At night they began their march toward the north, and continued almost until morning. Ned, riding behind Will Allen, scarcely spoke. Obed White, then and afterward, observed a great change in him. He seemed to have matured suddenly far beyond his years, and Obed always felt that he had some unchanging purpose that had little to do with gentleness or mercy.
They slept in the timber until about 10 o'clock, and then resumed their ride northward, still holding to the opinion that the peripatetic Texan government would be found at Harrisburg, or somewhere in its vicinity. In the afternoon they encountered a Mexican force of eight mounted men, and attacked with such vigor that Ned and Will, riding double, were never able to get into the fight. Two of the Mexicans fell, and the rest got away. The Texans were unharmed.
The Panther, after a chase, captured one of the horses, and brought him back for Ned. They also secured the arms of the fallen Mexicans, one of these weapons being an American rifle, which Ned was quite sure had belonged to a slaughtered recruit at Goliad. They also found a letter in one of the Mexican haversacks. It was from General Urrea to General Santa Anna, and the Panther and his comrades inferred from the direction in which its bearer had been riding that the dictator himself had left San Antonio, and was marching eastward with the main Mexican army.
"I have to inform you," ran a part of the letter, "that your orders in regard to the rebels at Goliad were carried out, in my absence, by the brave and most excellent Colonel Portilla. They were all executed, except a few who escaped under cover of the smoke to the timber, but our cavalrymen are sure to find in time every one of these, and inflict upon them the justice that you have ordered.
"I shall march north, expecting to meet your excellency, and I trust that I shall have further good news to report to you. There are now no rebel forces worthy of the name. We shall sweep the country clean. I shall send detachments to take any Americans who may land at the ports, and, cooeperating with you, I feel assured, also, that we shall capture every member of the rebel government. In another month there will not be a single Texan in arms against us."
Ned read the letter aloud, translating into English as he went, and when he finished the Panther burst into a scornful laugh.
"So, the rebels are all killed, or about to be killed!" he said. "An' there won't be one Texan in arms a month from now! I'm willin' to give my word that here are six of us who will be in arms then, roarin' an' rippin' an' t'arin'! They'll sweep the country clean, will they? They'll need a bigger broom for that job than any that was ever made in Mexico!"
The others made comment in like fashion, but young Fulton was silent. His resolution was immutable, and it required no words to assert it.
"I guess we'd better take this letter with us an' give it to Sam Houston," said "Deaf" Smith. "Houston has been criticized a lot for not gatherin' his forces together an' attackin' the Mexicans, but he ain't had any forces to gather, an' talk has never been much good against cannon balls an' bullets. Still, he's the only man we've got to fall back on."
"You keep the letter, 'Deaf'," said the Panther, "an' now that we've got a horse for Ned I guess we can go a little faster. How you feelin' now, Ned?"
"Fine," replied Ned. "Don't you bother about me any more. I started on the upgrade the moment you fellows found me."
"A good horse and a good rifle ought to be enough to bring back the strength to any Texan," said Obed White.
They resumed their journey at a faster pace, but before nightfall they met another Texan who informed them that large forces of Mexicans were now between them and Harrisburg. Hence they concluded that it was wiser to turn toward the coast, and make a great circuit around the forces of Santa Anna.
But they told the Texan scout of what had been done at Goliad, and bade him wave the torch of fire wherever he went. He rode away with a face aghast at the news, and they knew that he would soon spread it through the north. As for themselves they rode rapidly toward the east.
They spent the night in a cluster of timber, and the Panther was fortunate enough to shoot a wild turkey. They made Ned eat the tenderest parts, and then seek sleep between blankets. His fever was now gone, but he was relaxed and weak. It was a pleasant weakness, however, and, secure in the comradeship of his friends, he soon fell into a deep slumber which lasted all the night. The others had planned an early start, but, as Ned was sleeping with such calm and peace, they decided not to disturb him, knowing how much he needed the rest. It was three hours after sunrise when he awoke, and he made many apologies, but the rest only laughed.
"What's the use of our hurryin'?" said "Deaf" Smith. "It'll take some time for Sam Houston to get any army together, an' we might keep in good shape until he gets it. Here's more beef soup for you, Ned. You'll find it mighty fine for buildin' up."
Two or three hours after they started that day they came to a large trail, and, when they followed it a little while, they found that it was made by Mexicans marching south, but whether they belonged to the main force under Santa Anna or that under Urrea they could not tell.
It was evident that the northern road was full of dangers and they rode for the coast. Several small Texan vessels were flitting around the gulf, now and then entering obscure bays and landing arms, ammunition and recruits for he cause. Both Smith and Karnes were of the opinion that they might find a schooner or sloop, and they resolved to try for it.
They reached, the next day, country that had not been ravaged by the troops of Santa Anna, and passed one or two tiny settlements, where they told the news of Goliad. The Panther, Smith and Karnes were well known to all the Texans, and they learned in the last of these villages that a schooner was expected in a cove about forty miles up the coast. It would undoubtedly put in at night, and it would certainly arrive in two or three days. They thought it was coming from New Orleans.
The little party decided to ride for the cove, and meet the schooner if possible. They could reach it in another day and night, and they would await the landing.
"We've got good friends in New Orleans," said Smith, as they rode over the prairie. "You'll remember the merchant, John Roylston. He's for us heart and soul, an' I've no doubt that he's sendin' us help."
"All the Texans owe him a debt," said Ned, "and I owe him most of all. His name saved my life, when I was taken at San Antonio. It had weight with Santa Anna, and it might have had weight with him, too, at Goliad, had he been there."
They rode steadily all the next day. Their horses were tough mustangs of the best quality, and showed no signs of weariness. They passed through a beautiful country of light rolling prairie, interspersed with fine forest. The soil was deep and rich, and the foliage was already in its tenderest spring green. Soft, warm airs swept up from the gulf. Five of the riders felt elation, and talked cheerfully. But Ned maintained a somber silence. The scenes of Goliad were still too vivid for him to rejoice over anything. The others understood, and respected his silence.
They camped that night as usual in the thickest forest they could find, and, feeling that they were now too far east to be in any serious danger from the Mexicans, they lighted a fire, warmed their food, and made coffee, having replenished their supplies at the last settlement. Obed White was the coffee maker, heating it in a tin pot with a metal bottom. They had only one cup, which they used in turn, but the warm food and drink were very grateful to them after their hard riding.
"Keeping in good condition is about three-fourths of war," said Obed in an oracular tone. "He who eats and runs away will live to eat another day. Besides, Napoleon said that an army marched better on a full stomach, or something like it."
"That applied to infantry," said Will Allen. "We march on our horses."
"Some day," said Ned, "when we've beaten Santa Anna and driven all the Mexicans out of Texas, I'm going back and hunt for Old Jack. He and I are too good friends to part forever. I found him, after abandoning him the first time, and I believe I can do it again, after leaving him the second time."
"Of course you can," said the Panther cheerily. "Old Jack is a horse that will never stay lost. Now, I think we'd better put out our fire and go to sleep. The horses will let us know if any enemy comes."
All were soon slumbering peacefully in their blankets, but Ned, who had slept so much the night before, awakened in two or three hours. He believed, at first, that a distant sound had broken his sleep, but when he sat up he heard nothing. Five dusky figures lay in a row near him. They were those of his comrades, and he heard their steady breathing. Certainly they slept well. He lay down again, but he remained wide awake, and, when his ear touched the ground, he seemed to hear the faint and distant sound again.
He rose and looked at the horses. They had not moved, and it was quite evident that they had detected no hostile presence. But Ned was not satisfied. Putting his rifle on his shoulder he slipped through the forest to the edge of the prairie. Long before he was there he knew that he had not been deceived by fancy.
He saw, two or three hundred yards in front of him, a long file of cavalry marching over the prairie, going swiftly and straight ahead, as if bent upon some purpose well defined. A good moon and abundant stars furnished plenty of light, and Ned saw that the force was Mexican. There were no lancers, all the men carrying rifles or muskets, and Ned believed that he recognized the younger Urrea in the figure at their head. He had seen the young Mexican so often and in such vivid moments that there was no phase of pose or gesture that he could forget.
Ned watched the column until it was hidden by the swells. It had never veered to either right or left, and its course was the same as that of his comrades and himself. He wondered a little while, and then he felt a suspicion which quickly grew into a certainty. Urrea, a daring partisan leader, who rode over great distances, had heard of the schooner and its arms, and was on his way to the cove to seize them. It was for Ned and his friends to prevent it.
He returned, and, awakening the others, stated what he had seen. Then he added his surmise.
"It's likely that you're guessin' right," said "Deaf" Smith. "The Mexicans have spies, of course, an' they get word, too, from Europeans in these parts, who are not friendly to us. What do you say, boys, all of you?"
"That Urrea is bound for the same place we are," said Obed White.
"That we've got to ride hard, an' fast," said the Panther.
"It's our business to get there first," said Karnes.
"Let's take to the saddle now," said Will Allen.
Ned said nothing. He had given his opinion already. They saddled their horses, and were on the plain in five minutes, riding directly in the trail of the Mexican cavalry. They meant to follow until nearly dawn, and then, passing around, hurry to the cove, where the schooner, without their warning, might be unloading supplies before nightfall into the very arms of the Mexicans.
Before dawn they faintly saw the troop ahead, and then, turning to the left, they put their mustangs into the long easy lope of the frontier, not slowing down, until they were sure that they were at least three or four miles beyond the Mexicans. But they continued at a fast walk, and ate their breakfasts in the saddle. They rode through the same beautiful country, but without people, and they knew that if nothing unusual occurred they would see the sea by noon.
Ned went over their directions once more. The cove ran back from the sea about a mile, and its entrance was a strait not more than thirty yards wide, but deep. In fact, the entire cove was deep, being surrounded by high forested banks except at the west, into which a narrow but deep creek emptied. The only convenient landing was the creek's mouth, and they believed that they would find the schooner there.
Ned, in common with the others, felt the great importance of the mission on which they rode. Most of the Texan cannon and a great part of their rifles had been taken at the Alamo and Goliad. But greater even than the need of arms was that of ammunition. If Urrea were able to seize the schooner, or to take the supplies, the moment after they landed, he would strike the Texans a heavy blow. Hence the six now pushed their horses.
At ten o'clock, they caught a glimpse of the sea upon their right. Five minutes later they saw a cloud of dust on their left, less than a mile away. It was moving rapidly, and it was evident at once that it was made by a large body of horse. When the dust lifted a little, they saw that it was Urrea and his men.
"It's likely that they have more information than we have," said the Panther, "an' they are ridin' hard to make a surprise. Boys, we've got to beat 'em, an', to do it, we've got to keep ahead of our dust all the time!"
"The greater the haste, the greater the speed just now," said Obed White.
They urged their horses into a gallop. They kept close to the sea, while Urrea was more than half a mile inland. Luckily, a thin skirt of timber soon intervened between Mexicans and Texans, and the six believed that Urrea and his men were unaware of their presence. Their own cloud of dust was much smaller than that of the Mexicans, and also it might readily be mistaken for sea sand whipped up by the wind.
Ned and the Panther rode in front, side by side, Smith and Karnes followed, side by side, too, and behind came Obed White and Will Allen, riding knee to knee. They ascended a rise and Ned, whose eyes were the keenest of them all, uttered a little cry.
"The schooner is there!" he exclaimed. "See, isn't that the top of a mast sticking up above those scrub trees?"
"It's nothing else," said Obed White, who was familiar with the sea and ships. "And it's bound, too, to be the schooner for which we are looking. Forward, boys! The swift will win the race, and the battle will go to the strong!"
They pressed their horses now to their greatest speed. The cove and the ship were not more than a half mile away. A quarter of a mile, and the skirt of timber failed. The Mexicans on their left saw them, and increased their speed.
"The schooner's anchored!" exclaimed Obed, "and they are unloading! Look, part of the cargo is on the bank already!"
With foot and rein they took the last ounce of speed from their horses, and galloped up to a group of astonished men, who were transferring arms and ammunition by small boats from a schooner to the land Already more than a hundred rifles, and a dozen barrels of powder lay upon the shore.
"Back to the ship! Back to the ship!" cried Ned, who involuntarily took the lead. "We are Texans, and a powerful force of Mexicans will be here inside of fifteen minutes!"
The men looked at him astonished and unbelieving. Ned saw among them a figure, clad in sober brown, a man with a large head and a broad, intellectual face, with deep lines of thought. He knew him at once, and cried:
"Mr. Roylston, it is I! Edward Fulton! You know me! And here are Captain Palmer, 'Deaf' Smith, Henry Karnes, Obed White and Will Allen! I tell you that you have no time to lose! Put the supplies back on the schooner, and be as quick as you can! Captain Urrea and two hundred men are galloping fast to capture them!"
Roylston started in astonishment at the appearance of Ned, whom he, too, had believed to be dead, but he wasted no time in questions. He gave quick orders to have the arms and ammunition reloaded, and directed the task himself. The Panther sprang from his horse and walked back to the edge of the wood.
"Here they come at a gallop," he said, "and we need time. Boys, hand me your rifles, as I call for them, an' I'll show you how to shoot."
The Panther did not mean to boast, nor did the others take it as such. He merely knew his own skill, and he meant to use it.
"Do as he says," said "Deaf" Smith to the others. "I reckon that, as Davy Crockett is dead, the Panther is the best shot in all Texas."
The Mexican cavalry were coming at a gallop, several hundred yards away. The Panther raised his long, slender-barreled rifle, pulled the trigger, and the first horseman fell from the saddle. Without turning, he held out his hands and Smith thrust the second rifle into them. Up went the weapon, and a second Mexican saddle was empty. A third rifle and a third Mexican went down, a fourth, and the result was the same. The whole Mexican troop, appalled at such deadly shooting, stopped suddenly.
"Keep it up, Panther! Keep it up!" cried Smith. "We need every minute of time that we can get."
While the Mexicans hesitated the Panther sent another fatal bullet among them. Then they spread out swiftly in a thin half circle, and advanced again. All the six Texans now opened fire, and they were also helped by some of the men from the boat. But a part of the attacking force had gained cover and the fire was not now so effective.
Nevertheless the rush of the Mexicans was checked, and under the directions of Roylston the reloading of the schooner was proceeding rapidly. They hoisted the last of the powder and rifles over the side, and two of the boats were putting back for the defenders. The schooner, meanwhile, had taken in her anchor and was unfurling her sails. Roylston was in one of the boats and, springing upon the bank, he shouted to the defenders:
"Come, lads! The supplies are all back on board! It's for your lives now!"
All the men instantly abandoned the defence and rushed for the bank, the Panther uttering a groan of anger.
"I hate to leave six good horses to Urrea, an' that gang," he said, "but I s'pose it has to be done."
"Don't grieve, Panther," cried Smith. "We'll take three for one later on!"
"Hurry up! Hurry up!" said Roylston. "There is no time to waste. Into the boats, all of you!"
They scrambled into the boats, reached the schooner, and pulled the boats to the deck after them. There was not a minute to lose. The schooner, her sails full of wind, was beginning to move, and the Mexicans were already firing at her, although their bullets missed.
Ned and Will Allen threw themselves flat on the deck, and heard the Mexican bullets humming over their heads. Ned knew that they were still in great danger, as it was a mile to the open sea, and the Mexicans galloping along by the side of the cove had begun a heavy fire upon the schooner. But the Panther uttered a tremendous and joyous shout of defiance.
"They can't hurt the ship as long as they ain't got cannon," he said, "an' since it's rifles, only, we'll give it back to 'em!"
He and the other sharpshooters, sheltering themselves, began to rake the woods with rifle fire. The Mexicans replied, and the bullets peppered the wooden sides of the schooner or cut holes through her sails. But the Texans now had the superiority. They could shelter themselves on the ship, and they were also so much better marksmen that they did much damage, while suffering but little themselves.
The schooner presently passed between the headlands, and then into the open sea. She did not change her course until she was eight or ten miles from land, when she turned northward.
THE CRY FOR VENGEANCE
As soon as the schooner was out of range Ned and his comrades stood up on the deck, and looked back at the long low coastline, which had offered to them so much danger. At first they saw Mexican horsemen on the beach, but as they went further and further out to sea they disappeared.
A strong wind hummed through the sails and the schooner, heeling over a little, went swiftly northward, leaving a long white wake. Ned and his comrades sat on the benches that ran around the sides of the deck. Some of the rich brown color faded from the Panther's face, and his eyes looked a little bit uneasy.
"I'm glad to be here," he said, "glad to be out of reach of the Mexicans, but I wish I was on somethin' a lot steadier than this."
Obed White, familiar with the waters of the Maine coast, laughed.
"This is just a spanking good breeze," he said. "Look how the waves dance!"
"Let 'em dance," said the Panther, "an' they can do my share of dancin', too. I never felt less like roarin' an' t'arin' an' rippin' in my life."
"Any way, we're getting a fine rest," said Will Allen. "It's pleasant to be out here, where nobody can drop suddenly on you from ambush."
The schooner made another curve to the eastward, the water became smoother and the Panther's qualms disappeared. Food and water were brought to them on deck, and they ate and drank with good appetites. Then John Roylston, who had gone below, as soon as they were out of range, reappeared. He went directly to Ned, shook hands with him with great energy, and said in a tone of deep gratitude:
"I had given you up for lost. But you reappeared with your friends, just in time to save the most valuable of all cargoes for the Texans. I should like to hear now how you rose from the dead, because I had direct information that you were in the Alamo, and I know that everybody there perished."
"I come, nevertheless, as the bearer of bad news," said Ned, with Goliad fresh in his mind.
"How is that?"
Then Ned told for the second time the dreadful deed done by order of Santa Anna, and it seemed to him as he told it that all the details were as vivid and terrible as ever. His desire for revenge upon the dictator and the Mexicans had not diminished a particle. Roylston's face, usually a mask, showed horror.
"It was an awful thing to do," he said, "but it means now that Santa Anna will never conquer Texas. No man can do such a deed and yet triumph. Now, tell me how it is that you are not among the slain in the Alamo." Ned related the story anew, and he dwelt upon the fact that Santa Anna had spared him at the mention of Roylston's name. But when the story was finished, the merchant was silent for quite a while. Ned knew by the contraction of the lines upon the great brow that he was thinking. At last, he broke the silence.
"No doubt you have wondered that my name had so much influence with Santa Anna," he said. "I have hinted at it before, but I will explain more fully now. I am, as you know, a merchant. I trade throughout the whole southwest, and I have ships in the Gulf and the Caribbean. One of them, the 'Star of the South,' on which we now are, can show her heels to anything in these seas.
"Earlier in my life I came in contact with Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Like many others I fell for a while under his spell. I believed that he was a great and liberal man, that he would even be able to pull Mexico out of her slough of misrule and ignorance. I helped him in some of his young efforts. The splendid hacienda that he has near Vera Cruz was bought partly with money that I furnished.
"But our friendship could not last. Vain, ruthless, cruel, but with genius, Santa Anna can have no friends except those whom he may use. Unless you submit, unless you do everything that he wishes, you are, in his opinion, a traitor to him, a malefactor and an enemy, to be crushed by trickery or force, by fair means or foul. How could I have continued dealings with such a man?
"I soon saw that instead of being Mexico's best friend he was her worst enemy. I drew away in time, but barely. I was in Mexico when the break came, and he would have seized and imprisoned me or had me shot, but I escaped in disguise.
"I retained, too, a hold upon Santa Anna that he has sought in vain to break. Such a man as he always needs money, not a few thousands, but great sums. He has been thrifty. The treasury of Mexico has been practically at his mercy, but he does not trust the banks of his own land. He has money not only in the foreign banks of Mexico, but also large amounts of it in two of the great banks of London. The English deposits stand as security for the heavy sums that he owes me. His arm is long, but it does not reach to London.
"He cannot pay at present without putting himself in great difficulties, and, for the time being, I wish the debt to stand. It gives me a certain power over him, although we are on opposite sides in a fierce war. When you gave him my name in San Antonio, he did not put you to death because he feared that I would seize his English money when I heard of it.
"The younger Urrea has heard something of these debts. He is devoted to Santa Anna, and he knew that he would have rendered his chief an immense service if he could have secured his release from them. That was what he tried to force from me when I was in his hands, but you and your friends saved me. You little thought, Edward Fulton, that you were then saving your own life also. Otherwise, Santa Anna would have had you slain instantly when you were brought before him at San Antonio. Ah, how thoroughly I know that man! That he can be a terrible and cruel enemy he has already proved to Texas!"
The others listened with deep interest to every word spoken by Roylston. When he was through, the Panther rose, stretched his arms, and expanded his mighty chest. All the natural brown had returned to his cheeks, and his eyes sparkled with the fire of confidence.
"Mr. Roylston," he said, "the hosts of our foe have come an' they have devoured our people as the locusts ate up Egypt in the Bible, but I think our worst days have passed. We'll come back, an' we'll win."
"Yes," said Ned. "I know as truly as if a prophet had told me that we'll square accounts with Santa Anna."
He spoke with such sudden emphasis that the others were startled. His face seemed cut in stone. At that moment he saw only the Alamo and Goliad.
The "Star of the South" sped northward, and Edward Fulton sat long on her deck, dreaming of the day when the Texans, himself in the first rank, should come once more face to face with Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.