For the Liberty of Texas/Chapter 19
THE CAVE IN THE RAVINE.
When Dan came to his senses all was dark around him. The sun had set over the timber in the west, and scarcely a sound broke the stillness of the night.
For several minutes the youth could not imagine where he was or what had happened. Then slowly the realisation of the events just passed dawned upon his muddled brain.
He tried to pull himself together and sit up, but the effort was so painful he was glad enough to give it up and rest just as he lay. The brushwood had saved him from death, but it had not saved him from a nasty fall on the flat rocks which rested at the bottom of the ravine at this particular point.
"It must be at least two or three hours since I went over," he thought, dismally. "I wonder what became of the mustang, and where Ralph and the ponies are?"
He tried to see the face of the silver watch he carried,—an heirloom from his mother,—but it was too dark, and he had to give it up. Then he attempted to call out, but his voice was so feeble no one standing fifty yards off would have heard it. And Ralph was miles and miles away, hope lessly lost in his hunt after his missing brother.
Not a bone had been broken nor a muscle strained to any extent, yet it was almost daybreak before Dan felt like getting on his feet, and in the meantime he had fallen into a doze and dreamed all manner of horrible dreams. When he awoke, his mouth was parched for water, and his first move was in the direction of the wet portion of the ravine, beyond the rocks.
As it was the fall of the year, the night had been cold, and after procuring a drink he was glad enough to sit down again beside a fire made of leaves and such small brush as was handy. He was now hungry, but nothing was at hand to satisfy the cravings of the inner man. His gun had been left behind, but in his belt still rested his hunting-knife, something he had taken to carrying constantly since the brush with the Comanches.
Dan could not help but wonder what had become of Ralph, and wished that he had some firearm by which he might discharge a shot as a signal.
Slowly the morning wore away, and by noon the lad felt that he must make a move. "I'll get out of the ravine first," he thought, but this was no easy matter, for the sides were steep and he was still too weak to exert himself in climbing.
Presently he imagined that he heard, at a great distance, the firing of a volley of shots. To make sure he was right, he laid on the ground and listened. Soon the volley was repeated, and a number of single reports followed.
"There is a fight on of some sort," he thought, but could not locate the direction of the shots with any degree of accuracy. "I trust Ralph is out of danger."
He walked along the ravine, looking for some convenient spot where he might ascend to the level of the timber beyond, until he came to where there was a split in the hollow. Here, in the centre of the ravine, was a huge pile of rocks, overgrown with a tangle of vines and thorns, which hid a cave of fair dimensions. In those days this cave was known to the Indians as the Haunted Rock. It is said that many a Mexican trader was lured there, only to be killed and robbed.
As Dan was passing the cave he saw, with much surprise, a Mexican soldier leading two mustangs into the opening. Each saw the other at the same time, and instantly the Mexican set up a shout in Spanish, and, letting go of the horses, levelled a pistol at the boy's head.
Dan did not understand the Spanish, but he understood the motion of the soldier.
"Don't shoot!" he cried. "I am unarmed!" And he held up his hands to verify his statement.
"You surrender?" asked the Mexican, in broken English.
"I suppose I'll have to," answered Dan. "But what are you doing here, and why do you wish to make me a prisoner? I am not a soldier."
At this the Mexican shrugged his bony shoulders and called out again in Spanish, whereupon three other Mexicans showed themselves at the mouth of the cave.
"Come in here, boy," said one of the three, who was evidently a captain, by his uniform. "Are you alone?"
"I am," answered Dan, as he entered the mouth of the cave.
"Where are the soldiers?"
"The rascally Texans who were after us."
"I know nothing of any soldiers, captain."
"You are telling me the truth?" And the Mexican captain turned a pair of piercing black eyes on the youth.
"I am, sir; I have seen no soldiers for a week or more, and they were nowhere about here."
Dan's frank manner apparently impressed the Mexican officer favourably, for he breathed more freely. He paused for a moment, as if in deep thought.
"What brought you here, boy?"
In a few simple words Dan told his tale. When he mentioned the white mustang, two of the Mexicans smiled.
"I saw him," said one. "He was running like the wind,—directly for those soldiers, too."
"And who are the soldiers you speak about?" asked Dan.
"It is not for you to ask questions," answered the captain, abruptly. "Sit down on yonder rock and keep quiet. A noise might betray us, and then it might become necessary to put a bullet in you."
As there was no help for it, Dan walked still farther into the cave, and sank down on the rock pointed out. He noted that there were but four of the Mexicans, and that each had a mustang that seemed to be much exhausted.
"I reckon I am worse off than I was before," was his mental comment, after reviewing the situation. "These chaps are evidently in hiding, and they won't let me go for fear of exposing them. Well, I sha'n't stay any longer than I have to."
In the matter of eating, the Mexicans were as badly off as the youth. "You have had nothing, eh?" said one. "Well, we are just as hungry, and perhaps more so. It cannot be helped, and we must make the best of it."
"But we can't remain here and starve to death," insisted Dan.
At this the Mexican drew up his face into a scowl and turned away. To comfort themselves, the men smoked cigarettes incessantly, being used to the tobacco habit from childhood. Dan had as yet found no comfort in the use of the weed.
While two of the Mexicans remained in the cave to care for the mustangs, the others went out on guard, one stationing himself just above the opening and the other below. The numerous rocks afforded both excellent hiding-places.
From those in care of the mustangs Dan learned but little, yet, during the Mexicans' talk, the youth managed to gain a bit of information which led him to believe that there had been a battle, and the four had become separated from their companions and had been pursued. The Mexicans thought to remain in the cave until night, and then escape under cover of the darkness.
As the hours went by Dan became more hungry, and with this empty feeling came one of desperation. He must escape, be the cost what it might.
"If only I could collar one of their mustangs, and get away on it," he thought. "Perhaps I might find those soldiers and have the Mexicans made prisoners."
The more he thought of this plan the more did it appeal to him, and then he cast about for some means of putting it into operation.
The chance came shortly before sundown. A distant shot was heard, and the two Mexicans in the cave hurried to join their companions, to learn what it might mean. Dan had cast himself down as if asleep, and one of the soldiers did not, therefore, pick up his gun as he hurried past the entrance of the cave.
No sooner were the men out of sight, than Dan leaped upon the back of the nearest mustang, and turned him straight for the entrance. He made the animal do his best from the start, yet, as he passed the entrance to the cave, he hung out from the saddle and managed to pick up the gun that rested against the wall.
"He is escaping!" cried one of the Mexicans, in Spanish, and leaped in front of the mustang. The next instant the horse knocked him flat and galloped over his body.
The Mexicans were bewildered, for, on the brink of the ravine, one of them had caught sight of several Texan soldiers in the distance. If they fired on Dan, they would betray themselves, and, if they did not, the youth would surely escape.
"After him!" cried the captain, and two of the soldiers made a dash for the boy. But they might have as well tried to catch the wind, for the mustang was fresh from his rest, and Dan made him do his level best.
Then along the ravine sped animal and boy, Dan riding as never before, and expecting a shot at any moment. He knew not where he was going, and hardly cared, so long as he made his escape from the Mexicans.