torch from the fire he made a rush straight for the blazing eyes, thrusting the flaming stick before him. There was a frightened roar, and then the sound of a heavy body crashing away through the undergrowth. Ned returned, satisfied that he had done as well as the Panther and better.
Both the Panther and Obed were awake and sitting up. They looked curiously at Ned, who still carried the flaming brand in his hand.
"A noise like the sound of thunder away off wakened me up," said the Panther. "Now, what have you been up to, young 'un?"
"Me?" said Ned lightly. "Oh, nothing important. I wanted to make some investigations in natural history out there in the bushes, and as I needed a light for the purpose I took it."
"An' if I'm not pressin' too much," said the Panther, in mock humility, "may I make so bold as to ask our young Solomon what is natural history?"
"Natural history is the study of animals. I saw a panther in the bushes and I went out there to examine him. I saw that he was a big fellow, but he ran away so fast I could tell no more about him."
"You scared him away with the torch instead of shooting," said Obed. "It was well done, but it took a stout heart. If he comes again tell him I won't wake up until it's time for my watch."
He was asleep again inside of a minute, and the Panther followed him quickly. Both men trusted Ned fully, treating him now as an experienced and skilled frontiersman. He knew it, and he felt proud and encouraged.
The panther did not come back, but the wolves did, although Ned now paid no attention to them. He was growing used to their company and the uncanny feeling departed. He merely replenished the fires and sat patiently until it was time for Obed to succeed him. Then he, too, wrapped himself in his blankets and slept a dreamless sleep until day.
The remainder of the buffalo meat was taken away the next day, but anticipating a long stay at the cabin they continued to hunt, both on horseback and on foot. Two more buffalo cows fell to their rifles. They also secured a deer, three antelope and a dozen wild turkeys.
Their hunting spread over two days, but when they were all assembled on the third night at the cabin general satisfaction prevailed. They had ranged over considerable country, and as game was plentiful and not afraid the Panther drew the logical conclusion that man had been scarce in that region.
"I take it," he said, "that the Mexicans are a good distance east, and that the Lipans and Comanches are another good distance west. Just the same, boys, we've got to keep a close watch, an' I think we've got more to fear from raidin' parties of the Indians than from the Mexicans. All the Mexicans are likely to be ridin' to some point on the Rio Grande to meet the forces of Santa Anna."
"I wish we had more horses," said Obed. "We'd go that way ourselves and see what's up."
"Well, maybe we'll get 'em," said the Panther. "Thar's a lot of horses on these plains, some of which ought to belong to us an' we may find a way of claimin' our rights."
They passed a number of pleasant days at the cabin and in hunting and foraging in the vicinity. They killed more big game and the dressed skins of buffalo, bear and deer were spread on the floor or were hung on the walls. Wild turkeys were numerous, and they had them for food every day. But they discovered no signs of man, white or red, and they would have been content to wait there had they not been so anxious to investigate the reported advance of Santa Anna on the Rio Grande.
Roylston was the most patient of them all, or at least he said the least.
"I think," he said about the fourth or fifth day, "that it does not hurt to linger here. The Mexican power has not yet gathered in full. As for me, personally, it suits me admirably. I can walk a full two hundred yards now, and next week I shall be able to walk a mile."
"When we are all ready to depart, which way do you intend to go Mr. Roylston?" asked Ned.
"I wish to go around the settlements and then to New Orleans," replied Roylston. "That city is my headquarters, but I also have establishments elsewhere, even as far north as New York. Are you sure, Ned, that you cannot go with me and bring your friend Allen, too? I could make men of you both in a vast commercial world. There have been great opportunities, and greater are coming. The development of this mighty southwest will call for large and bold schemes of organization. It is not money alone that I offer, but the risk, the hopes and rewards of a great game, in fact, the opening of a new world to civilization, for such this southwest is. It appeals to some deeper feeling than that which can be aroused by the mere making of money."
Ned, deeply interested, watched him intently as he spoke. He saw Roylston show emotion for the first time, and the mind of the boy responded to that of the man. He could understand this dream. The image of a great Texan republic was already in the minds of men. It possessed that of Ned. He did not believe that the Texans and Mexicans could ever get along together, and he was quite sure that Texas could never return to its original position as part of a Mexican state.
"You can do much for Texas there with me in New Orleans," said Roylston, as if he were making a final appeal to one whom he looked upon almost as a son. "Perhaps you could do more than you can here in Texas."
Ned shook his head a little sadly. He did not like to disappoint this man, but he could not leave the field. Young Allen also said that he would remain.
"Be it so," said Roylston. "It is young blood. Never was there a truer saying than 'Young men for war, old men for counsel.' But the time may come when you will need me. When it does come send the word."
Ned judged from Roylston's manner that dark days were ahead, but the merchant did not mention the subject again. At the end of a week, when they were amply supplied with everything except horses, the Panther decided to take Ned and Obed and go on a scout toward the Rio Grande. They started early in the morning and the horses, which had obtained plenty of grass, were full of life and vigor.
They soon left the narrow belt of forest far behind them, maintaining an almost direct course toward the southeast. The point on the river that they intended to reach was seventy or eighty miles away, and they did not expect to cover the distance in less than two days.
They rode all that day and did not see a trace of a human being, but they did see both buffalo and antelope in the distance.
"It shows what the war has done," said the Panther. "I rode over these same prairies about a year ago an' game was scarce, but there were some men. Now the men are all gone an' the game has come back. Cur'us how quick buffalo an' deer an' antelope learn about these things."
They slept the night through on the open prairie, keeping watch by turns. The weather was cold, but they had their good blankets with them and they took no discomfort. They rode forward again early in the morning, and about noon struck an old but broad trail. It was evident that many men and many wagons had passed here. There were deep ruts in the earth, cut by wheels, and the traces of footsteps showed over a belt a quarter of a mile wide.
"Well, Ned, I s'pose you can make a purty good guess what this means?" said the Panther.
"This was made weeks and weeks ago," replied Ned confidently, "and the men who made it were Mexicans. They were soldiers, the army of Cos, that we took at San Antonio, and which we allowed to retire on parole into Mexico."
"There's no doubt you're right," said the Panther. "There's no other force in this part of the world big enough to make such a wide an' lastin' trail. An' I think it's our business to follow these tracks. What do you say, Obed?"
"It's just the one thing in the world that we're here to do," said the Maine man. "Broad is the path and straight is the way that leads before us, and we follow on."
"Do we follow them down into Mexico?" said Ned.
"I don't think it likely that we'll have to do it," replied the Panther, glancing at Obed.
Ned caught the look and he understood.
"Do you mean," he asked, "that Cos, after taking his parole and pledging his word that he and his troops would not fight against us, would stop at the Rio Grande?"
"I mean that an' nothin' else," replied the Panther. "I ain't talkin' ag'in Mexicans in general. I've knowed some good men among them, but I wouldn't take the word of any of that crowd of generals, Santa Anna, Cos, Sesma, Urrea, Gaona, Castrillon, the Italian Filisola, or any of them."
"There's one I'd trust," said Ned, with grateful memory, "and that's Almonte."
"I've heard that he's of different stuff," said the Panther, "but it's best to keep out of their hands."
They were now riding swiftly almost due southward, having changed their course to follow the trail, and they kept a sharp watch ahead for Mexican scouts or skirmishers. But the bare country in its winter brown was lone and desolate. The trail led straight ahead, and it would have been obvious now to the most inexperienced eye that an army had passed that way. They saw remains of camp fires, now and then the skeleton of a horse or mule picked clean by buzzards, fragments of worn-out clothing that had been thrown aside, and once a broken-down wagon. Two or three times they saw little mounds of earth with rude wooden crosses stuck upon them, to mark where some of the wounded had died and had been buried.
They came at last to a bit of woodland growing about a spring that seemed to gush straight up from the earth. It was really an open grove with no underbrush, a splendid place for a camp. It was evident that Cos's force had put it to full use, as the earth nearly everywhere had been trodden by hundreds of feet, and the charred pieces of wood were innumerable. The Panther made a long and critical examination of everything.
"I'm thinkin'," he said, "that Cos stayed here three or four days. All the signs p'int that way. He was bound by the terms we gave him at San Antonio to go an' not fight ag'in, but he's shorely takin' his time about it. Look at these bones, will you? Now, Ned, you promisin' scout an' skirmisher, tell me what they are."
"Buffalo bones," replied Ned promptly.
"Right you are," replied the Panther, "an' when Cos left San Antonio he wasn't taking any buffaloes along with him to kill fur meat. They staid here so long that the hunters had time to go out an' shoot game."
"A long lane's the thief of time," said Obed, "and having a big march before him, Cos has concluded to walk instead of run."
"'Cause he was expectin' somethin' that would stop him," said the Panther angrily. "I hate liars an' traitors. Well, we'll soon see."
Their curiosity became so great that they rode at a swift trot on the great south trail, and not ten miles further they came upon the unmistakable evidences of another big camp that had lasted long.
"Slower an' slower," muttered the Panther. "They must have met a messenger. Wa'al, it's fur us to go slow now, too."
But he said aloud:
"Boys, it ain't more'n twenty miles now to the Rio Grande, an' we can hit it by dark. But I'm thinkin' that we'd better be mighty keerful now as we go on."
"I suppose it's because Mexican scouts and skirmishers may be watching," said Ned.
"Yes, an' 'specially that fellow Urrea. His uncle bein' one of Santa Anna's leadin' gen'rals, he's likely to have freer rein, an', as we know, he's clever an' active. I'd hate to fall into his hands again."
They rode more slowly, and three pairs of eyes continually searched the plain for an enemy. Ned's sight was uncommonly acute, and Obed and the Panther frequently appealed to him as a last resort. It flattered his pride and he strove to justify it.
Their pace became slower and slower, and presently the early twilight of winter was coming. A cold wind moaned, but the desolate plain was broken here and there by clumps of trees. At the suggestion of the Panther they rode to one of these and halted under cover of the timber.
"The river can't be much more than a mile ahead," said the Panther, "an' we might run into the Mexicans any minute. We're sheltered here, an' we'd better wait a while. Then I think we can do more stalkin'."
Obed and Ned were not at all averse, and dismounting they stretched themselves, easing their muscles. Old Jack hunted grass and, finding none, rubbed Ned's elbow with his nose suggestively.
"Never mind, old boy," said Ned, patting the glossy muzzle of his faithful comrade. "This is no time for feasting and banqueting. We are hunting Mexicans, you and I, and after that business is over we may consider our pleasures."
They remained several hours among the trees. They saw the last red glow that the sun leaves in the west die away. They saw the full darkness descend over the earth, and then the stars come trooping out. After that they saw a scarlet flush under the horizon which was not a part of the night and its progress. The Panther noted it, and his great face darkened. He turned to Ned.
"You see it, don't you? Now tell me what it is."
"That light, I should say, comes from the fires of an army. And it can be no other army than that of Cos."
"Right again, ain't he, Obed?"
"He surely is. Cos and his men are there. He who breaks his faith when he steals away will have to fight another day. How far off would you say that light is, Panther?"
"'Bout two miles, an' in an hour or so we'll ride fur it. The night will darken up more then, an' it will give us a better chance for lookin' an listenin'. I'll be mightily fooled if we don't find out a lot that's worth knowin'."
True to Obed's prediction, the night deepened somewhat within the hour. Many of the stars were hidden by floating wisps of cloud, and objects could not be seen far on the dusky surface of the plain. But the increased darkness only made the scarlet glow in the south deepen. It seemed, too, to spread far to right and left.
"That's a big force," said the Panther. "It'll take a lot of fires to make a blaze like that."
"I'm agreeing with you," said Obed. "I'm thinking that those are the camp fires of more men than Cos took from San Antonio with him."
"Which would mean," said Ned, "that another Mexican army had come north to join him."
"Anyhow, we'll soon see," said the Panther.
They mounted their horses and rode cautiously toward the light.
SANTA ANNA'S ADVANCE
The three rode abreast, Ned in the center. The boy was on terms of perfect equality with Obed and the Panther. They treated him as a man among men, and respected his character, rather grave for one so young, and always keen to learn.
The land rolled away in swells as usual throughout a great part of Texas, but they were not of much elevation and the red glow in the south was always in sight, deepening fast as they advanced. They stopped at last on a little elevation within the shadow of some myrtle oaks, and saw the fires spread before them only four or five hundred yards away, and along a line of at least two miles. They heard the confused murmur of many men. The dark outlines of cannon were seen against the firelight, and now and then the musical note of a mandolin or guitar came to them.
"We was right in our guess," said the Panther. "It's a lot bigger force than the one that Cos led away from San Antonio, an' it will take a heap of rippin' an' t'arin' an' roarin' to turn it back. Our people don't know how much is comin' ag'in 'em."
The Panther spoke in a solemn tone. Ned saw that he was deeply impressed and that he feared for the future. Good cause had he. Squabbles among the Texan leaders had reduced their army to five or six hundred men.
"Don't you think," said Ned, "that we ought to find out just exactly what is here, and what this army intends?"
"Not a doubt of it," said Obed. "Those who have eyes to see should not go away without seeing."
The Panther nodded violently in assent.
"We must scout about the camp," he said. "Mebbe we'd better divide an' then we can all gather before day-break at the clump of trees back there."
He pointed to a little cluster of trees several hundred yards back of them, and Ned and Obed agreed. The Panther turned away to the right, Obed to the left and Ned took the center. Their plan of dividing their force had a great advantage. One man was much less likely than three to attract undue attention.
Ned went straight ahead a hundred yards or more, when he was stopped by an arroyo five or six feet wide and with very deep banks. He looked about, uncertain at first what to do. Obed and the Panther had already disappeared in the dusk. Before him glowed the red light, and he heard the distant sound of many voices.
Ned quickly decided. He remembered how they had escaped up the bed of the creek when they were besieged by Urrea, and if one could leave by an arroyo, one could also approach by it. He rode to the group of trees that had been designated as the place of meeting, and left his horse there. He noticed considerable grass within the ring of trunks, and he was quite confident that Old Jack would remain there until his return. But he addressed to him words of admonition:
"Be sure that you stay among these trees, old friend," he said, "because it's likely that when I want you I'll want you bad. Remain and attend to this grass."
Old Jack whinnied softly and, after his fashion, rubbed his nose gently against his master's arm. It was sufficient for Ned. He was sure that the horse understood, and leaving him he went back to the arroyo, which he entered without hesitation.
Ned was well armed, as every one then had full need to be. He wore a sombrero in the Mexican fashion, and flung over his shoulders was a great serape which he had found most useful in the winter. With his perfect knowledge of Spanish and its Mexican variants he believed that if surprised he could pass as a Mexican, particularly in the night and among so many.
The arroyo led straight down toward the plain upon which the Mexicans were encamped, and when he emerged from it he saw that the fires which at a distance looked like one continuous blaze were scores in number. Many of them were built of buffalo chips and others of light wood that burned fast. Sentinels were posted here and there, but they kept little watch. Why should they? Here was a great Mexican army, and there was certainly no foe amounting to more than a few men within a hundred miles.
Ned's heart sank as he beheld the evident extent of the Mexican array. The little Texan force left in the field could be no match for such an army as this.
Nevertheless, his resolution to go through the Mexican camp hardened. If he came back with a true and detailed tale of their numbers the Texans must believe and prepare. He drew the brim of his sombrero down a little further, and pulled his serape up to meet it. The habit the Mexicans had of wrapping their serapes so high that they were covered to the nose was fortunate at this time. He was now completely disguised, without the appearance of having taken any unusual precaution.
He walked forward boldly and sat down with a group beside a fire. He judged by the fact that they were awake so late that they had but little to do, and he saw at once also that they were Mexicans from the far south. They were small, dark men, rather amiable in appearance. Two began to play guitars and they sang a plaintive song to the music. The others, smoking cigarritos, listened attentively and luxuriously. Ned imitated them perfectly. He, too, lying upon his elbow before the pleasant fire, felt the influence of the music, so sweet, so murmurous, speaking so little of war. One of the men handed him a cigarrito, and, lighting it, he made pretense of smoking—he would not have seemed a Mexican had he not smoked the cigarrito.
Lying there, Ned saw many tents, evidence of a camp that was not for the day only, and he beheld officers in bright uniforms passing among them. His heart gave a great jump when he noticed among them a heavy-set, dark man. It was Cos, Cos the breaker of oaths. With him was another officer whose uniform indicated the general. Ned learned later that this was Sesma, who had been dispatched with a brigade by Santa Anna to meet Cos on the Rio Grande, where they were to remain until the dictator himself came with more troops.
The music ceased presently and one of the men said to Ned:
Ned had prepared himself for such questions, and he moved his hand vaguely toward the left.
"Over there," he said.
They were fully satisfied, and continued to puff their cigarritos, resting their heads with great content upon pillows made of their saddles and blankets. For a while they said nothing more, happily watching the rings of smoke from their cigarritos rise and melt into the air. Although small and short, they looked hardy and strong. Ned noticed the signs of bustle and expectancy about the camp. Usually Mexicans were asleep at this hour, and he wondered why they lingered. But he did not approach the subject directly.
"A hard march," he said, knowing that these men about him had come a vast distance.
"Aye, it was," said the man next on his right. "Santiago, but was it not, Jose?"
Jose, the second man on the right, replied in the affirmative and with emphasis:
"You speak the great truth, Carlos. Such another march I never wish to make. Think of the hundreds and hundreds of miles we have tramped from our warm lands far in the south across mountains, across bare and windy deserts, with the ice and the snow beating in our faces. How I shivered, Carlos, and how long I shivered! I thought I should continue shivering all my life even if I lived to be a hundred, no matter how warmly the sun might shine."
The others laughed, and seemed to Ned to snuggle a little closer to the fire, driven by the memory of the icy plains.
"But it was the will of the great Santa Anna, surely the mightiest man of our age," said Carlos. "They say that his wrath was terrible when he heard how the Texan bandits had taken San Antonio de Bexar. Truly, I am glad that I was not one of his officers, and that I was not in his presence at the time. After all, it is sometimes better to be a common soldier than to have command."
"Aye, truly," said Ned, and the others nodded in affirmation.
"But the great Santa Anna will finish it," continued Carlos, who seemed to have the sin of garrulity. "He has defeated all his enemies in Mexico, he has consolidated his power and now he advances with a mighty force to crush these insolent and miserable Texans. As I have said, he will finish it. The rope and the bullet will be busy. In six months there will be no Texans."
Ned shivered, and when he looked at the camp fires of the great army he saw that this peon was not talking foolishness. Nevertheless his mind returned to its original point of interest. Why did the Mexican army remain awake so late?
"Have you seen the President?" he asked of Carlos.
"Often," replied Carlos, with pride. "I fought under him in the great battle on the plain of Guadalupe less than two years ago, when we defeated Don Francisco Garcia, the governor of Zacatecas. Ah, it was a terrible battle, my friends! Thousands and thousands were killed and all Mexicans. Mexicans killing Mexicans. But who can prevail against the great Santa Anna? He routed the forces of Garcia, and the City of Zacatecas was given up to us to pillage. Many fine things I took that day from the houses of those who presumed to help the enemy of our leader. But now we care not to kill Mexicans, our own people. It is only the miserable Texans who are really Gringos."
Carlos, who had been the most amiable of men, basking in the firelight, now rose up a little and his eyes flashed. He had excited himself by his own tale of the battle and loot of Zacatecas and the coming slaughter of the Texans. That strain of cruelty, which in Ned's opinion always lay embedded in the Spanish character, was coming to the surface.
Ned made no comment. His serape, drawn up to his nose, almost met the brim of his sombrero and nobody suspected that the comrade who sat and chatted with them was a Gringo, but he shivered again, nevertheless.
"We shall have a great force when it is all gathered," he said at length.
"Seven thousand men or more," said Jose proudly, "and nearly all of them are veterans of the wars. We shall have ten times the numbers of the Texans, who are only hunters and rancheros."
"Have you heard when we march?" asked Ned, in a careless tone.
"As soon as the great Santa Anna arrives it will be decided, I doubt not," said Jose. "The general and his escort should be here by midnight."
Ned's heart gave a leap. So it was that for which they were waiting. Santa Anna himself would come in an hour or two. He was very glad that he had entered the Mexican camp. Bidding a courteous good night to the men about the fire, he rose and sauntered on. It was easy enough for him to do so without attracting attention, as many others were doing the same thing. Discipline seldom amounted to much in a Mexican army, and so confident were both officers and soldiers of an overwhelming victory that they preserved scarcely any at all. Yet the expectant feeling pervaded the whole camp, and now that he knew that Santa Anna was coming he understood.
Santa Anna was the greatest man in the world to these soldiers. He had triumphed over everything in their own country. He had exhibited qualities of daring and energy that seemed to them supreme, and his impression upon them was overwhelming. Ned felt once more that little shiver. They might be right in their view of the Texan war.
He strolled on from fire to fire, until his attention was arrested suddenly by one at which only officers sat. It was not so much the group as it was one among them who drew his notice so strongly. Urrea was sitting on the far side of the fire, every feature thrown into clear relief by the bright flames. The other officers were young men of about his own age and they were playing dice. They were evidently in high good humor, as they laughed frequently.
Ned lay down just within the shadow of a tent wall, drew his serape higher about his face, and rested his head upon his arm. He would have seemed sound asleep to an ordinary observer, but he was never more wide awake in his life. He was near enough to hear what Urrea and his friends were saying, and he intended to hear it. It was for such that he had come.
"You lose, Francisco," said one of the men as he made a throw of the dice and looked eagerly at the result. "What was it that you were saying about the general?"
"That I expect an early advance, Ramon," replied Urrea, "a brief campaign, and a complete victory. I hate these Texans. I shall be glad to see them annihilated."
The young officer whom he called Ramon laughed.
"If what I hear be true, Francisco," he said, "you have cause to hate them. There was a boy, Fulton, that wild buffalo of a man, whom they call the Panther, and another who defeated some of your finest plans."
Urrea flushed, but controlled his temper.
"It is true, Ramon," he replied. "The third man I can tell you is called Obed White, and they are a clever three. I hate them, but it hurts my pride less to be defeated by them than by any others whom I know."
"Well spoken, Urrea," said a third man, "but since these three are fighters and will stay to meet us, it is a certainty that our general will scoop them into his net. Then you can have all the revenge you wish."
"I count upon it, Ambrosio," said Urrea, smiling. "I also hope that we shall recapture the man Roylston. He has great sums of money in the foreign banks in our country, and we need them, but our illustrious president cannot get them without an order from Roylston. The general would rather have Roylston than a thousand Texan prisoners."
All of them laughed, and the laugh made Ned, lying in the shadow, shiver once more. Urrea glanced his way presently, but the recumbent figure did not claim his notice. The attention of his comrades and himself became absorbed in the dice again. They were throwing the little ivory cubes upon a blanket, and Ned could hear them click as they struck together. The sharp little sound began to flick his nerves. Not one to cherish resentment, he nevertheless began to hate Urrea, and he included in that hatred the young men with him. The Texans were so few and poor. The Mexicans were so many, and they had the resources of a nation more than two centuries old.
Ned rose by and by and walked on. He could imitate the Mexican gait perfectly, and no one paid any attention to him. They were absorbed, moreover, in something else, because now the light of torches could be seen dimly in the south. Officers threw down cards and dice. Men straightened their uniforms and Cos and Sesma began to form companies in line. More fuel was thrown on the fires, which sprang up, suffusing all the night with color and brightness. Ned with his rifle at salute fell into place at the end of one of the companies, and no one knew that he did not belong there. In the excitement of the moment he forgot all about the Panther and Obed.
A thrill seemed to run through the whole Mexican force. It was the most impressive scene that Ned had ever beheld. A leader, omnipotent in their eyes, was coming to these men, and he came at midnight out of the dark into the light.
The torches grew brighter. A trumpet pealed and a trumpet in the camp replied. The Mexican lines became silent save for a deep murmur. In the south they heard the rapid beat of hoofs, and then Santa Anna came, galloping at the head of fifty horsemen. Many of the younger officers ran forward, holding up torches, and the dictator rode in a blaze of light.
Ned looked once more upon that dark and singular face, a face daring and cruel, that might have belonged to one of the old conquistadores. In the saddle his lack of height was concealed, but on the great white horse that he rode Ned felt that he was an imposing, even a terrible, figure. His eyes were blazing with triumph as his army united with torches to do him honor. It was like Napoleon on the night before Austerlitz, and what was he but the Napoleon of the New World? His figure swelled and the gold braid on his cocked hat and gorgeous uniform reflected the beams of the firelight.
A mighty cheer from thousands of throats ran along the Mexican line, and the torches were waved until they looked like vast circles of fire. Santa Anna lifted his hat and bowed three times in salute. Again the Mexican cheer rolled to right and to left. Santa Anna, still sitting on his horse, spread out his hands. There was instant silence save for the deep breathing of the men.
"My children," he said, "I have come to sweep away these miserable Texans who have dared to raise the rebel flag against us. We will punish them all. Houston, Austin, Bowie and the rest of their leaders shall feel our justice. When we finish our march over their prairies it shall be as if a great fire had passed. I have said it. I am Santa Anna."
The thunderous cheer broke forth again. Ned had never before heard words so full of conceit and vainglory, yet the strength and menace were there. He felt it instinctively. Santa Anna believed himself to be the greatest man in the world, and he was certainly the greatest in Mexico. His belief in himself was based upon a deep well of energy and daring. Once more Ned felt a great and terrible fear for Texas, and the thin line of skin-clad hunters and ranchmen who were its sole defence. But the feeling passed as he watched Santa Anna. A young officer rushed forward and held his stirrup as the dictator dismounted. Then the generals, including those who had come with him, crowded around him. It was a brilliant company, including Sesma, Cos, Duque, Castrillon, Tolsa, Gaona and others, among whom Ned noted a man of decidedly Italian appearance. This was General Vincente Filisola, an Italian officer who had received a huge grant of land in Texas, and who was now second in command to Santa Anna.
Ned watched them as they talked together and occasionally the crowd parted enough for him to see Santa Anna, who spoke and gesticulated with great energy. The soldiers had been drawn away by the minor officers, and were now dispersing to their places by the fires where they would seek sleep.
Ned noticed a trim, slender figure on the outer edge of the group around Santa Anna. It seemed familiar, and when the man turned he recognized the face of Almonte, the gallant young Mexican colonel who had been kind to him. He was sorry to see him there. He was sorry that he should have to fight against him.
Santa Anna went presently to a great marquee that had been prepared for him, and the other generals retired also to the tents that had been set about it. The dictator was tired from his long ride and must not be disturbed. Strict orders were given that there should be no noise in the camp, and it quickly sank into silence.
Ned lay down before one of the fires at the western end of the camp wrapped as before in his serape. He counterfeited sleep, but nothing was further from his mind. It seemed to him that he had done all he could do in the Mexican camp. He had seen the arrival of Santa Anna, but there was no way to learn when the general would order an advance. But he could infer from Santa Anna's well-known energy and ability that it would come quickly.
Between the slit left by the brim of his sombrero and his serape he watched the great fires die slowly. Most of the Mexicans were asleep now, and their figures were growing indistinct in the shadows. But Ned, rising, slouched forward, imitating the gait of the laziest of the Mexicans. Yet his eyes were always watching shrewdly through the slit. Very little escaped his notice. He went along the entire Mexican line and then back again. He had a good mathematical mind, and he saw that the estimate of 7,000 for the Mexican army was not too few. He also saw many cannon and the horses for a great cavalry force. He knew, too, that Santa Anna had with him the best regiments in the Mexican service.
On his last trip along the line Ned began to look for the Panther and Obed, but he saw no figures resembling theirs, although he was quite sure that he would know the Panther in any disguise owing to his great size. This circumstance would make it more dangerous for the Panther than for either Obed or himself, as Urrea, if he should see so large a man, would suspect that it was none other than the redoubtable frontiersman.
Ned was thinking of this danger to the Panther when he came face to face with Urrea himself. The young Mexican captain was not lacking in vigilance and energy, and even at that late hour he was seeing that all was well in the camp of Santa Anna. Ned was truly thankful now that Mexican custom and the coldness of the night permitted him to cover his face with his serape and the brim of his sombrero.
"Why are you walking here?" demanded Urrea.
"I've just taken a message to General Castrillon," replied Ned.
He had learned already that Castrillon commanded the artillery, and as he was at least a mile away he thought this the safest reply.
"From whom?" asked Urrea shortly.
"Pardon, sir," replied Ned, in his best Spanish, disguising his voice as much as possible, "but I am not allowed to tell."
Ned's tone was courteous and apologetic, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred Urrea would have contented himself with an impatient word or two. But he was in a most vicious temper. Perhaps he had been rebuked by Santa Anna for allowing the rescue of Roylston.
"Why don't you speak up?" he exclaimed. "Why do you mumble your words, and why do you stand in such a slouching manner. Remember that a soldier should stand up straight."
"Yes, my captain," said Ned, but he did not change his attitude. The tone and manner of Urrea angered him. He forgot where he was and his danger.
Urrea's swarthy face flushed. He carried in his hand a small riding whip, which he switched occasionally across the tops of his tall, military boots.
"Lout!" he cried. "You hear me! Why do you not obey!"
Ned stood impassive. Certainly Urrea had had a bad half hour somewhere. His temper leaped beyond control.
"Idiot!" he exclaimed.
Then he suddenly lashed Ned across the face with the little riding whip. The blow fell on serape and sombrero and the flesh was not touched, but for a few moments Ned went mad. He dropped his rifle, leaped upon the astonished officer, wrenched the whip from his hands, slashed him across the cheeks with it until the blood ran in streams, then broke it in two and threw the pieces in his face. Ned's serape fell away. Urrea had clasped his hands to his cheeks that stung like fire, but now he recognized the boy.
"Fulton!" he cried.
The sharp exclamation brought Ned to a realization of his danger. He seized his rifle, pulled up the serape and sprang back. Already Mexican soldiers were gathering. It was truly fortunate for Ned that he was quick of thought, and that his thoughts came quickest when the danger was greatest. He knew that the cry of "Fulton!" was unintelligible to them, and he exclaimed:
"Save me, comrades! He tried to beat me without cause, and now he would kill me, as you see!"
Urrea had drawn a pistol and was shouting fiery Mexican oaths. The soldiers, some of them just awakened from sleep, and all of them dazed, had gathered in a huddle, but they opened to let Ned pass. Excessive and cruel punishment was common among them. A man might be flogged half to death at the whim of an officer, and instinctively they protected their comrade.
As the Mexican group closed up behind him, and between him and Urrea, Ned ran at top speed toward the west where the arroyo cut across the plain. More Mexicans were gathering, and there was great confusion. Everybody was asking what was the matter. The boy's quick wit did not desert him. There was safety in ignorance and the multitude.
He quickly dropped to a walk and he, too, began to ask of others what had caused the trouble. All the while he worked steadily toward the arroyo, and soon he left behind him the lights and the shouting. He now came into the dark, passed beyond the Mexican lines, and entered the cut in the earth down which he had come.
He was compelled to sit down on the sand and relax. He was exhausted by the great effort of both mind and body which had carried him through so much danger. His heart was beating heavily and he felt dizzy. But his eyes cleared presently and his strength came back. He considered himself safe. In the darkness it was not likely that any of the Mexicans would stumble upon him.
He thought of the Panther and Obed, but he could do nothing for them. He must trust to meeting them again at the place appointed. He looked at the Mexican camp. The fires had burned up again there for a minute or two, but as he looked they sank once more. The noise also decreased. Evidently they were giving up the pursuit.
Ned rose and walked slowly up the arroyo. He became aware that the night was very cold and it told on his relaxed frame. He pulled up the serape again, and now it was for warmth and not for disguise. He stopped at intervals to search the darkness with his eyes and to listen for noises. He might meet with an enemy or he might meet with one of his friends. He was prepared for either. He had regained control of himself both body and mind, and his ready rifle rested in the hollow of his arm.
He met neither. He heard nothing but the usual sighing of the prairie wind that ceased rarely, and he saw nothing but the faint glow on the southern horizon that marked the Mexican camp where he had met his enemy.
He left the arroyo, and saw a dark shadow on the plain, the figure of a man, rifle in hand, Ned instantly sprang back into the arroyo and the stranger did the same. A curve in the line of this cut in the earth now hid them from each other, and Ned, his body pressed against the bank, waited with beating heart. He had no doubt that it was a Mexican sentinel or scout more vigilant than the others, and he felt his danger.
Ned in this crisis used the utmost caution. He did not believe that any other would come, and it must be a test of patience between him and his enemy. Whoever showed his head first would be likely to lose in the duel for life. He pressed himself closer and closer against the bank, and sought to detect some movement of the stranger. He saw nothing and he did not hear a sound. It seemed that the man had absolutely vanished into space. It occurred to Ned that it might have been a mere figment of the dusk and his excited brain, but he quickly dismissed the idea. He had seen the man and he had seen him leap into the arroyo. There could be no doubt of it.
There was another long wait, and the suspense became acute. The man was surely on the other side of that curve waiting for him. He was held fast. He was almost as much a prisoner as if he lay bound in the Mexican camp. It seemed to him, too, that the darkness was thinning a little. It would soon be day and then he could not escape the notice of horsemen from Santa Anna's army. He decided that he must risk an advance and he began creeping forward cautiously. He remembered now what he had forgotten in the first moments of the meeting. He might yet, even before this sentinel or scout, pass as a Mexican.
He stopped suddenly when he heard a low whistle in front of him. While it could be heard but a short distance, it was singularly sweet. It formed the first bars of an old tune, "The World Turned Upside Down," and Ned promptly recognized it. The whistle stopped in a moment or two, but Ned took up the air and continued it for a few bars more. Then, all apprehension gone, he sprang out of the arroyo and stood upon the bank. Another figure was projected from the arroyo and stood upon the bank facing him, not more than twenty feet away.
Simultaneously Obed White and Edward Fulton advanced, shook hands and laughed.
"You kept me here waiting in this gully at least half an hour," said Obed. "Time and I waited long on you."
"But no longer than I waited on you," said Ned. "Why didn't you think of whistling the tune sooner?"
"Why didn't you?"
They laughed and shook hands again.
"At any rate, we're here together again, safe and unharmed," said Ned. "And now to see what has become of the Panther."
"You'd better be lookin' out for yourselves instead of the Panther," growled a voice, as a gigantic figure upheaved itself from the arroyo eight or ten yards behind them. "I could have picked you both off while you were standin' there shakin' hands, an' neither of you would never have knowed what struck him."
"The Panther!" they exclaimed joyously, and they shook hands with him also.
"An' now," said the Panther, "it will soon be day. We'd better make fur our horses an' then clear out. We kin tell 'bout what we've seen an' done when we're two or three miles away."
They found the horses safe in the brushwood, Old Jack welcoming Ned with a soft whinny. They were in the saddle at once, rode swiftly northward, and none of them spoke for a half hour. When a faint tinge of gray appeared on the eastern rim of the world the Panther said:
"My tale's short. I couldn't get into the camp, 'cause I'm too big. The very first fellow I saw looked at me with s'picion painted all over him. So I had to keep back in the darkness. But I saw it was a mighty big army. It can do a lot of rippin', an' t'arin', an' chawin'."
"I got into the camp," said Obed, after a minute of silence, "but as I'm not built much like a Mexican, being eight or ten inches too tall, men were looking at me as if I were a strange specimen. One touch of difference and all the world's staring at you. So I concluded that I'd better stay on the outside of the lines. I hung around, and I saw just what Panther saw, no more and no less. Then I started back and I struck the arroyo, which seemed to me a good way for leaving. But before I had gone far I concluded I was followed. So I watched the fellow who was following, and the fellow who was following watched me for about a year. The watch was just over when you came up, Panther. It was long, but it's a long watch that has no ending."
"And I," said Ned, after another wait of a minute, "being neither so tall as Obed nor so big around as the Panther, was able to go about in the Mexican camp without any notice being taken of me. I saw Santa Anna arrive to take the chief command."
"Santa Anna himself?" exclaimed the Panther.
"Yes, Santa Anna himself. They gave him a great reception. After a while I started to come away. I met Urrea. He took me for a peon, gave me an order, and when I didn't obey it tried to strike me across the face with a whip."
"And what did you do?" exclaimed the two men together.
"I took the whip away from him and lashed his cheeks with it. I was recognized, but in the turmoil and confusion I escaped. Then I had the encounter with Obed White, of which he has told already."
"Since Santa Anna has come," said the Panther, "they're likely to move at any moment. We'll ride straight for the cabin an' the boys."
FOR FREEDOM'S SAKE
Evidently the horses had found considerable grass through the night, as they were fresh and strong, and the miles fell fast behind them. At the gait at which they were going they would reach the cabin that night. Meanwhile they made plans. The little force would divide and messengers would go to San Antonio, Harrisburg and other points, with the news that Santa Anna was advancing with an immense force.
And every one of the three knew that the need was great. They knew how divided counsels had scattered the little Texan army. At San Antonio, the most important point of all, the town that they had triumphantly taken from a much greater force of Mexicans, there were practically no men, and that undoubtedly was Santa Anna's destination. Unconsciously they began to urge their horses to great and yet greater speed, until the Panther recalled them to prudence.
"Slower, boys! slower!" he said. "We mustn't run our horses out at the start."
"And there's a second reason for pulling down," said Ned, "since there's somebody else on the plain."
His uncommon eyesight had already detected before the others the strange presence. He pointed toward the East.
"Do you see that black speck there, where the sky touches the ground?" he said. "If you'll watch it you'll see that it's moving. And look! There's another! and another! and another!"
The Panther and Obed now saw the black specks also. The three stopped on the crest of a swell and watched them attentively.
"One! two! three! four! five! six! seven! eight! nine! ten! eleven! twelve! thirteen!" counted the far-sighted boy.
"An' them thirteen specks are thirteen men on horseback," continued the Panther, "an' now I wonder who in the name of the great horn spoon they are!"
"Suppose we see," said Obed. "All things are revealed to him who looks—at least most of the time. It is true that they are more than four to our one, but our horses are swift, and we can get away."
"That's right," said the Panther. "Still, we oughtn't to take the risk unless everybody is willin'. What do you say, Ned?"
"I reply 'yes,' of course," said the boy, "especially as I've an idea that those are not Mexicans. They look too big and tall, and they sit too straight up in their saddles for Mexicans."
"Them ideas of yours are ketchin'," said the Panther. "Them fellers may be Mexicans, but they don't look like Mexicans, they don't act like Mexicans, an' they ain't Mexicans."
"Take out what isn't, and you have left what is," said Obed.
"We'll soon see," said Ned.
A few minutes more and there could be no further doubt that the thirteen were Texans or Americans. One rode a little ahead of the others, who came on in an even line. They were mounted on large horses, but the man in front held Ned's attention.
The leader was tall and thin, but evidently muscular and powerful. His hair was straight and black like an Indian's. His features were angular and tanned by the winds of many years. His body was clothed completely in buckskin, and a raccoon skin cap was on his head. Across his shoulder lay a rifle with a barrel of unusual length.
"Never saw any of them before," said the Panther. "By the great horn spoon, who can that feller in front be? He looks like somebody."
The little band rode closer, and its leader held up his hand as a sign of amity.
"Good friends," he said, in a deep clear voice, "we don't have very close neighbors out here, and that makes a meeting all the pleasanter. You are Texans, I guess."
"You guess right," said the Panther, in the same friendly tone. "An' are you Texans, too?"
"That point might be debated," replied the man, in a whimsical tone, "and after a long dispute neither I nor my partners here could say which was right and which was wrong. But while we may not be Texans, yet we will be right away."
His eyes twinkled as he spoke, and Ned suddenly felt a strong liking for him. He was not young and, despite his buckskin dress and careless grammar, there was something of the man of the world about him. But he seemed to have a certain boyishness of spirit that appealed strongly to Ned.
"I s'pose," he continued, "that a baptism will make us genuine Texans, an' it 'pears likely to me that we'll get that most lastin' of all baptisms, a baptism of fire. But me an' Betsy here stand ready for it."
He patted lovingly the stock of his long rifle as he spoke the word "Betsy." It was the same word "Betsy" that gave Ned his sudden knowledge.
"I'm thinking that you are Davy Crockett," he said.
The man's face was illumined with an inimitable smile.
"Correct," he said. "No more and no less. Andy Jackson kept me from going back to Washington, an' so me an' these twelve good friends of mine, Tennesseans like myself, have come here to help free Texas."
He reached out his hand and Ned grasped it. The boy felt a thrill. The name of Davy Crockett was a great one in the southwest, and here he was, face to face, hands gripped with the great borderer.
"This is Mr. Palmer, known all over Texas as the Panther, and Mr. Obed White, once of Maine, but now a Texan," said Ned, introducing his friends.
Crockett and the Panther shook hands, and looked each other squarely in the eye.
"Seems to me," said Crockett, "that you're a man."
"I was jest thinkin' the same of you," said the Panther.
"An' you," said Crockett to Obed White, "are a man, too. But they certainly do grow tall where you come from."
"I'm not as wide as a barn door, but I may be long enough to reach the bottom of a well," said Obed modestly. "Anyway, I thank you for the compliment. Praise from Sir Davy is sweet music in my ear, indeed. And since we Texans have to stand together, and since to stand together we must know about one another, may I ask you, Mr. Crockett, which way you are going?"
"We had an idea that we would go to San Antonio," said Crockett, "but I'm never above changin' my opinion. If you think it better to go somewhere else, an' can prove it, why me an' Betsy an' the whole crowd are ready to go there instead."
"What would you say?" asked the Panther, "if we told you that Santa Anna an' 7,000 men were on the Rio Grande ready to march on San Antonio?"
"If you said it, I'd say it was true. I'd also say that it was a thing the Texans had better consider. If I was usin' adjectives I'd call it alarmin'."
"An' what would you say if I told you there wasn't a hundred Texan soldiers in San Antonio to meet them seven thousand Mexicans comin' under Santa Anna?"
"If you told me that I'd say it was true. I'd say also, if I was usin' adjectives, that it was powerful alarmin'. For Heaven's sake, Mr. Panther, the state of affairs ain't so bad as that, is it?"
"It certainly is," replied the Panther. "Ned Fulton here was all through their camp last night. He can talk Mexican an' Spanish like lightnin' an' he makes up wonderful—an' he saw their whole army. He saw old Santa Anna, too, an' fifty or a hundred generals, all covered with gold lace. If we don't get a lot of fightin' men together an' get 'em quick, Texas will be swept clean by that Mexican army same as if a field had been crossed by millions of locusts."
It was obvious that Crockett was impressed deeply by these blunt statements.
"What do you wish us to do?" he asked the Panther.
"You an' your friends come with us. We've got some good men at a cabin in the woods that we can reach to-night. We'll join with them, raise as many more as we can, spread the alarm everywhere, an' do everything possible for the defence of San Antonio."
"A good plan, Mr. Panther," said Crocket. "You lead the way to this cabin of yours, an' remember that we're servin' under you for the time bein'."
The Panther rode on without another word and the party, now raised from three to sixteen, followed. Crockett fell in by the side of Ned, and soon showed that he was not averse to talking.
"A good country," he said, nodding at the landscape, "but it ain't like Tennessee. It would take me a long time to git used to the lack of hills an' runnin' water an' trees which just cover the state of Tennessee."
"We have them here, too," replied Ned, "though I'll admit they're scattered. But it's a grand country to fight for."
"An' as I see it we'll have a grand lot of fightin' to do," said Davy Crockett.
They continued at good speed until twilight, when they rested their horses and ate of the food that they carried. The night promised to be cold but clear, and the crisp air quickened their blood.
"How much further is it?" asked Crockett of Ned.
"Fifteen or eighteen miles, but at the rate we're going we should be there in three hours. We've got a roof. It isn't a big one, and we don't know who built it, but it will shelter us all."
"I ain't complainin' of that," rejoined Davy Crockett. "I'm a lover of fresh air an' outdoors, but I don't object to a roof in cold weather. Always take your comfort, boy, when it's offered to you. It saves wear an' tear."
A friendship like that between him and Bowie was established already between Ned and Crockett. Ned's grave and serious manner, the result of the sufferings through which he had gone, invariably attracted the attention and liking of those far older than himself.
"I'll remember your advice, Mr. Crockett," he said.
A rest of a half hour for the horses and they started riding rapidly. After a while they struck the belt of forest and soon the cabin was not more than a mile away. But the Panther, who was still in the lead, pulled up his horse suddenly.
"Boys," he exclaimed, "did you hear that?"
Every man stopped his horse also and with involuntary motion bent forward a little to listen. Then the sound that the Panther had heard came again. It was the faint ping of a rifle shot, muffled by the distance. In a moment they heard another and then two more. The sounds came from the direction of their cabin.
"The boys are attacked," said the Panther calmly, "an' it's just as well that we've come fast. But I can't think who is after 'em. There was certainly no Mexicans in these parts yesterday, an' Urrea could not possibly have got ahead of us with a raidin' band. But at any rate we'll ride on an' soon see."
They proceeded with the utmost caution, and they heard the faint ping of the rifles a half dozen times as they advanced. The nostrils of the Panther began to distend, and streaks of red appeared on his eyeballs. He was smelling the battle afar, and his soul rejoiced. He had spent his whole life amid scenes of danger, and this was nature to him. Crockett rode up by his side, and he, too, listened eagerly. He no longer carried Betsy over his shoulder but held the long rifle across the pommel of his saddle, his hand upon hammer and trigger.
"What do you think it is, Panther?" he asked. Already he had fallen into the easy familiarity of the frontier.
"I can't make it out yet," replied the Panther, "but them shots shorely came from the cabin an' places about it. Our fellows are besieged, but I've got to guess at the besiegers, an' then I'm likely to guess wrong."
They were riding very slowly, and presently they heard a dozen shots, coming very clearly now.
"I think we'd better stop here," said the Panther, "an' do a little scoutin'. If you like it, Mr. Crockett, you an' me an' Ned, here, will dismount, slip forward an' see what's the trouble. Obed will take Command of the others, an' wait in the bushes till we come back with the news, whatever it is."
"I'll go with you gladly," said Davy Crockett. "I'm not lookin' for trouble with a microscope, but if trouble gets right in my path I'm not dodgin' it. So I say once more, lead on, noble Mr. Panther, an' if Betsy here must talk she'll talk."
The Panther grinned in the dusk. He and Davy Crockett had instantly recognized congenial souls, each in the other.
"I can't promise you that thar'll be rippin' an' t'arin' an' roarin' an' chawin' all the time," he said, "but between you an' me, Davy Crockett, I've an' idee that we're not goin' to any sort of prayer meetin' this time of night."
"No, I'm thinkin' not," said Crockett, "but if there is a scene of turbulence before us lead on. I'm prepared for my share in it. The debate may be lively, but I've no doubt that I'll get my chance to speak. There are many ways to attract the attention of the Speaker. Pardon me, Mr. Panther, but I fall naturally into the phrases of legislative halls."
"I remember that you served two terms in Congress at Washington," said the Panther.
"An' I'd be there yet if it wasn't for Andy Jackson. I wanted my way in Tennessee politics an' he wanted his. He was so stubborn an' headstrong that here I am ready to become a statesman in this new Texas which is fightin' for its independence. An' what a change! From marble halls in Washington to a night in the brush on the frontier, an' with an unknown enemy before you."
They stopped talking now and, kneeling down in a thicket, began to creep forward. The cabin was not more than four or five hundred yards away, but a long silence had succeeded the latest shots, and after an advance of thirty or forty yards they lay still for a while. Then they heard two shots ahead of them, and saw little pink dots of flame from the exploding gunpowder.
"It cannot be Mexicans who are besieging the cabin," said Ned. "They would shout or make some kind of a noise. We have not heard a thing but the rifle shots."
"Your argyment is good," whispered the Panther. "Look! Did you see that figure passin' between us an' the cabin?"
"I saw it," said Davy Crockett, "an' although it was but a glimpse an' this is night it did not seem to me to be clad in full Christian raiment. I am quite sure it is not the kind of costume that would be admitted to the galleries of Congress."
"You're right, doubly right," said the Panther. "That was an Injun you saw, but whether a Comanche or a Lipan I couldn't tell. The boys are besieged not by Mexicans, but by Injuns. Hark to that!"
There was a flash from the cabin, a dusky figure in the woods leaped into the air, uttered a death cry, fell and lay still.
"An', as you see," continued the Panther, in his whisper, "the boys in the house are not asleep, dreamin' beautiful dreams. Looks to me as if they was watchin' mighty sharp for them fellers who have broke up their rest."
Crack! went a second shot from the house, but there was no answering cry, and they could not tell whether it hit anything. But they soon saw more dark figures flitting through the bushes, and their own position grew very precarious. If a band of the Indians stumbled upon them they might be annihilated before they gave their besieged comrades any help.
"I make the motion, Mr. Panther," said Crockett, "that you form a speedy plan of action for us, an' I trust that our young friend Ned here will second it."
"I second the motion," said Ned.
"It is carried unanimously. Now, Mr. Panther, we await your will."
"It's my will that we git back to the rest of the men as soon as we can. I reckon, Mr. Crockett, that them Tennesseans of yours wouldn't head in the other direction if a fight grew hot."
"I reckon that wild horses couldn't drag 'em away," said Crockett dryly.
"Then we'll go back an' j'in 'em."
"To hold a caucus, so to speak."
"I don't know what a cow-cuss is."
"It's Congressional for a conference. Don't mind these parliamentary expressions of mine, Mr. Panther. They give me pleasure an' they hurt nobody."
They reached the Tennesseans without interruption, and the Panther quickly laid his plan before them. They would advance within a quarter of a mile of the cabin, tie their horses in the thickest of the brush, leave four men to guard them, then the rest would go forward to help the besieged.
Crockett's eyes twinkled when the Panther announced the campaign in a few words.
"Very good; very good," he said. "A steering committee could not have done better. That also is parliamentary, but I think you understand it."
They heard detached shots again and then a long yell.
"They're Comanches," said the Panther. "I know their cry, an' I guess there's a lot of them."
Ned hoped that the shout did not mean the achieving of some triumph. They reached presently a dense growth of brush, and there the horses were tied. Four reluctant Tennesseans remained with them and the rest crept forward. They did not hear any shot after they left the horses until they were within three hundred yards of the house. Then an apparition caused all to stop simultaneously.
A streak of flame shot above the trees, curved and fell. It was followed by another and another. Ned was puzzled, but the Panther laughed low.
"This can't be fireworks on election night," said Davy Crockett. "It seems hardly the place for such a display."
"They're fireworks, all right," said the Panther, "but it's not election night. You're correct about that part of it. Look, there goes the fourth an' the fifth."
Two more streaks of flame curved and fell, and Ned and Crockett were still puzzled.
"Them's burnin' arrers," said the Panther. "It's an old trick of the Injuns. If they had time enough they'd be sure to set the cabin on fire, and then from ambush they'd shoot the people as they ran out. But what we're here for is to stop that little game of theirs. The flight of the arrers enables us to locate the spot from which they come an' there we'll find the Comanches."
They crept toward the point from which the lighted arrows were flying, and peering; from the thicket saw a score or more of Comanches gathered in the bushes and under the trees. One of the Tennesseans, seeking a better position, caused a loud rustling, and the alert Comanches, instantly taking alarm, turned their attention to the point from which the sound had come.
"Fire, boys! Fire at once!" cried the Panther.
A deadly volley was poured into the Comanche band. The Indians replied, but were soon compelled to give way. The Panther, raising his voice, shouted in tremendous tones:
"Rescue! Rescue! We're here, boys!"
The defenders of the cabin, hearing the volleys and the shouts of their friends, opened the door and rushed out of the cabin, rifle in hand. Caught between two forces, the Comanches gave up and rushed to the plain, where they had left their ponies. Jumping upon the backs of these, they fled like the wind.
The two victorious parties met and shook hands.
"We're mighty glad to see you, Panther," said Fields, grinning. "You don't look like an angel, but you act like one, an' I see you've brought a lot of new angels with you."
"Yes," replied the Panther, with some pride in his voice, "an' the first of the angels is Davy Crockett. Mr. Crockett, Mr. Fields."
The men crowded around to shake hands with the renowned Davy. Meanwhile a small party brought the four Tennesseans and the horses. Fortunately the Comanches had fled in the other direction. But it was not all joy in the Texan camp. Two silent figures covered with serapes were stretched on the floor in the cabin, and several others had wounds, although they had borne their part in the fighting.
"Tell us how it happened," said the Panther, after they had set sentinels in the forest.
"They attacked us about an hour after dark," replied Fields. "We knew that no Mexicans were near, but we never thought of Indians raiding this far to the eastward. Some of the men were outside looking after jerked meat when they suddenly opened fire from the brush. Two of the boys, Campbell and Hudson, were hurt so badly that they died after they were helped into the house by the others. The Comanches tried to rush in with our own men, but we drove them off and we could have held the cabin against 'em forever, if they hadn't begun to shoot the burning arrows. Then you came."
Campbell and Hudson were buried. Ned had been welcomed warmly by Allen, and the two boys compared notes. Will's face glowed when he heard of Ned's adventures within the Mexican lines.
"I could never have done it," he said. "I couldn't have kept steady enough when one crisis after another came along. I suppose this means, of course, that we must try to meet Santa Anna in some way. What do you think we can do, Ned?"
"I don't know, but just at present I'm going to sleep. The Panther, Davy Crockett and Obed will debate the plans."
Ned, who was becoming inured to war and danger, was soon asleep, but Will could not close his eyes. He had borne a gallant part in the defense, and the sounds of rifle shots and Indian yells still resounded in his excited ear. He remained awake long after he heard the heavy breathing of the men about him, but exhausted nerves gave way at last and he, too, slept.
The next morning their news was debated gravely by all. There was not one among them who did not understand its significance, but it was hard to agree upon a policy. Davy Crockett, who had just come, and who was practically a stranger to Texas, gave his opinions with hesitation.
"It's better for you, Mr. Panther, an' you, Mr. White, to make the motions," he said, "an' I an' my Tennesseans will endorse them. But it seems, boys, that if we came for a fight it is offered to us the moment we get here."
"Yes," said the twelve Tennesseans all together.
"I shall be compelled to leave you," said Roylston. "Pray, don't think it's because I'm afraid to fight the Mexicans. But, as I told you before, I can do far greater good for the Texan cause elsewhere. As I am now as well as ever, and I am able to take care of myself, I think I shall leave at once."
"I've known you only a few hours, Mr. Roylston," said Crockett, "but I've knocked around a hard world long enough to know a man when I see him. If you say you ought, you ought to go."
"That's so," said the Panther. "We've seen Mr. Roylston tried more than once, and nobody doubts his courage."
A good horse, saddled and bridled, and arms and ammunition, were given to Roylston. Then he bade them farewell. When he was about twenty yards away he beckoned to Ned. When the boy stood at his saddle bow he said very earnestly:
"If you fall again into the hands of Santa Anna, and are in danger of your life, use my name with him. It is perhaps a more potent weapon than you think. Do not forget."
"I will not," said Ned, "and I thank you very much, Mr. Roylston. But I hope that no such occasion will arise."
"So do I," said Roylston with emphasis. Then he rode away, a square, strong figure, and never looked back.
"What was he saying, Ned?" asked Will, when the boy returned.
"Merely promising help if we should need it, hereafter."
"He looks like a man who would give it."
After some further talk it was decided that Ned, Will, Obed and the Panther should ride south to watch the advance of Santa Anna, while Crockett, Fields and the remainder should go to San Antonio and raise such troops as they could.
"An' if you don't mind my sayin' it to you, Mr. Crockett," said the Panther, "keep tellin' 'em over an' over again that they have need to beware. Tell 'em that Santa Anna, with all the power of Mexico at his back, is comin'."
"Fear not, my good friend," said Davy Crockett. "I shall tell them every hour of the day. I shall never cease to bring the information before the full quorum of the House. Again I am parliamentary, but I think you understand, Mr. Panther."
"We all understan'," said the Panther, and then Crockett rode away at the head of the little troop which tacitly made him commander. Ned's eyes followed his figure as long as he was in sight. Little did he dream of what was to pass when they should meet again, scenes that one could never forget, though he lived a thousand years.
"A staunch man and true," said Obed. "He will be a great help to Texas."
Then they turned back to the cabin, the four of them, because they did not intend to go forth until night. They missed their comrades, but the cabin was a pleasant place, well stored now with meat of buffalo, deer and wild turkey. Floor and walls alike were covered with dressed skins.
"Why not fasten it up just as tightly as we can before we go away," said Allen. "The Comanches are not likely to come back, the war is swinging another way, and maybe we'll find it here handy for us again some day."
"You're talkin' sense, Will Allen," said the Panther. "It's been a shelter to us once, and it might be a shelter to us twice. The smell of the meat will, of course, draw wolves an' panthers, but we can fix it so they can't get in."
Taking sufficient provisions for themselves, they put the rest high up on the rafters. Then they secured the windows, and heaped logs before the door in such a manner that the smartest wolves and panthers in the world could not force an entrance. As they sat on their horses in the twilight preparatory to riding away, they regarded their work with great content.
"There it is, waiting for us when we come again," said Obed White. "It's a pleasant thing to have a castle for refuge when your enemies are making it too hot for you out in the open."
"So it is," said the Panther, "and a man finds that out more than once in his life."
Then they turned their horses and rode southward in the dusk. But before long they made an angle and turned almost due west. It was their intention to intersect the settlements that lay between the Rio Grande and San Antonio and give warning of the approach of Santa Anna.
They went on steadily over a rolling country, mostly bare, but with occasional clumps of trees.
THE HERALD OF ATTACK
About midnight they rode into the thickest part of the woods that they could find, and slept there until day. Then they continued their course toward the west, and before night they saw afar small bands of horsemen.
"What do you say they are?" asked the Panther of Ned when they beheld the first group. "Seems to me they are Mexican."
Ned looked long before returning an answer. Then he replied with confidence:
"Yes, they are Mexicans. The two men in the rear have lances, and no Texan ever carried such a weapon."
"Then," said Obed White, "it behooves us to have a care. We're scouts now and we're not looking for a battle. He who dodges the fight and runs away may live to scout another day."
The Mexican horsemen were on their right, and the four continued their steady course to the west. They were reassured by the fact that the Mexicans were likely to take them in the distance for other Mexicans. It became evident now that Santa Anna was taking every precaution. He was sending forward scouts and skirmishers in force, and the task of the four was likely to become one of great danger.
Toward night an uncommonly raw and cold wind began to blow. That winter was one of great severity in Northern Mexico and Southern Texas, noted also for its frequent Northers. Although the time for the Texan spring was near at hand, there was little sign of it. Not knowing what else to do they sought the shelter of timber again and remained there a while. By and by they saw for the second time a red glow in the south, and they knew that it came from the camp fires of Santa Anna. But it was now many miles north of the Rio Grande. Santa Anna was advancing.
"He's pressin' forward fast," said the Panther, "an' his skirmishers are scourin' the plain ahead of him. We've got to keep a sharp lookout, because we may run into 'em at any time. I think we'd better agree that if by any luck we get separated an' can't reunite, every fellow should ride hard for San Antonio with the news."
The plan seemed good to all, and, after a long wait, they rode to another clump of trees four or five hundred yards further south. Here they saw the red glow more plainly. It could not be more than two miles away, and they believed that to approach any nearer was to imperil their task. Before the first light appeared the next day they would turn back on San Antonio as the heralds of Santa Anna's advance.