The four sat on their horses among the trees, darker shadows in the shadow. Beyond the little grove they saw the plain rolling away on every side bare to the horizon, except in the south, where the red glow always threatened. Ned rode to the western edge of the grove in order to get a better view. He searched the plain carefully with his keen vision, but he could find no sign of life there in the west.
He turned Old Jack in order to rejoin his comrades, when he suddenly heard a low sound from the east. He listened a moment, and then, hearing it distinctly, he knew it. It was the thud of hoofs, and the horsemen were coming straight toward the grove, which was two or three hundred yards in width.
Owing to the darkness and the foliage Ned could not see his comrades, but he started toward them at once. Then came a sudden cry, the rapid beat of hoofs, the crack of shots, and a Mexican body of cavalry dashed into the wood directly between the boy and his comrades. He heard once the tremendous shout of the Panther and the wild Mexican yells. Two horsemen fired at him and a third rode at him with extended lance.
It was Old Jack that saved Ned's life. The boy was so startled that his brain was in a paralysis for a moment. But the horse shied suddenly away from the head of the lance, which was flashing in the moonlight. Ned retained both his seat and his rifle. He fired at the nearest of the Mexicans, who fell from his saddle, and then, seeing that but one alternative was left him he gave Old Jack the rein and galloped from the grove into the west.
Amid all the rush and terrific excitement of the moment, Ned thought of his comrades. It was not possible for him to join them now, but they were three together and they might escape. The Panther was a wonderful borderer, and Obed White was not far behind him. He turned his attention to his own escape. Two more shots were fired at him, but in both cases the bullets went wide. Then he heard only the thud of hoofs, but the pursuing horsemen were very near.
Something whizzed through the air and instinctively he bent forward almost flat on the neck of Old Jack. A coiling shape struck him on the head, slipped along his back, then along the quarters of his horse and fell to the ground. He felt as if a deadly snake had struck at him, and then had drawn its cold body across him. But he knew that it was a lasso. The Mexicans would wish to take him alive, as they might secure valuable information from him. Now he heard them shouting to one another, every one boasting that his would be the successful throw. As Ned's rifle was empty, and he could not reload it at such speed, they seemed to fear nothing for themselves.
He looked back. They numbered seven or eight, and they were certainly very near. They had spread out a little and whenever Old Jack veered a yard or two from the pursuers some one gained. He saw a coil of rope fly through the air and he bent forward again. It struck Old Jack on the saddle and fell to the ground. Ned wondered why they did not fire now, but he remembered that their rifles or muskets, too, might be empty, and suddenly he felt a strange exultation. He was still lying forward on his horse's neck, and now he began to talk to him.
"On! On! Old Jack," he said, "show 'em the cleanest heels that were ever seen in Texas! On! On! my beauty of a horse, my jewel of a horse! Would you let miserable Mexican ponies overtake you? You who were never beaten! Ah, now we gain! But faster! faster!"
It seemed that Old Jack understood. He stretched out his long neck and became a streak in the darkness. A third Mexican threw his lasso, but the noose only touched his flying tail. A fourth threw, and the noose did not reach him at all.
They were far out on the plain now, where the moonlight revealed everything, and the horse's sure instinct would guide. Ned felt Old Jack beneath him, running strong and true without a jar like the most perfect piece of machinery. He stole a glance over his shoulder. All the Mexicans were there, too far away now for a throw of the lasso, but several of them were trying to reload their weapons. Ned knew that if they succeeded he would be in great danger. No matter how badly they shot a chance bullet might hit him or his horse. And he could afford for neither himself nor Old Jack to be wounded.
Once more the boy leaned far over on his horse's neck and cried in his ear:
"On, Old Jack, on! Look, we gain now, but we must gain more. Show to them what a horse you are!"
And again the great horse responded. Fast as he was going it seemed to Ned that he now lengthened his stride. His long head was thrust out almost straight, and his great body fairly skimmed the earth. But the Mexicans hung on with grim tenacity. Their ponies were tough and enduring, and, spread out like the arc of a bow, they continually profited by some divergence that Old Jack made from the straight line. Aware of this danger Ned himself, nevertheless, was unable to tell whether the horse was going in a direct course, and he let him have his head.
"Crack!" went a musket, and a bullet sang past Ned's face. It grazed Old Jack's ear, drawing blood. The horse uttered an angry snort and fairly leaped forward. Ned looked back again. Another man had succeeded in loading his musket and was about to fire. Then the boy remembered the pistol at his belt. Snatching it out he fired at the fellow with the loaded musket.
The Mexican reeled forward on his horse's neck and his weapon dropped to the ground. Whether the man himself fell also Ned never knew, because he quickly thrust the pistol back in his belt and once more was looking straight ahead. Now confidence swelled again in his heart. He had escaped all their bullets so far, and he was still gaining. He would escape all the others and he would continue to gain.
He saw just ahead of him one of the clumps of trees that dotted the plain, but, although it might give momentary protection from the bullets he was afraid to gallop into it, lest he be swept from his horse's back by the boughs or bushes. But his direct course would run close to the left side of it, and once more he sought to urge Old Jack to greater speed.
The horse was still running without a jar. Ned could not feel a single rough movement in the perfect machinery beneath him. Unless wounded Old Jack would not fail him. He stole another of those fleeting glances backward.
Several of the Mexicans, their ponies spent, were dropping out of the race, but enough were left to make the odds far too great. Ned now skimmed along the edge of the grove, and when he passed it he turned his horse a little, so the trees were between him and his nearest pursuers. Then he urged Old Jack to his last ounce of speed. The plain raced behind him, and fortunate clouds, too, now came, veiling the moon and turning the dusk into deeper darkness. Ned heard one disappointed cry behind him, and then no sound but the flying beat of his own horse's hoofs.
When he pulled rein and brought Old Jack to a walk he could see or hear nothing of the Mexicans. The great horse was a lather of foam, his sides heaving and panting, and Ned sprang to the ground. He reloaded his rifle and pistol and then walked toward the west, leading Old Jack by the bridle. He reckoned that the Mexicans would go toward the north, thinking that he would naturally ride for San Antonio, and hence he chose the opposite direction.
He walked a long time and presently he felt the horse rubbing his nose gently against his arm. Ned stroked the soft muzzle.
"You've saved my life. Old Jack," he said, "and not for the first time. You responded to every call."
The horse whinnied ever so softly, and Ned felt that he was not alone. Now he threw the bridle reins back over the horse's head, and then the two walked on, side by side, man and beast.
They stopped at times, and it may be that the horse as well as the boy then looked and listened for a foe. But the Mexicans had melted away completely in the night. It was likely now that they were going in the opposite direction, and assured that he was safe from them for the time Ned collapsed, both physically and mentally. Such tremendous exertions and such terrible excitement were bound to bring reaction. He began to tremble violently, and he became so weak that he could scarcely stand. The horse seemed to be affected in much the same way and walked slowly and painfully.
Ned saw another little grove, and he and the horse walked straight toward it. It was fairly dense, and when he was in the center of it he wrapped his rifle and himself in his serape and lay down. The horse sank on his side near him. He did not care for anything now except to secure rest. Mexicans or Comanches or Lipans might be on the plain only a few hundred yards away. It did not matter to him. He responded to no emotion save the desire for rest, and in five minutes he was in a deep sleep.
Ned slept until long after daylight. He was so much exhausted that he scarcely moved during all that time. Nor did the horse. Old Jack had run his good race and won the victory, and he, too, cared for nothing but to rest.
Before morning some Lipan buffalo hunters passed, but they took no notice of the grove and soon disappeared in the west. After the dawn a detachment of Mexican lancers riding to the east to join the force of Santa Anna also passed the clump of trees, but the horse and man lay in the densest part of it, and no pair of Mexican eyes was keen enough to see them there. They were answering the call of Santa Anna, and they rode on at a trot, the grove soon sinking out of sight behind them.
Ned was awakened at last by the sun shining in his face. He stirred, recalled in a vague sort of way where he was and why he was there, and then rose slowly to his feet. His joints were stiff like those of an old man, and he rubbed them to acquire ease. A great bay horse, saddle on his back, was searching here and there for the young stems of grass. Ned rubbed his eyes. It seemed to him that he knew that horse. And a fine big horse he was, too, worth knowing and owning. Yes, it was Old Jack, the horse that had carried him to safety.
His little store of provisions was still tied to the saddle and he ate hungrily. At the end of the grove was a small pool formed by the winter's rains, and though the water was far from clear he drank his fill. He flexed and tensed his muscles again until all the stiffness and soreness were gone. Then he made ready for his departure.
He could direct his course by the sun, and he intended to go straight to San Antonio. He only hoped that he might get there before the arrival of Santa Anna and his army. He could not spare the time to seek his comrades, and he felt much apprehension for them, but he yet had the utmost confidence in the skill of the Panther and Obed White.
It was about two hours before noon when Ned set out across the plain. Usually in this region antelope were to be seen on the horizon, but they were all gone now. The boy considered it a sure sign that Mexican detachments had passed that way. It was altogether likely, too, so he calculated, that the Mexican army was now nearer than he to San Antonio. His flight had taken him to the west while Santa Anna was moving straight toward the Texan outworks. But he believed that by steady riding he could reach San Antonio within twenty-four hours.
The afternoon passed without event. Ned saw neither human beings nor game on the vast prairie. He had hoped that by some chance he might meet with his comrades, but there was no sign of them, and he fell back on his belief that their skill and great courage had saved them. Seeking to dismiss them from his thoughts for the time in order that he might concentrate all his energies on San Antonio, he rode on. The horse had recovered completely from his great efforts of the preceding night, and once more that magnificent piece of machinery worked without a jar. Old Jack moved over the prairie with long, easy strides. It seemed to Ned that he could never grow weary. He patted the sinewy and powerful neck.
"Gallant comrade," he said, "you have done your duty and more. You, at least, will never fail."
Twilight came down, but Ned kept on. By and by he saw in the east, and for the third time, that fatal red glow extending far along the dusky horizon. All that he had feared of Santa Anna was true. The dictator was marching fast, whipping his army forward with the fierce energy that was a part of his nature. It was likely, too, that squadrons of his cavalry were much further on. A daring leader like Urrea would certainly be miles ahead of the main army, and it was more than probable that bands of Mexican horsemen were now directly between him and San Antonio.
Ned knew that he would need all his strength and courage to finish his task. So he gave Old Jack a little rest, although he did not seem to need it, and drew once more upon his rations.
When he remounted he was conscious that the air had grown much colder. A chill wind began to cut him across the cheek. Snow, rain and wind have played a great part in the fate of armies, and they had much to do with the struggle between Texas and Mexico in that fateful February. Ned's experience told him that another Norther was about to begin, and he was glad of it. One horseman could make much greater progress through it than an army.
The wind rose fast and then came hail and snow on its edge. The red glow in the east disappeared. But Ned knew that it was still there. The Norther had merely drawn an icy veil between. He shivered, and the horse under him shivered, too. Once more he wrapped around his body the grateful folds of the serape and he drew on a pair of buckskin gloves, a part of his winter equipment.
Then he rode on straight toward San Antonio as nearly as he could calculate. The Norther increased in ferocity. It brought rain, hail and snow, and the night darkened greatly. Ned began to fear that he would get lost. It was almost impossible to keep the true direction in such a driving storm. He had no moon and stars to guide him, and he was compelled to rely wholly upon instinct. Sometimes he was in woods, sometimes upon the plain, and once or twice he crossed creeks, the waters of which were swollen and muddy.
The Norther was not such a blessing after all. He might be going directly away from San Antonio, while Santa Anna, with innumerable guides, would easily reach there the next day. He longed for those faithful comrades of his. The four of them together could surely find a way out of this.
He prayed now that the Norther would cease, but his prayer was of no avail. It whistled and moaned about him, and snow and hail were continually driven in his face. Fortunately the brim of the sombrero protected his eyes. He floundered on until midnight. The Norther was blowing as fiercely as ever, and he and Old Jack were brought up by a thicket too dense for them to penetrate.
Ned understood now that he was lost. Instinct had failed absolutely. Brave and resourceful as he was he uttered a groan of despair. It was torture to be so near the end of his task and then to fail. But the despair lasted only a moment. The courage of a nature containing genuine greatness brought back hope.
He dismounted and led his horse around the thicket. Then they came to a part of the woods which seemed thinner, and not knowing anything else to do he went straight ahead. But he stopped abruptly when his feet sank in soft mud. He saw directly before him a stream yellow, swollen and flowing faster than usual.
Ned knew that it was the San Antonio River, and now he had a clue. By following its banks he would reach the town. The way might be long, but it must inevitably lead him to San Antonio, and he would take it.
He remounted and rode forward as fast as he could. The river curved and twisted, but he was far more cheerful now. The San Antonio was like a great coiling rope, but if he followed it long enough he would certainly come to the end that he wished. The Norther continued to blow. He and his horse were a huge moving shape of white. Now and then the snow, coating too thickly upon his serape, fell in lumps to the ground, but it was soon coated anew and as thick as ever. But whatever happened he never let the San Antonio get out of his sight.
He was compelled to stop at last under a thick cluster of oaks, where he was somewhat sheltered from the wind and snow. Here he dismounted again, stamped his feet vigorously for warmth and also brushed the snow from his faithful horse. Old Jack, as usual, rubbed his nose against the boy's arm.
The horse was a source of great comfort and strength to Ned. He always believed that he would have collapsed without him. As nearly as he could guess the time it was about halfway between midnight and morning, and in order to preserve his strength he forced himself to eat a little more.
A half hour's rest, and remounting he resumed his slow progress by the river. The rest had been good for both his horse and himself, and the blood felt warmer in his veins. He moved for some time among trees and thickets that lined the banks, and after a while he recognized familiar ground. He had been in some of these places in the course of the siege of San Antonio, and the town could not be far away.
It was probably two hours before daylight when he heard a sound which was not that of the Norther, a sound which he knew instantly. It was the dull clank of bronze against bronze. It could be made only by one cannon striking against another. Then Santa Anna, or one of his generals, despite the storm and the night, was advancing with his army, or a part of it. Ned shivered, and now not from the cold.
The Texans did not understand the fiery energy of this man. They would learn of it too late, unless he told them, and it might be too late even then. He pressed on with as much increase of speed as the nature of the ground would allow. In another hour the snow and hail ceased, but the wind still blew fiercely, and it remained very cold.
The dawn began to show dimly through drifting clouds. Ned did not recall until long afterward that it was the birthday of the great Washington. By a singular coincidence Santa Anna appeared before Taylor with a vastly superior force on the same birthday eleven years later.
It was a hidden sun, and the day was bleak with clouds and driving winds. Nevertheless the snow that had fallen began to disappear. Ned and Old Jack still made their way forward, somewhat slowly now, as they were stiff and sore from the long night's fight with darkness and cold. On his right, only a few feet away, was the swollen current of the San Antonio. The stream looked deep to Ned, and it bore fragments of timber upon its muddy bosom. It seemed to him that the waters rippled angrily against the bank. His excited imagination—and full cause there was—gave a sinister meaning to everything.
A heavy fog began to rise from the river and wet earth. He could not see far in front of him, but he believed that the town was now only a mile or two away. Soon a low, heavy sound, a measured stroke, came out of the fog. It was the tolling of the church bell in San Antonio, and for some reason its impact upon Ned's ear was like the stroke of death. A strange chilly sensation ran down his spine.
He rode to the very edge of the stream and began to examine it for a possible ford. San Antonio was on the other side, and he must cross. But everywhere the dark, swollen waters threatened, and he continued his course along the bank.
A thick growth of bushes and a high portion of the bank caused him presently to turn away from the river until he could make a curve about the obstacles. The tolling of the bell had now ceased, and the fog was lifting a little. Out of it came only the low, angry murmur of the river's current.
As Ned turned the curve the wind grew much stronger. The bank of fog was split asunder and then floated swiftly away in patches and streamers. On his left beyond the river Ned saw the roofs of the town, now glistening in the clear morning air, and on his right, only four or five hundred yards away, he saw a numerous troop of Mexican cavalry. In the figure at the head of the horsemen he was sure that he recognized Urrea.
Ned's first emotion was a terrible sinking of the heart. After all that he had done, after all his great journeys, hardships and dangers, he was to fail with the towers and roofs of San Antonio in sight. It was the triumphant cry of the Mexicans that startled him into life again. They had seen the lone horseman by the river and they galloped at once toward him. Ned had made no mistake. It was Urrea, pressing forward ahead of the army, who led the troop, and it may be that he recognized the boy also.
With the cry of the Mexicans ringing in his ears, the boy shouted to Old Jack. The good horse, as always, made instant response, and began to race along the side of the river. But even his mighty frame had been weakened by so much strain. Ned noticed at once that the machinery jarred. The great horse was laboring hard and the Mexican cavalry, comparatively fresh, was coming on fast. It was evident that he would soon be overtaken, and so sure were the Mexicans of it that they did not fire.
There were deep reserves of courage and fortitude in this boy, deeper than even he himself suspected. When he saw that he could not escape by speed, the way out flashed upon him. To think was to do. He turned his horse without hesitation and urged him forward with a mighty cry.
Never had Old Jack made a more magnificent response. Ned felt the mighty mass of bone and muscle gather in a bunch beneath him. Then, ready to expand again with violent energy, it was released as if by the touch of a spring. The horse sprang from the high bank far out into the deep river.
Ned felt his serape fly from him and his rifle dropped from his hand. Then the yellow waters closed over both him and Old Jack. They came up again, Ned still on the horse's back, but with an icy chill through all his veins. He could not see for a moment or two, as the water was in his eyes, but he heard dimly the shouts of the Mexicans and several shots. Two or three bullets splashed the water around him and another struck his sombrero, which was floating away on the surface of the stream.
The horse, turning somewhat, swam powerfully in a diagonal course across the stream. Ned, dazed for the moment by the shock of the plunge from a height into the water, clung tightly to his back. He sat erect at first, and then remembering that he must evade the bullets leaned forward with the horse's neck between him and the Mexicans.
More shots were fired, but again he was untouched, and then the horse was feeling with his forefeet in the muddy bank for a hold. The next instant, with a powerful effort, he pulled himself upon the shore. The violent shock nearly threw Ned from his back, but the boy seized his mane and hung on.
The Mexicans shouted and fired anew, but Ned, now sitting erect, raced for San Antonio, only a mile away.
IN THE ALAMO
Most of the people in San Antonio were asleep when the dripping figure of a half unconscious boy on a great horse galloped toward them in that momentous dawn. He was without hat or serape. He was bareheaded and his rifle was gone. He was shouting "Up! Up! Santa Anna and the Mexican army are at hand!" But his voice was so choked and hoarse that he could not be heard a hundred feet away.
Davy Crockett, James Bowie and a third man were standing in the Main Plaza. The third man, like the other two, was of commanding proportions. He was a full six feet in height, very erect and muscular, and with full face and red hair. He was younger than the others, not more than twenty-eight, but he was Colonel William Barrett Travis, a North Carolina lawyer, who was now in command of the few Texans in San Antonio.
The three men were talking very anxiously. Crockett had brought word that the army of Santa Anna was on the Texan side of the Rio Grande, but it had seemed impossible to rouse the Texans to a full sense of the impending danger. Many remained at their homes following their usu vocations. Mr. Austin was away in the states trying to raise money. Dissensions were numerous in the councils of the new government, and the leaders could agree upon nothing.
Travis, Bowie and Crockett were aware of the great danger, but even they did not believe it was so near. Nevertheless they were full of anxiety. Crockett, just come to Texas, took no command and sought to keep in the background, but he was too famous and experienced a man not to be taken at once by Travis and Bowie into their councils. They were discussing now the possibility of getting help.
"We might send messengers to the towns further east," said Travis, "and at least get a few men here in time."
"We need a good many," said Bowie. "According to Mr. Crockett the Mexican army is large, and the population here is unfriendly."
"That is so," said Travis, "and we have women and children of our own to protect."
It was when he spoke the last words that they heard the clatter of hoofs and saw Ned dashing down the narrow street toward the Main Plaza. They heard him trying to shout, but his voice was now so hoarse that he could not be understood.
But Ned, though growing weaker fast, knew two of the men. He could never forget the fair-haired Bowie nor the swarthy Crockett, and he galloped straight toward them. Then he pulled up his horse and half fell, half leaped to the ground. Holding by Old Jack's mane he pulled himself into an erect position. He was a singular sight The water still fell from his wet hair and dripped from his clothing. His face was plastered with mud.
"Santa Anna's army, five thousand strong, is not two miles away!" he said. "I tell you because I have seen it!"
"Good God!" cried Bowie. "It's the boy, Ned Fulton. I know him well. What he says must be truth."
"It is every word truth!" croaked Ned. "I was pursued by their vanguard! My horse swam the river with me! Up! Up! for Texas!"
Then he fainted dead away. Bowie seized him in his powerful arms and carried him into one of the houses occupied by the Texans, where men stripped him of his wet clothing and gave him restoratives. But Bowie himself hurried out into the Main Plaza. He had the most unlimited confidence in Ned's word and so had Crockett. They and Travis at once began to arrange the little garrison for defence.
Many of the Texans even yet would not believe. So great had been their confidence that they had sent out no scouting parties. Only a day or two before they had been enjoying themselves at a great dance. The boy who had come with the news that Santa Anna was at hand must be distraught. Certainly he had looked like a maniac.
A loud cry suddenly came from the roof of the church of San Fernando. Two sentinels posted there had seen the edge of a great army appear upon the plain and then spread rapidly over it. Santa Anna's army had come. The mad boy was right. Two horsemen sent out to reconnoiter had to race back for their lives. The flooded stream was now subsiding and only the depth of the water in the night had kept the Mexicans from taking cannon across and attacking.
Ned's faint was short. He remembered putting on clothing, securing a rifle and ammunition, and then he ran out into the square. From many windows he saw the triumphant faces of Mexicans looking out, but he paid no attention to them. He thought alone of the Texans, who were now displaying the greatest energy. In the face of the imminent and deadly peril Travis, Crockett, Bowie and the others were cool and were acting with rapidity. The order was swiftly given to cross to the Alamo, the old mission built like a fortress, and the Texans were gathering in a body. Ned saw a young lieutenant named Dickinson catch up his wife and child on a horse, and join the group of men. All the Texans had their long rifles, and there were also cannon.
As Ned took his place with the others a kindly hand fell upon his shoulder and a voice spoke in his ear.
"I was going to send for you, Ned," said Bowie, "but you've come. Perhaps it would have been better for you, though, if you had been left in San Antonio."
"Oh, no, Mr. Bowie!" cried Ned. "Don't say that. We can beat off any number of Mexicans!"
Bowie said nothing more. Much of Ned's courage and spirit returned, but he saw how pitifully small their numbers were. The little band that defiled across the plain toward the Alamo numbered less than one hundred and fifty men, and many of them were without experience.
They were not far upon the plain when Ned saw a great figure coming toward him. It was Old Jack, who had been forgotten in the haste and excitement. The saddle was still on his back and his bridle trailed on the ground. Ned met him and patted his faithful head. Already he had taken his resolution. There would be no place for Old Jack in the Alamo, but this good friend of his should not fall into the hands of the Mexicans.
He slipped off saddle and bridle, struck him smartly on the shoulder and exclaimed:
"Good-by, Old Jack, good-by! Keep away from our enemies and wait for me."
The horse looked a moment at his master, and, to Ned's excited eyes, it seemed for a moment that he wished to speak. Old Jack had never before been dismissed in this manner. Ned struck him again and yet more sharply.
"Go, old friend!" he cried.
The good horse trotted away across the plain. Once he looked back as if in reproach, but as Ned did not call him he kept on and disappeared over a swell. It was to Ned like the passing of a friend, but he knew that Old Jack would not allow the Mexicans to take him. He would fight with both teeth and hoofs against any such ignominious capture.
Then Ned turned his attention to the retreat. It was a little band that went toward the Alamo, and there were three women and three children in it, but since they knew definitely that Santa Anna and his great army had come there was not a Texan who shrank from his duty. They had been lax in their watch and careless of the future, faults frequent in irregular troops, but in the presence of overwhelming danger they showed not the least fear of death.
They reached the Alamo side of the river. Before them they saw the hewn stone walls of the mission rising up in the form of a cross and facing the river and the town. It certainly seemed welcome to a little band of desperate men who were going to fight against overwhelming odds. Ned also saw not far away the Mexican cavalry advancing in masses. The foremost groups were lancers, and the sun glittered on the blades of their long weapons.
Ned believed that Urrea was somewhere in one of these leading groups. Urrea he knew was full of skill and enterprise, but his heart filled with bitterness against him. He had tasted the Texan salt, he had broken bread with those faithful friends of his, the Panther and Obed White, and now he was at Santa Anna's right hand, seeking to destroy the Texans utterly.
"Looks as if I'd have a lot of use for Old Betsy," said a whimsical voice beside him. "Somebody said when I started away from Tennessee that I'd have nothing to do with it, might as well leave my rifle at home. But I 'low that Old Betsy is the most useful friend I could have just now."
It was, of course, Davy Crockett who spoke. He was as cool as a cake of ice. Old Betsy rested in the hollow of his arm, the long barrel projecting several feet. His raccoon skin cap was on the back of his head. His whole manner was that of one who was in the first stage of a most interesting event. But as Ned was looking at him a light suddenly leaped in the calm eye.
"Look there! look there!" said Davy Crockett, pointing a long finger. "We'll need food in that Alamo place, an' behold it on the hoof!"
About forty cattle had been grazing on the plain. They had suddenly gathered in a bunch, startled by the appearance of so many people, and of galloping horsemen.
"We'll take 'em with us! We'll need 'em! Say we can do it, Colonel!" shouted Crockett to Travis.
"Come on, Ned," cried Crockett, "an' come on the rest of you fleet-footed fellows! Every mother's son of you has driv' the cows home before in his time, an' now you kin do it again!"
A dozen swift Texans ran forward with shouts, Ned and Davy Crockett at their head. Crockett was right. This was work that every one of them knew how to do. In a flash they were driving the whole frightened herd in a run toward the gate that led into the great plaza of the Alamo. The swift motion, the sense of success in a sudden maneuver, thrilled Ned. He shouted at the cattle as he would have done when he was a small boy.
They were near the gate when he heard an ominous sound by his side. It was the cocking of Davy Crockett's rifle, and when he looked around he saw that Old Betsy was leveled, and that the sure eye of the Tennessean was looking down the sights.
Some of the Mexican skirmishers seeing the capture of the herd by the daring Texans were galloping forward to check it. Crockett's finger pressed the trigger. Old Betsy flashed and the foremost rider fell to the ground.
"I told that Mexican to come down off his horse, and he came down," chuckled Crockett.
The Mexicans drew back, because other Texan rifles, weapons that they had learned to dread, were raised. A second body of horsemen charged from a different angle, and Ned distinctly saw Urrea at their head. He fired, but the bullet missed the partisan leader and brought down another man behind him.
"There are good pickings here," said Davy Crockett, "but they'll soon be too many for us. Come on, Ned, boy! Our place is behind them walls!"
"Yes," repeated Bowie, who was near. "It's the Alamo or nothing. No matter how fast we fired our rifles we'd soon be trod under foot by the Mexicans."
They passed in, Bowie, Crockett and Ned forming the rear guard. The great gates of the Alamo were closed behind them and barred. For the moment they were safe, because these doors were made of very heavy oak, and it would require immense force to batter them in. It was evident that the Mexican horsemen on the plain did not intend to make any such attempt, as they drew off hastily, knowing that the deadly Texan rifles would man the walls at once.
"Well, here we are, Ned," said the cheerful voice of Davy Crockett, "an' if we want to win glory in fightin' it seems that we've got the biggest chance that was ever offered to anybody. I guess when old Santa Anna comes up he'll say: 'By nations right wheel; forward march the world.' Still these walls will help a little to make up the difference between fifty to one."
As he spoke he tapped the outer wall.
"No Mexican on earth," he said, "has got a tough enough head to butt through that. At least I think so. Now what do you think, Ned?"
His tone was so whimsical that Ned was compelled to laugh despite their terrible situation.
"It's a pity, though," continued Crockett, "that we've got such a big place here to defend. Sometimes you're the stronger the less ground you spread over."
Ned glanced around. He had paid the Alamo one hasty visit just after the capture of San Antonio by the Texans, but he took only a vague look then. Now it was to make upon his brain a photograph which nothing could remove as long as he lived.
He saw in a few minutes all the details of the Alamo. He knew already its history. This mission of deathless fame was even then more than a century old. Its name, the Alamo, signified "the Cottonwood tree," but that has long since been lost in another of imperishable grandeur.
The buildings of the mission were numerous, the whole arranged, according to custom, in the form of a cross. The church, which was now without a roof, faced town and river, but it contained arched rooms, and the sacristy had a solid roof of masonry. The windows, cut for the needs of an earlier time, were high and narrow, in order that attacking Indians might not pour in flights of arrows upon those who should be worshipping there. Over the heavy oaken doors were images and carvings in stone worn by time.
To the left of the church, beside the wing of the cross, was the plaza of the convent, about thirty yards square, with its separate walls more than fifteen feet high and nearly four feet thick.
Ned noted all these things rapidly and ineffaceably, as he and Crockett took a swift but complete survey of their fortress. He saw that the convent and hospital, each two stories in height, were made of adobe bricks, and he also noticed a sallyport, protected by a little redoubt, at the southeastern corner of the yard.
They saw beyond the convent yard the great plaza into which they had driven the cattle, a parallelogram covering nearly three acres, inclosed by a wall eight feet in height and three feet thick. Prisons, barracks and other buildings were scattered about. Beyond the walls was a small group of wretched jacals or huts in which some Mexicans lived. Water from the San Antonio flowed in ditches through the mission.
It was almost a town that they were called upon to defend, and Ned and Crockett, after their hasty look, came back to the church, the strongest of all the buildings, with walls of hewn stone five feet thick and nearly twenty-five feet high. They opened the heavy oaken doors, entered the building and looked up through the open roof at the sky. Then Crockett's eyes came back to the arched rooms and the covered sacristy.
"This is the real fort," he said, "an' we'll put our gunpowder in that sacristy. It looks like sacrilege to use a church for such a purpose, but, Ned, times are goin' to be very hot here, the hottest we ever saw, an' we must protect our powder."
He carried his suggestion to Travis, who adopted it at once, and the powder was quickly taken into the rooms. They also had fourteen pieces of cannon which they mounted on the walls of the church, at the stockade at the entrance to the plaza and at the redoubt. But the Texans, frontiersmen and not regular soldiers, did not place much reliance upon the cannon. Their favorite weapon was the rifle, with which they rarely missed even at long range.
It took the Texans but little time to arrange the defence, and then came a pause. Ned did not have any particular duty assigned to him, and went back to the church, which now bore so little resemblance to a house of worship. He gazed curiously at the battered carvings and images over the door. They looked almost grotesque to him now, and some of them threatened.
He went inside the church and looked around once more. It was old, very old. The grayness of age showed everywhere, and the silence of the defenders on the walls deepened its ancient aspect. But the Norther had ceased to blow, and the sun came down, bright and unclouded, through the open roof.
Ned climbed upon the wall. Bowie, who was behind one of the cannon, beckoned to him. Ned joined him and leaned upon the gun as Bowie pointed toward San Antonio.
"See the Mexican masses," he said. "Ned, you were a most timely herald. If it had not been for you our surprise would have been total. Look how they defile upon the plain."
The army of Santa Anna was entering San Antonio and it was spread out far and wide. The sun glittered on lances and rifles, and brightened the bronze barrels of cannon. The triumphant notes of a bugle came across the intervening space, and when the bugle ceased a Mexican band began to play.
It was fine music. The Mexicans had the Latin ear, the gift for melody, and the air they played was martial and inspiring. One could march readily to its beat. Bowie frowned.
"They think it nothing more than a parade," he said. "But when Santa Anna has taken us he will need a new census of his army."
He looked around at the strong stone walls, and then at the resolute faces of the men near him. But the garrison was small, pitifully small.
Ned left the walls and ate a little food that was cooked over a fire lighted in the convent plaza. Then he wandered about the place looking at the buildings and inclosures. The Alamo was so extensive that he knew Travis would be compelled to concentrate his defense about the church, but he wanted to examine all these places anyhow.
He wandered into one building that looked like a storehouse. The interior was dry and dusty. Cobwebs hung from the walls, and it was empty save for many old barrels that stood in the corner. Ned looked casually into the barrels and then he uttered a shout of joy. A score of so of them were full of shelled Indian corn in perfect condition, a hundred bushels at least. This was truly treasure trove, more valuable than if the barrels had been filled with coined gold.
He ran out of the house and the first man he met was Davy Crockett.
"Now what has disturbed you?" asked Crockett, in his drawling tone. "Haven't you seen Mexicans enough for one day? This ain't the time to see double."
"I wish I could see double in this case, Mr. Crockett," replied Ned, "because then the twenty barrels of corn that I've found would be forty."
He took Crockett triumphantly into the building and showed him the treasure, which was soon transferred to one of the arched rooms beside the entrance of the church. It was in truth one of the luckiest finds ever made. The cattle in the plaza would furnish meat for a long time, but they would need bread also. Again Ned felt that pleasant glow of triumph. It seemed that fortune was aiding them.
He went outside and stood by the ditch which led a shallow stream of water along the eastern side of the church. It was greenish in tint, but it was water, water which would keep the life in their bodies while they fought off the hosts of Santa Anna.
The sun was now past the zenith, and since the Norther had ceased to blow there was a spring warmth in the air. Ned, conscious now that he was stained with the dirt and dust of flight and haste, bathed his face and hands in the water of the ditch and combed his thick brown hair as well as he could with his fingers.
"Good work, my lad," said a hearty voice beside him. "It shows that you have a cool brain and an orderly mind."
Davy Crockett, who was always neat, also bathed his own face and hands in the ditch.
"Now I feel a lot better," he said, "and I want to tell you, Ned, that it's lucky the Spanish built so massively. Look at this church. It's got walls of hewn stone, five feet through, an' back in Tennessee we build 'em of planks a quarter of an inch thick. Why, these walls would turn the biggest cannon balls."
"It surely is mighty lucky," said Ned. "What are you going to do next, Mr. Crockett?"
"I don't know. I guess we'll wait on the Mexicans to open the battle. Thar, do you hear that trumpet blowin' ag'in? I reckon it means that they're up to somethin'."
"I think so, too," said Ned. "Let's go back upon the church walls, Mr. Crockett, and see for ourselves just what it means."
The two climbed upon the great stone wall, which was in reality a parapet. Travis and Bowie, who was second in command, were there already. Ned looked toward San Antonio, and he saw Mexicans everywhere. Mexican flags hoisted by the people were floating from the flat roofs of the houses, signs of their exultation at the coming of Santa Anna and the expulsion of the Texans.
The trumpet sounded again and they saw three officers detach themselves from the Mexican lines and ride forward under a white flag. Ned knew that one of them was the young Urrea.
"Now what in thunder can they want?" growled Davy Crockett. "There can be no talk or truce between us an' Santa Anna. If all that I've heard of him is true I'd never believe a word he says."
Travis called two of his officers, Major Morris and Captain Martin, and directed them to go out and see what the Mexicans wanted. Then, meeting Ned's eye, he recalled something.
"Ah, you speak Spanish and Mexican Spanish perfectly," he said. "Will you go along, too?"
"Gladly," said Ned.
"An', Ned," said Davy Crockett, in his whimsical tone, "if you don't tell me every word they said when you come back I'll keep you on bread an' water for a week. There are to be no secrets here from me."
"I promise, Mr. Crockett," said Ned.
The heavy oaken doors were thrown open and the three went out on foot to meet the Mexican officers who were riding slowly forward. The afternoon air was now soft and pleasant, and a light, soothing wind was blowing from the south. The sky was a vast dome of brilliant blue and gold. It was a picture that remained indelibly on Ned's mind like many others that were to come. They were etched in so deeply that neither the colors nor the order of their occurrence ever changed. An odor, a touch, or anything suggestive would make them return to his mind, unfaded and in proper sequence like the passing of moving pictures.
The Mexicans halted in the middle of the plain and the three Texans met them. The Mexicans did not dismount. Urrea was slightly in advance of the other two, who were older men in brilliant uniforms, generals at least. Ned saw at once that they meant to be haughty and arrogant to the last degree. They showed it in the first instance by not dismounting. It was evident that Urrea would be the chief spokesman, and his manner indicated that it was a part he liked. He, too, was in a fine uniform, irreproachably neat, and his handsome olive face was flushed.
"And so," he said, in an undertone and in Spanish to Ned, "we are here face to face again. You have chosen your own trap, the Alamo, and it is not in human power for you to escape it now."
His taunt stung, but Ned merely replied:
"We shall see."
Then Urrea said aloud, speaking in English, and addressing himself to the two officers:
"We have come by order of General Santa Anna, President of Mexico and Commander-in-Chief of her officers, to make a demand of you."
"A conference must proceed on the assumption that the two parties to it are on equal terms," said Major Morris, in civil tones.
"Under ordinary circumstances, yes," said Urrea, without abating his haughty manner one whit, "but this is a demand by a paramount authority upon rebels and traitors."
He paused that his words might sink home. All three of the Texans felt anger leap in their hearts, but they put restraint upon their words.
"What is it that you wish to say to us?" continued Major Morris. "If it is anything we should hear we are listening."
Urrea could not subdue his love of the grandiose and theatrical.
"As you may see for yourselves," he said, "General Santa Anna has returned to Texas with an overpowering force of brave Mexican troops. San Antonio has fallen into his hands without a struggle. He can take the Alamo in a day. In a month not a man will be left in Texas able to dispute his authority."
"These are statements most of which can be disputed," said Major Morris. "What does General Santa Anna demand of us?"
His quiet manner had its effect upon Urrea.
"He demands your unconditional surrender," he said.
"And does he say nothing about our lives and good treatment?" continued the Major, in the same quiet tones.
"He does not," replied Urrea emphatically. "If you receive mercy it will be due solely to the clemency of General Santa Anna toward rebels."
Hot anger again made Ned's heart leap. The tone of Urrea was almost insufferable, but Major Morris, not he, was spokesman.
"I am not empowered to accept or reject anything," continued Major Morris. "Colonel Travis is the commander of our force, but I am quite positive in my belief that he will not surrender."
"We must carry back our answer in either the affirmative or the negative," said Urrea.
"You can do neither," said Major Morris, "but I promise you that if the answer is a refusal to surrender—and I know it will be such—a single cannon shot will be fired from the wall of the church."
"Very well," said Urrea, "and since that is your arrangement I see nothing more to be said."
"Nor do I," said Major Morris.
The Mexicans saluted in a perfunctory manner and rode toward San Antonio. The three Texans went slowly back to the Alamo. Ned walked behind the two men. He hoped that the confidence of Major Morris was justified. He knew Santa Anna too well. He believed that the Texans had more to fear from surrender than from defence.
They entered the Alamo and once more the great door was shut and barred heavily. They climbed upon the wall, and Major Morris and Captain Martin went toward Travis, Bowie and Crockett, who stood together waiting. Ned paused a little distance away. He saw them talking together earnestly, but he could not hear what they said. Far away he saw the three Mexicans riding slowly toward San Antonio.
Ned's eyes came back to the wall. He saw Bowie detach himself from the other two and advance toward the cannon. A moment later a flash came from its muzzle, a heavy report rolled over the plain, and then came back in faint echoes.
The Alamo had sent its answer. A deep cheer came from the Texans. Ned's heart thrilled. He had his wish.
The boy looked back toward San Antonio and his eyes were caught by something red on the tower of the Church of San Fernando. It rose, expanded swiftly, and then burst out in great folds. It was a blood-red flag, flying now in the wind, the flag of no quarter. No Texan would be spared, and Ned knew it. Nevertheless his heart thrilled again.
THE FLAG OF NO QUARTER
Ned gazed long at the great red flag as its folds waved in the wind. A chill ran down his spine, a strange, throbbing sensation, but not of fear. They were a tiny islet there amid a Mexican sea which threatened to roll over them. But the signal of the flag, he realized, merely told him that which he had expected all the time. He knew Santa Anna. He would show no quarter to those who had humbled Cos and his forces at San Antonio.
The boy was not assigned to the watch that night, but he could not sleep for a long time. Among these borderers there was discipline, but it was discipline of their own kind, not that of the military martinet. Ned was free to go about as he chose, and he went to the great plaza into which they had driven the cattle. Some supplies of hay had been gathered for them, and having eaten they were now all at rest in a herd, packed close against the western side of the wall.
Ned passed near them, but they paid no attention to him, and going on he climbed upon the portion of the wall which ran close to the river. Some distance to his right and an equal distance to his left were sentinels. But there was nothing to keep him from leaping down from the wall or the outside and disappearing. The Mexican investment was not yet complete. Yet no such thought ever entered Ned's head. His best friends, Will Allen, the Panther and Obed White, were out there somewhere, if they were still alive, but his heart was now here in the Alamo with the Texans.
He listened intently, but he heard no sound of any Mexican advance. It occurred to him that a formidable attack might be made here, particularly under the cover of darkness. A dashing leader like the younger Urrea might attempt a surprise.
He dropped back inside and went to one of the sentinels who was standing on an abutment with his head just showing above the wall. He was a young man, not more than two or three years older than Ned, and he was glad to have company.
"Have you heard or seen anything?" asked Ned.
"No," replied the sentinel, "but I've been looking for 'em down this way."
They waited a little longer and then Ned was quite sure that he saw a dim form in the darkness. He pointed toward it, but the sentinel could not see it at all, as Ned's eyes were much the keener: But the shape grew clearer and Ned's heart throbbed.
The figure was that of a great horse, and Ned recognized Old Jack. Nothing could have persuaded him that the faithful beast was not seeking his master, and he emitted a low soft whistle. The horse raised his head, listened and then trotted forward.
"He is mine," said Ned, "and he knows me."
"He won't be yours much longer," said the sentinel. "Look, there's a Mexican creeping along the ground after him."
Ned followed the pointing finger, and he now noticed the Mexican, a vaquero, who had been crouching so low that his figure blurred with the earth. Ned saw the coiled lariat hanging over his arm, and he knew that the man intended to capture Old Jack, a prize worth any effort.
"Do you think I ought to shoot him?" asked the sentinel.
"Not yet, at least," replied Ned. "I brought my horse into this danger, but I think that he'll take himself out of it."
Old Jack had paused, as if uncertain which way to go. But Ned felt sure that he was watching the Mexican out of the tail of his eye. The vaquero, emboldened by the prospect of such a splendid prize, crept closer and closer, and then suddenly threw the lasso. The horse's head ducked down swiftly, the coil of rope slipped back over his head, and he dashed at the Mexican.
The vaquero was barely in time to escape those terrible hoofs. But howling with terror he sprang clear and raced away in the darkness. The horse whinnied once or twice gently, waited, and, when no answer came to his calls, trotted off in the dusk.
"No Mexican will take your horse," said the sentinel.
"You're right when you say that," said Ned. "I don't think another will ever get so near him, but if he should you see that my horse knows how to take care of himself."
Ned wandered back toward the convent yard. It was now late, but a clear moon was shining. He saw the figures of the sentinels clearly on the walls, but he was confident that no attack would be made by the Mexicans that night. His great tension and excitement began to relax and he felt that he could sleep.
He decided that the old hospital would be a good place, and, taking his blankets, he entered the long room of that building. Only the moonlight shone there, but a friendly voice hailed him at once.
"It's time you were hunting rest, Ned," said Davy Crockett. "I saw you wanderin' 'roun' as if you was carryin' the world on your shoulders, but I didn't say anything. I knew that you would come to if left to yourself. There's a place over there by the wall where the floor seems to be a little softer than it is most everywhere else. Take it an' enjoy it."
Ned laughed and took the place to which Crockett was pointing. The hardness of a floor was nothing to him, and with one blanket under him and another over him he went to sleep quickly, sleeping the night through without a dream. He awoke early, took a breakfast of fresh beef with the men in the convent yard, and then, rifle in hand, he mounted the church wall.
All his intensity of feeling returned with the morning. He was eager to see what was passing beyond the Alamo, and the first object that caught his eye was the blood-red flag of no quarter hanging from the tower of the Church of San Fernando. No wind was blowing and it drooped in heavy scarlet folds like a pall.
Looking from the flag to the earth, he saw great activity in the Mexican lines. Three or four batteries were being placed in position, and Mexican officers, evidently messengers, were galloping about. The flat roofs of the houses in San Antonio were covered with people. Ned knew that they were there to see Santa Anna win a quick victory and take immediate vengeance upon the Texans. He recognized Santa Anna himself riding in his crouched attitude upon a great white horse, passing from battery to battery and hurrying the work. There was proof that his presence was effective, as the men always worked faster when he came.
Ned saw all the Texan leaders, Travis, Bowie, Crockett and Bonham, watching the batteries. The whole Texan force was now manning the walls and the heavy cedar palisade at many points, but Ned saw that for the present all their dealings would be with the cannon.
Earthworks had been thrown up to protect the Mexican batteries, and the Texan cannon were posted for reply, but Ned noticed that his comrades seemed to think little of the artillery. In this desperate crisis they fondled their rifles lovingly.
He was still watching the batteries, when a gush of smoke and flame came from one of the cannon. There was a great shout in the Mexican lines, but the round shot spent itself against the massive stone walls of the mission.
"They'll have to send out a stronger call than that," said Davy Crockett contemptuously, "before this 'coon comes down."
Travis went along the walls, saw that the Texans were sheltering themselves, and waited. There was another heavy report and a second round shot struck harmlessly upon the stone. Then the full bombardment began. A half dozen batteries rained shot and shell upon the Alamo. The roar was continuous like the steady roll of thunder, and it beat upon the drums of Ned's ears until he thought he would become deaf.
He was crouched behind the stone parapet, but he looked up often enough to see what was going on. He saw a vast cloud of smoke gathering over river and town, rent continually by flashes of fire from the muzzles of the cannon. The air was full of hissing metal, shot and shell poured in a storm upon the Alamo. Now and then the Texan cannon replied, but not often.
The cannon fire was so great that for a time it shook Ned's nerves. It seemed as if nothing could live under such a rain of missiles, but when he looked along the parapet and saw all the Texans unharmed his courage came back.
Many of the balls were falling inside the church, in the convent yard and in the plazas, but the Texans there were protected also, and as far as Ned could see not a single man had been wounded.
The cannonade continued for a full hour and then ceased abruptly. The great cloud of smoke began to lift, and the Alamo, river and town came again into the brilliant sunlight. The word passed swiftly among the defenders that their fortress was uninjured and not a man hurt.
As the smoke rose higher Ned saw Mexican officers with glasses examining the Alamo to see what damage their cannon had done. He hoped they would feel mortification when they found it was so little. Davy Crockett knelt near him on the parapet, and ran his hand lovingly along the barrel of Betsy, as one strokes the head of a child.
"Do you want some more rifles, Davy?" asked Bowie.
"Jest about a half dozen," replied Crockett. "I think I can use that many before they clear out."
Six of the long-barreled Texan rifles were laid at Crockett's feet. Ned watched with absorbed interest. Crockett's eye was on the nearest battery and he was slowly raising Betsy.
"Which is to be first, Davy?" asked Bowie.
"The one with the rammer in his hand."
Crockett took a single brief look down the sights and pulled the trigger. The man with the rammer dropped to the earth and the rammer fell beside him. He lay quite still. Crockett seized a second rifle and fired. A loader fell and he also lay still. A third rifle shot, almost as quick as a flash, and a gunner went down, a fourth and a man at a wheel fell, a fifth and the unerring bullet claimed a sponger, a sixth and a Mexican just springing to cover was wounded in the shoulder. Then Crockett remained with the seventh rifle still loaded in his hands, as there was nothing to shoot at, all the Mexicans now being hidden.
But Crockett, kneeling on the parapet, the rifle cocked and his finger on the trigger, watched in case any of the Mexicans should expose himself again. He presented to Ned the simile of some powerful animal about to spring. The lean, muscular figure was poised for instant action, and all the whimsicality and humor were gone from the eyes of the sharpshooter.
A mighty shout of triumph burst from the Texans. Many a good marksman was there, but never before had they seen such shooting. The great reputation of Davy Crockett, universal in the southwest, was justified fully. The crew of the gun had been annihilated in less than a minute.
For a while there was silence. Then the Mexicans, protected by the earthwork that they had thrown up, drew the battery back a hundred yards. Even in the farther batteries the men were very careful about exposing themselves. The Texans, seeing no sure target, held their fire. The Mexicans opened a new cannonade and for another half hour the roar of the great guns drowned all other sounds. But when it ceased and the smoke drifted away the Texans were still unharmed.
Ned was now by the side of Bowie, who showed great satisfaction.
"What will they do next?" asked Ned.
"I don't know, but you see now that it's not the biggest noise that hurts the most. They'll never get us with cannon fire. The only way they can do it is to attack the lowest part of our wall and make a bridge of their own bodies."
"They are doing something now," said Ned, whose far-sighted vision always served him well. "They are pulling down houses in the town next to the river."
"That's so," said Bowie, "but we won't have to wait long to see what they're about."
Hundreds of Mexicans with wrecking hooks had assailed three or four of the houses, which they quickly pulled to pieces. Others ran forward with the materials and began to build a bridge across the narrow San Antonio.
"They want to cross over on that bridge and get into a position at once closer and more sheltered," said Bowie, "but unless I make a big mistake those men at work there are already within range of our rifles. Shall we open fire, Colonel?"
He asked the question of Travis, who nodded. A picked band of Mexicans under General Castrillon were gathered in a mass and were rapidly fitting together the timbers of the houses to make the narrow bridge. But the reach of the Texan rifles was great, and Davy Crockett was merely the king among so many sharpshooters.
The rifles began to flash and crack. No man fired until he was sure of his aim, and no two picked the same target. The Mexicans fell fast. In five minutes thirty or forty were killed, some of them falling into the river, and the rest, dropping the timbers, fled with shouts of horror from the fatal spot. General Castrillon, a brave man, sought to drive them back, but neither blows nor oaths availed. Santa Anna himself came and made many threats, but the men would not stir. They preferred punishment to the sure death that awaited them from the muzzles of the Texan rifles.
The light puffs of rifle smoke were quickly gone, and once more the town with the people watching on the flat roofs came into full view. A wind burst out the folds of the red flag of no quarter on the tower of the church of San Fernando, but Ned paid no attention to it now. He was watching for Santa Anna's next move.
"That's a bridge that will never be built," said Davy Crockett. "'Live an' learn' is a good sayin', I suppose, but a lot of them Mexicans neither lived nor learned. It's been a great day for 'Betsy' here."
Travis, the commander, showed elation.
"I think Santa Anna will realize now," he said, "that he has neither a promenade nor a picnic before him. Oh, if we only had six or seven hundred men, instead of less than a hundred and fifty!"
"We must send for help," said Bowie. "The numbers of Santa Anna continually increase, but we are not yet entirely surrounded. If the Texans know that we are beleaguered here they will come to our help."
"I will send messengers to-morrow night," said Travis. "The Texans are much scattered, but it is likely that some will come."
It was strange, but it was characteristic of them, nevertheless, that no one made any mention of escape. Many could have stolen away in the night over the lower walls. Perhaps all could have done so, but not a single Texan ever spoke of such a thing, and not one ever attempted it.
Santa Anna moved some of his batteries and also erected two new ones. When the work on the latter was finished all opened in another tremendous cannonade, lasting for fully an hour. The bank of smoke was heavier than ever, and the roaring in Ned's ears was incessant, but he felt no awe now. He was growing used to the cannon fire, and as it did so little harm he felt no apprehension.
While the fire was at its height he went down in the church and cleaned his rifle, although he took the precaution to remain in one of the covered rooms by the doorway. Davy Crockett was also there busy with the same task. Before they finished a cannon ball dropped on the floor, bounded against the wall and rebounded several times until it finally lay at rest.
"Somethin' laid a big egg then," said Crockett. "It's jest as well to keep a stone roof over your head when you're under fire of a few dozen cannon. Never take foolish risks, Ned, for the sake of showin' off. That's the advice of an old man."
Crockett spoke very earnestly, and Ned remembered his words. Bonham called to them a few minutes later that the Mexicans seemed to be meditating some movement on the lower wall around the grand plaza.
"Like as not you're right," said Crockett. "It would be the time to try it while our attention was attracted by the big cannonade."
Crockett himself was detailed to meet the new movement, and he led fifty sharpshooters. Ned was with him, his brain throbbing with the certainty that he was going into action once more. Great quantities of smoke hung over the Alamo and had penetrated every part of it. It crept into Ned's throat, and it also stung his eyes. It inflamed his brain and increased his desire for combat. They reached the low wall on a run, and found that Bonham was right. A large force of Mexicans was approaching from that side, evidently expecting to make an opening under cover of the smoke.
The assailants were already within range, and the deadly Texan rifles began to crack at once from the wall. The whole front line of the Mexican column was quickly burned away. The return fire of the Mexicans was hasty and irregular and they soon broke and ran.
"An' that's over," said Crockett, as he sent a parting shot. "It was easy, an' bein' sheltered not a man of ours was hurt. But, Ned, don't let the idea that we have a picnic here run away with you. We've got to watch an' watch an' fight an' fight all the time, an' every day more Mexicans will come."
"I understand, Mr. Crockett," said Ned. "You know that we may never get out of here alive, and I know it, too."
"You speak truth, lad," said Crockett, very soberly. "But remember that it's a chance we take every day here in the southwest. An' it's pleasant to know that they're all brave men here together. You haven't seen any flinchin' on the part of anybody an' I don't think you ever will."
"What are you going to do now?" asked Ned.
"I'm goin' to eat dinner, an' after that I'll take a nap. My advice to you is to do the same, 'cause you'll be on watch to-night."
"I know I can eat," said Ned, "and I'll try to sleep."
He found that his appetite was all right, and after dinner he lay down in the long room of the hospital. Here he heard the cannon of Santa Anna still thundering, but the walls softened the sound somewhat and made it seem much more distant. In a way it was soothing and Ned, although sure that he could not sleep, slept. All that afternoon he was rocked into deeper slumber by the continuous roar of the Mexican guns. Smoke floated over the convent yard and through all the buildings, but it did not disturb him. Now and then a flash of rifle fire came from the Texans on the walls, but that did not disturb him, either.
Nature was paying its debt. The boy lying on his blankets breathed deeply and regularly as he slept. The hours of the afternoon passed one by one, and it was dark when he awoke. The fire of the cannon had now ceased and two or three lights were burning in the hospital. Crockett was already up, and with some of the other men was eating beefsteak at a table.
"You said you'd try to sleep, Ned," he exclaimed, "an' you must have made a big try, 'cause you snored so loud we couldn't hear Santa Anna's cannon."
"Why, I'm sure I don't snore, Mr. Crockett," said Ned, red in the face.
"No, you don't snore, I'll take that back," said Davy Crockett, when the laugh subsided, "but I never saw a young man sleep more beautifully an' skillfully. Why, the risin' an' fallin' of your chest was as reg'lar as the tickin' of a clock."
Ned joined them at the table. He did not mind the jests of those men, as they did not mind the jests of one another. They were now like close blood-kin. They were a band of brethren, bound together by the unbreakable tie of mortal danger.
Ned spent two-thirds of the night on the church wall. The Mexicans let the cannon rest in the darkness, and only a few rifle shots were fired. But there were many lights in San Antonio, and on the outskirts two great bonfires burned. Santa Anna and his generals, feeling that their prey could not escape from the trap, and caring little for the peons who had been slain, were making a festival. It is even said that Santa Anna on this campaign, although he left a wife in the city of Mexico, exercised the privileges of an Oriental ruler and married another amid great rejoicings.
Ned slept soundly when his watch was finished, and he awoke again the next day to the thunder of the cannonade, which continued almost without cessation throughout the day, but in the afternoon Travis wrote a letter, a noble appeal to the people of Texas for help. He stated that they had been under a continual bombardment for more than twenty-four hours, but not a man had yet been hurt. "I shall never surrender or retreat," he said. "Then I call on you in the name of liberty, of patriotism, and of everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch." He closed with the three words, "Victory or death," not written in any vainglory or with any melodramatic appeal, but with the full consciousness of the desperate crisis, and a quiet resolution to do as he said.
The heroic letter is now in the possession of the State of Texas. Most of the men in the Alamo knew its contents, and they approved of it. When it was fully dark Travis gave it to Albert Martin. Then he looked around for another messenger.
"Two should go together in case of mishap," he said.
His eye fell upon Ned.
"If you wish to go I will send you," he said, "but I leave it to your choice. If you prefer to stay, you stay."
Ned's first impulse was to go. He might find Obed White, Will Allen and the Panther out there and bring them back with him, but his second impulse told him that it was only a chance, and he would abide with Crockett and Bowie.
"I thank you for the offer, but I think, sir, that I'll stay," he said.
He saw Crockett give him a swift approving glance. Another was quickly chosen in his stead, and Ned was in the grand plaza when they dropped over the low wall and disappeared in the darkness. His comrades and he listened attentively a long time, but as they heard no sound of shots they were sure that they were now safe beyond the Mexican lines.
"I don't want to discourage anybody," said Bowie, "but I'm not hoping much from the messengers. The Texans are scattered too widely."
"No, they can't bring many," said Crockett, "but every man counts. Sometimes it takes mighty little to turn the tale, and they may turn it."
"I hope so," said Bowie.
The Mexican cannon were silent that night and Ned slept deeply, awaking only when the dawn of a clear day came. He was astonished at the quickness with which he grew used to a state of siege and imminent danger. All the habits of life now went on as usual. He ate breakfast with as good an appetite as if he had been out on the prairie with his friends, and he talked with his new comrades as if Santa Anna and his army were a thousand miles away.
But when he did go upon the church wall he saw that Santa Anna had begun work again and at a new place. The Mexican general, having seen that his artillery was doing no damage, was making a great effort to get within much closer range where the balls would count. Men protected by heavy planking or advancing along trenches were seeking to erect a battery within less than three hundred yards of the entrance to the main plaza. They had already thrown up a part of a breastwork. Meanwhile the Texan sharpshooters were waiting for a chance.
Ned took no part in it except that of a spectator. But Crockett, Bowie and a dozen others were crouched on the wall with their rifles. Presently an incautious Mexican showed above the earthwork. It was Crockett who slew him, but Bowie took the next. Then the other rifles flashed fast, eight or ten Mexicans were slain, and the rest fled. Once more the deadly Texan rifles had triumphed.
Ned wondered why Santa Anna had endeavored to place the battery there in the daytime. It could be done at night, when it was impossible for the Texans to aim their rifles so well. He did not know that the pride of Santa Anna, unable to brook delay in the face of so small a force, had pushed him forward.
Knowing now what might be done at night, Ned passed the day in anxiety, and with the coming of the twilight his anxiety increased.
CROCKETT AND BOWIE
Unluckily for the Texans, the night was the darkest of the month. No bonfires burned in San Antonio, and there were no sounds of music. It seemed to Ned that the silence and darkness were sure indications of action on the part of the foe.
He felt more lonely and depressed than at any other time hitherto in the siege, and he was glad when Crockett and a young Tennesseean whom he called the Bee-Hunter joined him. Crockett had not lost any of his whimsical good humor, and when Ned suggested that Santa Anna was likely to profit by the dark he replied:
"If he is the general I take him to be he will, or at least try, but meanwhile we'll just wait, an' look, an' listen. That's the way to find out if things are goin' to happen. Don't turn little troubles into big ones. You don't need a cowskin for a calf. We'll jest rest easy. I'm mighty nigh old enough to be your grandfather, Ned, an' I've learned to take things as they come. I guess men of my age were talkin' this same way five thousand years ago."
"You've seen a lot in your life, Mr. Crockett," said Ned, to whom the Tennesseean was a great hero.
Crockett laughed low, but deep in his throat, and with much pleasure.
"So I have! So I have!" he replied, "an', by the blue blazes, I can say it without braggin'. I've seen a lot of water go by since I was runnin' 'roun' a bare-footed boy in Tennessee. I've ranged pretty far from east to west, an' all the way from Boston in the north to this old mission, an' that must be some thousands of miles. An' I've had some big times in New York, too."
"You've been in New York," said Ned, with quick interest. "It must be a great town."
"It is. It's certainly a bulger of a place. There are thousands an' thousands of houses, an' you can't count the sails in the bay. I saw the City Hall an' it's a mighty fine buildin', too. It's all marble on the side looking south, an' plain stone on the side lookin' north. I asked why, an' they said all the poor people lived to the north of it. That's the way things often happen, Ned. An' I saw the great, big hotel John Jacob Astor was beginnin' to build on Broadway just below the City Hall. They said it would cost seven hundred thousand dollars, which is an all-fired lot of money, that it would cover mighty nigh a whole block, an' that there would be nothin' else in America comin' up to it."
"I'd like to see that town," said Ned.
"Maybe you will some day," said Crockett, "'cause you're young. You don't know how young you look to me. I heard a lot there, Ned, about that rich man, Mr. Astor. He got his start as a fur trader. I guess he was about the biggest fur trader that ever was. He was so active that all them animals that wore furs on their backs concluded they might as well give up. I heard one story there about an otter an' a beaver talkin'. Says the otter to the beaver, when he was tellin' the beaver good-by after a visit: 'Farewell, I never expect to see you again, my dear old friend.' 'Don't be too much distressed,' replies the beaver, 'you an' I, old comrade, will soon meet at the hat store.'"
Ned and the Bee-Hunter laughed, and Crockett delved again into his past life and his experiences in the great city, relatively as great then to the whole country as it is now.
"I saw a heap of New York," he continued, "an' one of the things I liked best in it was the theaters. Lad, I saw the great Fanny Kemble play there, an' she shorely was one of the finest women that ever walked this troubled earth. I saw her first as Portia in that play of Shakespeare's called, called, called——"
"'The Merchant of Venice,'" suggested Ned.
"Yes, that's it, 'The Merchant of Venice,' where she was the woman lawyer. She was fine to see, an' the way she could change her voice an' looks was clean mirac'lous. If ever I need a lawyer I want her to act for me. She had me mad, an' then she had me laughin', an' then she had the water startin' in my eyes. Whatever she wanted me to see I saw, an' whatever she wanted me to think I thought. An' then, too, she was many kinds of a woman, different in turn. In fact, Ned, she was just like a handsome piece of changeable silk—first one color an' then another, but always clean."
He paused and the others did not interrupt him.
"I don't like cities," he resumed presently. "They crowd me up too much, but I do like the theater. It makes you see so many things an' so many kinds of people that you wouldn't have time to see if you had to travel for 'em. We don't have much chance to travel right now, do we, Bee-Hunter?"
"A few hundred yards only for our bodies," replied the young Tennesseean, "but our spirits soar far;
"'Up with your banner, Freedom, Thy champions cling to thee, They'll follow where'er you lead them To death or victory. Up with your banner, Freedom.'"
He merely hummed the words, but Ned caught his spirit and he repeated to himself: "Up with your banner, Freedom."
"I guess you've heard enough tales from an old fellow like me," said Crockett. "At least you won't have time to hear any more 'cause the Mexicans must be moving out there. Do you hear anything, Ned?"
"Nothing but a little wind."
"Then my ears must be deceivin' me. I've used 'em such a long time that I guess they feel they've got a right to trick me once in a while."
But Ned was thinking just then of the great city which he wanted to see some day as Crockett had seen it. But it seemed to him at that moment as far away as the moon. Would his comrades and he ever escape from those walls?
His mind came back with a jerk. He did hear something on the plain. Crockett was right. He heard the tread of horses and the sound of wheels moving. He called the attention of Crockett to the noises.
"I think I know what causes them," said Crockett. "Santa Anna is planting his battery under the cover of the night an' I don't see, boys, how we're goin' to keep him from doin' it."
The best of the Texan sharpshooters lined the walls, and they fired occasionally at indistinct and flitting figures, but they were quite certain that they did no execution. The darkness was too great. Travis, Bowie and Crockett considered the possibility of a sortie, but they decided that it had no chance of success. The few score Texans would be overwhelmed in the open plain by the thousands of Mexicans.
But all the leaders were uneasy. If the Mexican batteries were brought much closer, and were protected by earthworks and other fortifications, the Alamo would be much less defensible. It was decided to send another messenger for help, and Ned saw Bonham drop over the rear wall and slip away in the darkness. He was to go to Goliad, where Fannin had 300 men and four guns, and bring them in haste.
When Bonham was gone Ned returned to his place on the wall. For hours he heard the noises without, the distant sound of voices, the heavy clank of metal against metal, and he knew full well that Santa Anna was planting his batteries. At last he went to his place in the long room of the hospital and slept.
When dawn came he sprang up and rushed to the wall. There was the battery of Santa Anna only three hundred yards from the entrance to the main plaza and to the southeast, but little further away, was another. The Mexicans had worked well during the night.
"They're creepin' closer, Ned. They're creepin' closer," said Crockett, who had come to the wall before him, "but even at that range I don't think their cannon will do us much harm. Duck, boy, duck! They're goin' to fire!"
The two batteries opened at the same time, and the Mexican masses in the rear, out of range, began a tremendous cheering. Many of the balls and shells now fell inside the mission, but the Texans stayed well under cover and they still escaped without harm. The Mexican gunners, in their turn, kept so well protected that the Texan riflemen had little chance.
The great bombardment lasted an hour, but when it ceased, and the smoke lifted, Ned saw a heavy mass of Mexican cavalry on the eastern road.
Both Ned and Crockett took a long look at the cavalry, a fine body of men, some carrying lances and others muskets. Ned believed that he recognized Urrea in the figure of their leader, but the distance was too great for certainty. But when he spoke of it to Crockett the Tenesseean borrowed Travis' field glasses.
"Take these," he said, "an' if it's that beloved enemy of yours you can soon tell."
The boy, with the aid of the glasses, recognized Urrea at once. The young leader in the uniform of a Mexican captain and with a cocked and plumed hat upon his head sat his horse haughtily. Ned knew that he was swelling with pride and that he, like Santa Anna, expected the trap to shut down on the little band of Texans in a day or two. He felt some bitterness that fate should have done so much for Urrea.
"I judge by your face," said Crockett whimsically, "that it is Urrea. But remember, Ned, that you can still be hated and live long."
"It is indeed Urrea," said Ned. "Now what are they gathering cavalry out there for? They can't expect to gallop over our walls."
"Guess they've an idea that we're goin' to try to slip out an' they're shuttin' up that road of escape. Seems to me, Ned, they're comin' so close that it's an insult to us."
"They're almost within rifle shot."
"Then these bad little Mexican boys must have their faces scorched as a lesson. Just you wait here, Ned, till I have a talk with Travis an' Bowie."
It was obvious to Ned that Crockett's talk with the commander and his second was satisfactory, because when he returned his face was in a broad grin. Bowie, moreover, came with him, and his blue eyes were lighted up with the fire of battle.
"We're goin' to teach 'em the lesson, Ned, beginnin' with a b c," said Crockett, "an' Jim here, who has had a lot of experience in Texas, will lead us. Come along, I'll watch over you."
A force of seventy or eighty was formed quickly, and hidden from the view of the Mexicans, they rushed down the plaza, climbed the low walls and dropped down upon the plain. The Mexican cavalry outnumbered them four or five to one, but the Texans cared little for such odds.
"Now, boys, up with your rifles!" cried Bowie. "Pump it into 'em!"
Bowie was a product of the border, hard and desperate, a man of many fierce encounters, but throughout the siege he had been singularly gentle and considerate in his dealings with his brother Texans. Now he was all warrior again, his eyes blazing with blue fire while he shouted vehement words of command to his men.
The sudden appearance of the Texan riflemen outside the Alamo look Urrea by surprise, but he was quick of perception and action, and his cavalrymen were the best in the Mexican army. He wheeled them into line with a few words of command and shouted to them to charge. Bowie's men instantly stopped, forming a rough line, and up went their rifles. Urrea's soldiers who carried rifles or muskets opened a hasty and excited fire at some distance.
Ned heard the bullets singing over his head or saw them kicking up dust in front of the Texans, but only one of the Texans fell and but few were wounded. The Mexican rifles or muskets were now empty, but the Mexican lancers came on in good order and in an almost solid group, the yellow sunlight flashing across the long blades of their lances.
It takes a great will to face sharp steel in the hands of horsemen thundering down upon you, and Ned was quite willing to own afterward that every nerve in him was jumping, but he stood. All stood, and at the command of Bowie their rifles flashed together in one tremendous explosion.
The rifles discharged, the Texans instantly snatched out their pistols, ready for anything that might come galloping through the smoke. But nothing came. When the smoke lifted they saw that the entire front of the Mexican column was gone. Fallen men and horses were thick on the plain and long lances lay across them. Other horses, riderless, were galloping away to right and left, and unhorsed men were running to the rear. But Urrea had escaped unharmed. Ned saw him trying to reform his shattered force.
"Reload your rifles, men!" shouted Bowie. "You can be ready for them before they come again!"
These were skilled sharpshooters, and they rammed the loads home with startling rapidity. Every rifle was loaded and a finger was on every trigger when the second charge of Urrea swept down upon them. No need of a command from Bowie now. The Texans picked their targets and fired straight into the dense group. Once more the front of the Mexican column was shot away, and the lances fell clattering on the plain.
"At 'em, boys, with your pistols!" shouted Bowie. "Don't give 'em a second chance!"
The Texans rushed forward, firing their pistols. Ned in the smoke became separated from his comrades, and when he could see more clearly he beheld but a single horseman. The man was Urrea.
The two recognized each other instantly. The Mexican had the advantage. He was on horseback and the smoke was in Ned's eyes, not his own. With a shout of triumph, he rode straight at the boy and made a fierce sweep with his cavalry saber. It was fortunate for Ned that he was agile of both body and mind. He ducked and leaped to one side. He felt the swish of the heavy steel over his head, but as he came up again he fired.
Urrea was protected largely by his horse's neck, and Ned fired at the horse instead, although he would have greatly preferred Urrea as a target. The bullet struck true and the horse fell, but the rider leaped clear and, still holding the saber, sprang at his adversary. Ned snatched up his rifle, which lay on the ground at his feet, and received the slash of the sword upon its barrel. The blade broke in two, and then, clubbing his rifle, Ned struck.
It was fortunate for Urrea, too, that he was agile of mind and body. He sprang back quickly, but the butt of the rifle grazed his head and drew blood. The next moment other combatants came between, and Urrea dashed away in search of a fresh horse. Ned, his blood on fire, was rushing after him, when Bowie seized his arm and pulled him back.
"No further, Ned!" he cried. "We've scattered their cavalry and we must get back into the Alamo or the whole Mexican army will be upon us!"
Ned heard far away the beat of flying hoofs. It was made by the horses of the Mexican cavalry fleeing for their lives. Bowie quickly gathered together his men, and carrying with them two who had been slain in the fight they retreated rapidly to the Alamo, the Texan cannon firing over their heads at the advancing Mexican infantry. In three or four minutes they were inside the walls again and with their comrades.
The Mexican cavalry did not reappear upon the eastern road, and the Texans were exultant, yet they had lost two good men and their joy soon gave way to more solemn feelings. It was decided to bury the slain at once in the plaza, and a common grave was made for them. They were the first of the Texans to fall in the defence, and their fate made a deep impression upon everybody.
It took only a few minutes to dig the grave, and the men, laid side by side, were covered with their cloaks. While the spades were yet at work the Mexican cannon opened anew upon the Alamo. A ball and a bomb fell in the plaza. The shell burst, but fortunately too far away to hurt anybody. Neither the bursting of the shell nor any other part of the cannonade interrupted the burial.
Crockett, a public man and an orator, said a few words. They were sympathetic and well chosen. He spoke of the two men as dying for Texas. Others, too, would fall in the defence of the Alamo, but their blood would water the tree of freedom. Then they threw in the dirt. While Crockett was speaking the cannon still thundered without, but every word could be heard distinctly.
When Ned walked away he felt to the full the deep solemnity of the moment. Hitherto they had fought without loss to themselves. The death of the two men now cast an ominous light over the situation. The Mexican lines were being drawn closer and closer about the Alamo, and he was compelled to realize the slenderness of their chances.
The boy resumed his place on the wall, remaining throughout the afternoon, and watched the coming of the night. Crockett joined him, and together they saw troops of Mexicans marching away from the main body, some to right and some to left.
"Stretchin' their lines," said Crockett. "Santa Anna means to close us in entirely after a while. Now, by the blue blazes, that was a close shave!"
A bullet sang by his head and flattened against the wall. He and Ned dropped down just in time. Other bullets thudded against the stone. Nevertheless, Ned lifted his head above the edge of the parapet and took a look. His eyes swept a circle and he saw little puffs of smoke coming from the roofs and windows of the jacals or Mexican huts on their side of the river. He knew at once that the best of the Mexican sharpshooters had hidden themselves there, and had opened fire not with muskets, but with improved rifles. He called Crockett's attention to this point of danger and the frontiersman grew very serious.
"We've got to get 'em out some way or other," he said. "As I said before, the cannon balls make a big fuss, but they don't come so often an' they come at random. It's the little bullets that have the sting of the wasp, an' when a man looks down the sights, draws a bead on you, an' sends one of them lead pellets at you, he gen'rally gets you. Ned, we've got to drive them fellers out of there some way or other."
The bullets from the jacals now swept the walls and the truth of Crockett's words became painfully evident. The Texan cannon fired upon the huts, but the balls went through the soft adobe and seemed to do no harm. It was like firing into a great sponge. Triumphant shouts came from the Mexicans. Their own batteries resumed the cannonade, while their sheltered riflemen sent in the bullets faster and faster.
Crockett tapped the barrel of Betsy significantly.
"The work has got to be done with this old lady an' others like her," he said. "We must get rid of them jacals."
"How?" asked Ned.
"You come along with me an' I'll show you," said Crockett. "I'm goin' to have a talk with Travis, an' if he agrees with me we'll soon wipe out that wasps' nest."
Crockett briefly announced his plan, which was bold in the extreme. Sixty picked riflemen, twenty of whom bore torches also, would rush out at one of the side gates, storm the jacals, set fire to them, and then rush back to the Alamo.
Travis hesitated. The plan seemed impossible of execution in face of the great Mexican force. But Bowie warmly seconded Crockett, and at last the commander gave his consent. Ned at once asked to go with the daring troop, and secured permission. The band gathered in a close body by one of the gates. The torches were long sticks lighted at the end and burning strongly. The men had already cocked their rifles, but knowing the immense risk they were about to take they were very quiet. Ned was pale, and his heart beat painfully, but his hand did not shake.
The Texan cannon, to cover the movement, opened fire from the walls, and the riflemen, posted at various points, helped also. The Mexican cannonade increased. When the thunder and crash were at their height the gate was suddenly thrown open and the sixty dashed out. Fortunately the drifting smoke hid them partially, and they were almost upon the jacals before they were discovered.
A great shout came from the Mexicans when they saw the daring Texans outside, and bullets from the jacals began to knock up grass and dust about them. But Crockett himself, waving a torch, led them on, shouting:
"It's only a step, boys! It's only a step! Now, let 'em have it!"
The Texans fired as they rushed, but they took care to secure good aim. The Mexicans were driven from the roofs and the windows and then the Texans carrying the torches dashed inside. Every house contained something inflammable, which was quickly set on fire, and two or three huts made of wood were lighted in a dozen places.
The dry materials blazed up fast. A light wind fanned the flames, which joined together and leaped up, a roaring pyramid. The Mexicans, who had lately occupied them, were scuttling like rabbits toward their main force, and the Texan bullets made them jump higher and faster.
Crockett, with a shout of triumph, flung down his torch.
"Now, boys," he cried. "Here's the end of them jacals. Nothin' on earth can put out that fire, but if we don't make a foot race back to the Alamo the end of us will be here, too, in a minute."
The little band wheeled for its homeward rush. Ned heard a great shout of rage from the Mexicans, and then the hissing and singing of shells and cannon balls over his head. He saw Mexicans running across the plain to cut them off, but his comrades and he had reloaded their rifles, and as they ran they sent a shower of bullets that drove back their foe.
Ned's heart was pumping frightfully, and myriads of black specks danced before his eyes, but he remembered afterward that he calculated how far they were from the Alamo, and how far the Mexicans were from them. A number of his comrades had been wounded, but nobody had fallen and they still raced in a close group for the gate, which seemed to recede as they rushed on.