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Authors: Don Worcester

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BOOK: Gone to Texas
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“My uncle was right,” he said under his breath to Duncan. “I wish now we'd listened to him, but it's too late. We're stuck.” Duncan gloomily nodded in agreement.

While they rested their horses for a few days, Mordecai Richards, John Adams, and John King went hunting early one morning. When they failed to return that night, Stephen Richards feared that Indians had attacked his father and the others, or that they were lost. They hunted for the missing men for several days, when Nolan grimly called off the search and they rode on. Everyone knew that Mordecai Richards was an experienced woodsman and hadn't gotten lost. The three men had deserted and made their escape.

“God help us if they tell the Spaniards where we are,” Duncan remarked, looking around as if expecting to see another cavalry troop.

“Surely they wouldn't do that to us, Ellis said. “After all, they didn't take Stephen, so he's in the same fix as we are.”

“I wish they'd taken me with them,” Ephraim Blackburn added. ‘‘I'm a Quaker and I couldn't kill another human being even to save my own life.”

“Why
did
you come? Duncan asked.

“I'd heard of Mr. Nolan even before I came to Natchez, and I knew General Wilkinson regards him almost as his own son. He assured me there was not the slightest danger of our having to fight. He'd been to Texas several times, and he told me about the herds of wild horses. I was dying to see a wild horse hunt, and knew this might be my only opportunity.” He paused and his expression grew rueful. “They say curiosity killed the cat. I hope that won't be true in my case, for I left my family in Natchez, and they need me.” He brushed his gray hair back and stared at the ground. Joel Pierce listened, looking sad enough to cry.

As they rode past Lake Bisteneau, Ellis stared at the flocks of ducks and geese, but he didn't feel like hunting. Gone were the high spirits he'd had after crossing the Mississippi. As they rode through the tall pines they startled grazing deer and a brown bear with two cubs. Ellis noticed that Nolan, Fero, or Luciano always seemed to be watching for signs that indicated any of them might be thinking of turning back. When they camped, William Danlin, a young frontiersman in greasy buckskins who limped from an arrow wound in one foot, and broad-shouldered carpenter Charles King, who always seemed to be measuring things with his eyes, announced they were going hunting and asked Fero for ammunition. He gave them only three rounds apiece. “If you can't kill a deer with that,” he said, “let someone else try.” The two men shrugged and accepted the rounds. No one would risk traveling through Indian country without plenty of powder and lead.

At the site of Old Caddo Town on the Red River the carpenters built a raft to ferry their supplies across while the horses and mules swam. Continuing on through the cool shade of towering pines, they forded the Trinity, then rode through grass that reached their stirrups to the Cross Timbers, a belt of trees that stretched to the north and south as far as they could see. Beyond the woods they came to the Brazos.

“Look! Buffalo!” Ellis shouted as a herd emerged from beyond a hill on its way to water. His father had killed buffalo in Tennessee in the early days, but he'd seen only a few buffalo robes. Everyone wanted to stop and kill buffalo, but Nolan insisted that they keep traveling. “Plenty of time for that later,” he said.

The herds of elk excited Ellis almost as much as the buffalo. As Nolan topped a hill he stopped his horse and waved the rest up. When they formed a line alongside him and Luciano, he pointed and said, “There they are, boys. There's what we came for.” In the valley below them were half a dozen bands of mustang mares and colts, each guarded by a powerful stallion that kept them from mingling with others. Ellis stared at the mustangs of many colors as they cavorted about, their long manes and tails flying. “Wow!” he exclaimed.“Just look at that! ”

Blackburn, too, gazed at the wild mustangs in admiration. “What a sight!” he exclaimed. “But they're so happy free, it'll be a shame to make them slaves.” At his side Joel Pierce also watched, his lips quivering.

As they rode across the valley one mustang band playfully circled them, coming closer and closer, as if challenging them to a race, while Ellis gazed at them in admiration.

“Hang onto the mules!” Nolan shouted to the Tejanos. “If they run off, we'll never see them again!” The Tejanos already had firm grips on the lead ropes, for the mules were trembling with excitement and snorting, eager to join the mustangs.

“When tame horses or mules get in with the wild ones,” Nolan explained, “they're harder to catch than the wildest mustang. I guess that's because they know what it is to work for a living.”

Reveling in their freedom, the mustangs were as beautiful as any wild creatures. Ellis watched them in awe, almost regretting that they'd soon deprive some of the handsome little animals of their freedom. He was, nevertheless, eager for the chase to begin, and he forgot about the Spaniards.

Between hills near a small creek beyond the Brazos, Nolan set the carpenters to work building a crude, square, roofless fort of five-foot-tall log walls. The rest of the men built pens of stout posts set close together for corralling the mustangs.

One day when the pens were nearly ready for use, Danlin shouted, “Injuns!” Ellis ran to the fort for his rifle, Duncan by his side. He'd fought Cherokees in the forest, but he knew Comanches only by their awesome reputation. He leveled his rifle over the log wall and held his breath.

The Comanches approached in a long line, with grim-faced warriors in the lead, followed by the women and children with the travois and pack ponies. Nolan walked toward them, making signs with both hands. One Comanche, who looked like he might be the chief, replied with similar signals, then rode forward and shook hands with Nolan, who turned to his men. “Put down your guns,” he called. “They're friendly.” The chief dismounted, and the two talked in Spanish, which many Comanches seemed to understand.

Ellis stared at the short, stocky warriors, who weren't like any Indians he'd ever seen. They wore fringed elkskin leggings, breechclouts, and buffalo robes. Most carried mean-looking lances as well as bows and arrows, and a few had old guns. They controlled their well-trained ponies with thin rawhide ropes looped around the animals' lower jaws. They looked fierce, but all seemed pleased to see Nolan. Ellis watched in amazement as the women and children quickly unpacked the travois formed by lodge poles tied over the ponies' shoulders, and put up more than twenty tipis of mellow buffalo hides, blackened at the tops by smoke.

Nolan returned to his men. “They're headin' south to hunt buffalo. We can trade with them tonight. The Comanches are the most powerful tribe in Texas, so we've got to keep them friendly. Don't do anything to anger them. Above all, leave the women alone.”

Broad-shouldered, thin-legged Charles King spat. “Even horny as I am that oughta be easy,” he said. “I ain't ever seen a squaw worth diddlin' nohow.”

Nolan smiled, a knowing smile, Ellis thought. “Don't be so sure,” he said. “Some of the young ones are real beauties. But if you fool around with them and survive, you'll be singing soprano. Leave them be.”

In the morning, Ellis watched as the Comanche women quickly took down the tipis while the boys drove the pony herd into camp. In fifteen minutes the travois were packed with large bundles tied to the dragging tipi poles behind the ponies' heels. The warriors rode ahead and the others followed.

The next morning eleven of the best horses were missing. Nolan was outraged. “It's not like Comanches to steal from their friends,” he said, “and I know the chief doesn't approve. It's just that every man does what he wants to, and the chiefs have no power to stop them. We can't run mustangs without those horses, but we should be able to catch up with them in a day or two when they stop to hunt.”

With Fero, Robert Ashley, Joseph Reed, Ellis, Duncan, and Caesar, Nolan set out on foot, grimly following the tracks made by the dragging travois poles. But the Co-manches didn't stop soon to hunt; it was nine days before they came upon their camp. All but the women and children and a few old warriors were away hunting buffalo. Nolan spoke to one of the old men.

“He says the one-eyed man stole our horses,” he told the others. “He'll be easy to recognize.” The Comanche women fed them roast buffalo meat, then they wearily lay down to rest from their long journey.

Late in the afternoon they heard children squealing and dogs barking, and knew the hunters had returned. The pack ponies were loaded with huge pieces of dripping red meat. Dogs followed the pack ponies of their masters, snatching hungrily at their loads. The women drove the dogs away, immediately unloaded the ponies, and began slicing the meat into thin strips to put on racks for drying in the sun. The hunters came to see Nolan and his men, but Ellis didn't see the chief. I bet he doesn't want to see Nolan now, he thought.

The powerful Caesar walked up behind One Eye and pinioned his arms, while Fero bound him hand and foot. The other Comanches ignored them, and they left the thief tied up all night.

In the morning One Eye's wife led the stolen horses to Nolan two at a time and handed him the lead ropes without looking him in the face. She was obviously fearful for her husband's life.

After mounting his horse, Nolan warned One Eye and all who were listening that although his men were few they were well armed, and they could defeat many times their number. Then pushing hard, they reached the fort in four days. The horses were worn down and had to recover their strength before they could run mustangs.

At dawn a few days later Ellis heard the hoofbeats of many horses. “Injuns!” he shouted, leaping to his feet, and grabbing his rifle. Wondering why the five guards at the corrals had given no warning, he peered over the log walls of the fort and gasped. In front of him were Spanish cavalrymen, militia, and Indians; he looked over the other walls. They were completely surrounded and the five guards were prisoners, their hands tied behind their backs. All of Nolan's men hurried to the walls, rubbing their eyes and cursing when they saw they were badly outnumbered.

Seeing the fear in their eyes, Nolan shouted, “We must fight to the death or they'll make us prisoners for life!" Ellis stared at the Spaniards training their weapons on the fort, and his clammy hands trembled as he put fresh priming in his rifle. It looked like everyone in Texas must be after them. He glanced at Nolan but saw no fear in his eyes. It's him they're really after, Ellis thought, not us.

The Spanish officer, accompanied by a bearded, middle-aged, heavy-set civilian who didn't look Spanish, rode toward the fort with forty cavalrymen following. “That's the son-of-a-bitch William Barr,” Nolan growled. “He's a trader at Nacogdoches. He's wanted to get me ever since I refused to do some smuggling for him.” He and Fero and a few others walked out to meet them, while Ellis held his breath and stared open-mouthed.

Nolan held up his hand. “That's far enough,” he called.“Come no closer or some of us may be killed.” The soldiers stopped. Ellis looked around for some place to hide. The Spanish officer, Captain Miguel de Musquiz, rode forward, with William Barr at his side.

“Our only hope is for Nolan to get them to let us go,” Ellis whispered. “Against so many we haven't a chance. There must be three hundred of them.” Duncan nodded and licked his lips, glancing anxiously from Nolan to the officers. Joel Pierce and Blackburn stared at the soldiers, their faces white with fear.

Ellis listened as Músquiz spoke and Barr translated. “You must lay down your arms and surrender,” Barr said in an Irish accent. Ellis listened for Nolan's reply, almost afraid to hear what he might say. He must know now they're onto him, Ellis thought, but the rest of us didn't know about that. He should explain why we're here so they'll let us go.

“No!” was Nolan's curt reply as he spun about and stalked back to the fort, Fero and the others at his heels. Ellis saw one of the militiamen raise his carbine and aim it at Nolan's back. Instinctively Ellis aimed and dropped the man. With a sense of unreality, he bent down to reload and saw two of Nolan's Tejano mustangers bolt out the back of the fort, one of them carrying Nolan's carbine. Fero ran to the door and yelled for them to come back, which made them run faster.

Ellis looked frantically around, feeling like a raccoon treed by a pack of hounds. There was no way to escape. Músquiz raised his sword and shouted an order. Ellis ducked behind the wall as the soldiers and militia raised their guns. Bullets whistled overhead or thudded into the thick logs on eveiy side. Most of Nolan's men were hastily firing over the walls, then crouching to reload. Trembling, Ellis raised his rifle and fired, ducking so quickly he didn't know if he'd hit his target. His hands shook so, he spilled powder while reloading.

Nolan was everywhere, encouraging his men, daringly exposing his head to fire his pistol. “Make every shot count,” he shouted over the boom of muskets and bark of long rifles. “Don't miss!”

He opened his mouth to speak again when a bullet stuck his head and his feet flew out from under him. Ellis looked around for him, expecting him to say more, then saw him stretched out on the floor motionless.

“Nolan's hit!” he shouted, and the others turned. Fero leaned over Nolan.

“He's dead! ” he called. “Bullet in the head! ” The others stopped firing for the moment. Ellis leaned on his rifle to steady himself, for his legs suddenly felt weak. Then, seeing the others firing again at the soldiers, he got off another hasty shot and hunched down. Ephraim Blackburn, his arms around Joel's shoulders, huddled in a comer. Blackburn's lips were moving and Ellis knew he was praying. So far, no one but Nolan had been hit.

The cavalrymen unloaded a small artillery piece from a pack mule and began showering the fort with grapeshot. After only a few rounds, two men were painfully wounded.

BOOK: Gone to Texas
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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