For the Liberty of Texas/Chapter 2
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE DEER.
The cabin was a strongly built affair of rough logs, fifteen feet deep by thirty feet long. It was divided into two apartments on the ground floor, the first used as a general living-room and the second as a bedchamber. From the bedchamber a rude ladder ran to a loft, used as extra sleeping-quarters when the Radburys had company, and also as a storeroom. There were two windows in the sleeping-room below, and a window and a door in the general living-room. Each of the windows were shuttered with slabs of oak, secured, inside, by square bars of ash. All of the furniture excepting one bed, a table, and two chairs was home made, and consequently rather primitive in style, and built more for use than for ornamentation.
At one side of the living-room was a wide, open fireplace, and here, above the mantel-shelf, hung the old Mexican escopeta, or cavalry musket, which Dan intended to take along on his expedition to the spot where Ralph had brought down the deer. Taking the gun down, the youth saw to it that the weapon was loaded and ready for use, and rejoined his brother.
In those days every Texan trusted his neighbour implicitly, and nobody thought of locking up his home even though he expected to be gone several days, unless it was thought that unfriendly Indians were about. The Radburys had gone away frequently, leaving everything open, and had never suffered, excepting as previously mentioned. Once, on returning, they had found that some other settlers from fifty miles away had stopped there over night, but this was explained in a note stuck to the eating-table, the "neighbour" offering to "square up" on demand. When the two parties met, Mr. Radbury told the other that the only way he could settle up was by calling again, which was the usual Texan method of rounding out such hospitality.
"I've a good mind to lock up," remarked Dan, as he reached the dooryard. "I don't like this idea of Indians spying about."
"Oh, come on," interrupted Ralph. "We won't be gone long, and no Indian could do much in such a short time."
The elder brother shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know," he mused, but when Ralph took hold of his arm, he suffered himself to be led away; and soon they were hurrying for the river. There was quite a clearing to cross, and as they gained the timber Dan paused to look back and to gaze around them. But neither man nor beast was in sight.
On hurried the two boys, through a tangle of brush and tall pines, the latter of the long straw variety and smelling strongly of turpentine whereever the last storm had broken off a top or a heavy branch. Closer to the stream was a stately row of cottonwoods, with here and there a fragrant magnolia, which reminded the lads of the former homestead left so many miles behind. It was the spring of the year and the magnolias were just putting forth their buds, and Dan paused for a second to gaze at them.
"I'll tell you what, Ralph, it will be a long while before Texas is as civilised as Georgia," he observed.
"Will it ever be as civilised, Dan? I heard father say last week, when he was talking to Brossom, that he never thought it would be,—so long as Texas was joined to Coahuila and belonged to the Mexican Confederation. He said Texas ought to be free."
"He is right, too,—we ought either to be free, or else belong to the United States. It's all well enough for the Mexicans living in Coahuila to belong to the Confederation if they want to, but they don't care for us Americans, and they are going to grind us under if they can."
"But they were glad enough to have us come in, weren't they? I mean at first."
"Yes, when Stephen Austin came in with his first batch of emigrants they welcomed the newcomers with open arms, and gave each man a large tract of land for himself, one for his wife, and more land for each child or servant, and they were mighty glad to have other empresarios bring in emigrants, too, so I've read in the papers. But now they are getting afraid that the Americans will overrule them, and there is bound to be a lot of trouble sooner or later."
Ralph was anxious to show his brother his prize, and as they neared the spot where the big deer had been brought down he ran on ahead, and so the talk on State affairs came to an end. But Dan was right, there was much trouble ahead, as we shall see as our story progresses.
The cottonwoods passed, the boys faced another small clearing, where a forest fire years before had lain many a towering pine low. Beyond this burnt and barren spot were the pecan-trees overhanging the river, where the deer had come to slake his thirst when Ralph had trailed him and brought him low.
"Oh, Dan! The deer's gone!"
The cry came straight from Ralph's heart, as with staring eyes he ran in under the pecan-trees and gazed at the spot where the game had rested less than an hour before.
"Gone?" repeated the brother. "Then you didn't kill him?"
"Yes, I did,—I am sure of it, for I turned him over after he was shot. Could some wild animal have carried him off?"
"More than likely, although it would take a pretty fair sized animal to tote a deer, especially if he was as big as you say. Let us see if we can find any tracks."
They began to search around the bank of the stream, and soon discovered a number of foot-prints.
"Indian moccasins!" exclaimed Dan. "Ralph, you were right about that Indian. He was watching you, and after you left the deer he came in and took possession."
"But he hadn't any right to do that," burst out the smaller boy, angrily. It cut him to the heart to have his first big game taken from him. "It's downright robbery."
"It certainly wasn't fair, but about its being robbery, that's questionable. You shouldn't have left your game without leaving something on top of it, a knife or anything, just to show that you were coming back for it."
"But this is father's land."
"It isn't fenced yet, and the Indians don't recognise such ownership, anyway."
"But they must have known I was coming back. No one would throw away such choice venison as that was." Ralph heaved a sigh. "I wish I was a man,—I'd go after that redskin in short order, and make him either give up the game or bring him down with my gun."
"If you shot him you'd bring on a regular war, more than likely. But if you wish, we can follow this track for a stretch, and look for father at the same time."
Ralph was more than willing to do this—anything to learn what had really become of his game, and so they continued up the river bank for the best part of half a mile. Here they came to a creek, leading directly west, and saw that the foot-prints followed this new water-course. Along the creek the way was rocky and uneven, and it was plain to see where the deer had been dragged along.
Ralph was going on, with his eyes bent to the trail, when suddenly his brother caught him by the arm, bringing him to a halt. In silence Dan pointed to the opposite side of the creek, at a distance a hundred feet farther up the water-course.
"It's Hank Stiger, the half-breed!" burst in a low tone from Ralph's lips. "And see, he is tying my deer fast to his pony."
"You are right, Ralph."
"I'm not going to let him get away in this fashion!" went on the younger lad, excitedly. "He's got to give up that meat, or I'm going to know the reason why."
"Don't be rash. Hank Stiger is a bad man to deal with."
"Are you going to let him go without doing anything?" demanded Ralph. "I'm sure you wouldn't if it was your deer!" he added, bitterly.
"No, we'll talk to him and put our claim as strongly as we can. But be careful, that's all."
With this caution Dan ran along the bank of the creek until he reached the ford where the half-breed had crossed. He went over, with Ralph at his heels and both boys were within easy speaking distance of Hank Stiger before the latter discovered them.
"Hi there, Stiger! what are you doing with that deer?" demanded Dan, as he came closer, with his gun in both hands across his breast.
At the sound of the boy s voice the half-breed turned quickly and his repulsive reddish-brown face fell sullenly. He was a short, stocky fellow, with a tangled head of hair and wolfish eyes which betrayed the Comanche blood that flowed in his veins from his mother's side.
"Who are you?" demanded the man, hardly knowing what to say, so completely had he been taken by surprise.
"I am Dan Radbury, as you know very well. This is my brother Ralph, and he shot the deer you are carrying off."
"Not much!" ejaculated the half-breed. "I brung that deer down myself—shot him through the neck."
"It's not so!" burst out Ralph. "The deer is mine, I brought him down over in the pecan grove on the river."
"Why, youngster, you're dead wrong, I tell you. I shot this deer right down thar on this creek, two hours ago. He limped off after I hit him, but I followed the trail easily and found him in the pecan grove, dead from whar I had struck him in the neck."
This cool answer almost took Ralph s breath away from him. "It was I struck him in the neck, Hank Stiger, and the deer belongs to me, and you sha'n't bluff me out of my meat, either."
"Hush, Ralph, don't be so headstrong," remonstrated Dan, in low tones. "You'll gain a good bit more by keeping cool."
At Ralph's words the half-breed let out a rough, unnatural laugh.
"Boy, you must be daft, to tell me I don't know when I bring down a deer. The deer is mine, and if you shot at him you wasted your powder, that's all."So speaking, Hank Stiger swung himself on the back of his mustang, which little beast looked all
"'YOU SHA'N'T LEAVE THIS SPOT UNTIL YOU GIVE UP THAT DEER, AND THAT S ALL THERE IS TO IT!'" out of proportion to the deer and man mounted on him. His gun was slung over his shoulder, and there he allowed it to remain while he gathered up the reins and urged his pony forward.
Ralph was white. As told before, he was but a boy of eight, yet his life on the frontier had given him the appearance of being ten or more. Rushing in front of the mustang, he raised his gun and pointed the muzzle at Stiger's head.
"Stop where you are!" he cried, commandingly. "You sha'n't leave this spot until you give up that deer, and that's all there is to it!"