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Authors: Don Worcester

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BOOK: Gone to Texas
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The prisoners stood with hats in hands. It reminded Ellis of waiting for a teacher to decide whether or not to whip him. Don José Díaz de Bustamante, the prosecutor, solemnly entered the room and stood to the right of the judge, who had risen to his feet. Don Pedro Ramón de Verea, the prisoners' counsel, entered and stood at the judge's left, his face relaxed, almost smiling. I guess he figures he did all he could for us and is glad it's over, Ellis thought. He wasn't prepared for what followed.

“I order all charges against the accused dismissed,” the judge said, “and I recommend their immediate release.”

The prisoners appeared at first unable to comprehend the verdict. Then it seemed as if heavy chains had been miraculously removed and they were floating on air. Ellis' legs felt suddenly weak, but he smiled broadly. Freedom! He recommends that we be released! He glanced at Ephraim Blackburn and Joel Pierce, and saw tears streaming down their faces.

“I never had much confidence in Spanish justice,” Cooley exclaimed. “It's slow, but I can't complain now.”

“Thank God, thank God,” Blackburn said hoarsely. “I feared I'd never see my loved ones again.”

“I doubt if my wife will even recognize me,” Joel Pierce said sadly. ‘‘They waited too lon” Ellis looked at him and had to agree. He'd never fully recovered his health and was gaunt-faced and pallid, obviously in bad shape. The scar on his pale cheek was an ugly purple line.

“I hope they'll furnish us horses for the ride home,” Duncan said. “I'll walk if I have to, but they took our horses in Nacogdoches, so they owe us some.”

All of the prisoners remained at the barracks nights, for there was no reason that Fero and the others should return to San Carlos. All of them went from store to store during the days, buying a few extra garments for the journey home. Ellis felt like running around shouting, “We're free! We're free!” but managed to restrain himself. He saw Ephraim Blackburn, his thick hair white, looking more solemn than usual. Ellis smiled. “I thought you'd be celebrating like the rest of us,” he said.

“I'd like to,” Blackburn replied, “and I would if I could stop thinking about Joel. He's not well enough to travel, but he's determined to go. I'm afraid the trip will kill him, but we can't go off and leave him here alone.” Ellis' smile faded. He'd forgotten about Joel.

The next morning, a captain who had always been sympathetic to the prisoners called them together, and Ellis knew from his expression that he wasn't bringing good news. He cleared his throat.

“I regret to tell you that General Salcedo did not agree with Judge Galindo's ruling and suspended it. He is sending the records to Spain and requesting the king to make a ruling.” Ellis listened but couldn't believe what he heard.

“Good God!” Zalmon Cooley exclaimed.

“The Lord is my Shepherd,” Ephraim Blackburn intoned.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Fero shouted. Ellis' lips moved numbly, but no words came. If they want to torture us to death as painfully as possible, they're doing a good job of it, he thought. Despondently, he and Duncan went back to making hats and repairing guns. It'll take years to hear from Spain, Ellis brooded. By then I'll be an old man. Why don't they just shoot us?

Months passed and rumors floated about, but nothing happened. Some said that Salcedo hadn't sent the papers to Spain, and they'd never be freed; that was easy to believe. Duncan was called to the village of Aldama to repair the weapons of a detachment of troops stationed there, a task that would take several months. Fero and House again exchanged letters about a plan for escaping. “William Danlin and I are thinking of trying to get away,” House told Ellis.

“Me too,” Ellis replied. He got permission to go to San Carlos, where he made escape plans for Duncan, House, and himself. Between them, Ellis and Duncan had purchased, through Mexican friends, four horses and three guns.

Before attempting to escape, House and the other prisoners in Chihuahua decided to petition Salcedo to release them. An obliging priest wrote in Spanish a lengthy explanation of how they'd come to accompany Nolan to Texas, explaining that he had assured them he had permission and a passport, and that he had been allowed to enter Texas a number of times before. They had no reason to doubt his word until they met a Spanish patrol searching for them, and then it was too late to back out. While waiting to learn Salcedo's response, Fero and Cooley again wrote House concerning escape plans. From San Carlos, Ellis wrote to Duncan in Aldama and to House in Chihuahua that he had the preparations nearly complete, and that two soldiers had agreed to desert and accompany them. They were to meet at an old church when the day came, and from there set out on their journey. He entrusted the letters to a villager, who delivered Duncan's at Aldama before continuing on to Chihuahua with the letter to House. Duncan hurried his work along so he could return to Chihuahua in time to join the escape party.

Tom House was sick and stretched out on a mat in the adobe house that served as his blacksmith shop, when a sergeant and squad of soldiers entered. “Stay where you are,” the sergeant ordered in Spanish, and gathered up the letters on a little table that served as a desk.

“What's goin' on?” House asked in broken Spanish.

“I shouldn't tell you, perhaps,” the sergeant replied, “but one of your countrymen—the one with a nose like a hawk—took General Salcedo a letter from
Señor
Bean to you. The General ordered us to see what we could find here and arrest you. That's all I know.”

“Nose like a hawk,” House muttered. “That can only be that son-of-a-bitch Waters. I'll cut off his balls for this, if he has any.” The soldiers escorted him to the guardhouse.

At Aldama, Duncan learned that Ellis, Cooley, and Fero had been arrested in San Carlos, and hastily burned the letter from Ellis. If they force him to talk about our escape plans, they'll come for me next, Duncan thought. Every time he saw soldiers he expected to be arrested, but he was allowed to finish his work and return to Chihuahua, where he found House in the hospital, in bad shape.

One day, Ellis' cell door opened and a guard helped Joel Pierce through it and lowered him to the floor, for he was too weak to stand alone. Ellis recoiled in horror at the sight.

“I'm dying, Ellis,” Joel gasped as he lay on the floor. “I'll never see my wife again. I didn't expect to find you a prisoner, but at least I'll die in the company of a friend and a countryman.”

Ellis had a little money in his pocket, and he persuaded the guard to buy some wine and bread. After Joel drank a little wine and ate some bread, he was able to sit up. Ellis gazed at him sadly—he was little more than a skeleton; there was no doubt that he hadn't long to live.

“You should go to the house of my friends the Romeros,” Ellis told him. “They'll care for you like you were their own son and nurse you back to health. I can do little for you here.”

“No. I can't possibly recover. I prefer to die here with you.”

At that moment the cell door opened again and the guards pushed a big man with Indian features and shackled arms into the room. “Why is he here?” Ellis asked the guard.

“He killed a man.”

The prisoner took a jew's-harp from his pocket, held it to his mouth, and twanged on it continuously until Joel was writhing in agony, holding his head with both hands.

“He's sick. See what you're doing to him,” Ellis said. “Why don't you stop?”

The man stopped twanging while he answered. “I'll play whenever I want to,” he said.

Enraged, Ellis snatched the little instrument from his hand and tore out the tongue. The man arose and attempted to grasp Ellis by the throat. Ellis raised his shackled arms and brought both fists down hard on the man's head so that the irons around his wrists struck his skull. He went down hard and lay on the floor moaning. Joel tried to rise, but fell limply back on his mat. Two days later he died, and Ellis mournfully watched the guards carry his wasted body away for burial. He thought of Joel's wife. She must have given up hope of ever seeing him again long ago, he thought. It's better if she lost hope and forgot him.

Three months passed, when Ellis was released without explanation and allowed to return to Chihuahua. “I knew you were in prison,” Duncan told him, “and I'd have come to see what I could do for you, but Tom House is in bad shape. I was sure he'd die if I left him.”

“The first thing I aim to do is see if Jonah isn't too yellow to fight me with pistols,” Ellis growled. “He doesn't deserve to live.” They found him the next morning.

“You sorry son-of-a-bitch,” Ellis greeted him, “get a pistol and meet me outside of town. Then you kill me, or I'll sure as hell kill you.” The shifty-eyed Waters turned pale and ran.

Knowing a house that Waters frequently visited, Ellis got a stout club and waited for him. When Waters came out, Ellis stepped from around the comer and blocked the way back to the house. “If you won't fight me with guns, I'll get my satisfaction another way,” he growled.

“Please don't hit me,” Waters begged in a quavering voice. “I didn't mean you any harm.”

“Liar!” Ellis laid on with the club until Waters lay badly bruised and whimpering on the ground.

Ellis and Duncan went to the
paseo
most nights to admire the young ladies. “That one's makin' eyes at you,” Duncan said, as a fancily dressed girl walked by with her chaperone, probably an aunt. Ellis watched them walk on—the girl turned her head and looked hard at him with the one eye that was exposed.

One night Ellis went alone to the
paseo
while Duncan took food to House. The young lady was there, as usual, and somehow she slipped away from her chaperone and hurried to where Ellis stood under a tree. She shamelessly pulled the shawl from her face.

“What's your name,
señor?'
she asked. “Mine's Elena,” she said before he could reply. Just then the chaperone charged up like a buffalo bull after a wolf, crossing herself when she saw the breach of moral conduct. She dragged the girl away and informed her father, who was a colonel under Salcedo. The next day he sent a soldier to Ellis with a note.

“You have compromised my daughter's honor,” it said. “You must marry her at once.”

“Be damned if I will,” Ellis told Duncan. “After I saw her face she didn't look all that great to me. And all we did was talk. I didn't get in her pants. I didn't even kiss her.” Two soldiers arrived.

“You must come with us,” they told him.

“Where?” Ellis asked.

“To the
cuartel
at San Jerónimo.” The barracks were a dozen miles from Chihuahua.

Early in 1807, twenty-two ragged American soldiers were marched into the
cuartel
in Chihuahua, but the guard refused to allow Nolan's men to talk with them. “Who are they?” Duncan asked a Spanish officer who had been friendly ever since Duncan had repaired his weapons.

“They were with a Lieutenant Pike on the Rio Bravo above Sante Fe, in Spanish territory,” he answered. “They were arrested and brought here so General Salcedo could question them.”

“Where is Lieutenant Pike?”

“He and a Dr. Robinson are at the house of Juan Pedro Walker, but don't toy to see them. The General forbade it.” Walker, an American, was commandant of the military academy, and Nolan's slave, Caesar, lived with him as a servant.

Lieutenant Pike came to the plaza one morning to buy a straw hat, and stopped by Ellis, who had a stack of hats of all sizes. “You must be Lieutenant Pike,” Ellis said. “I'm Ellis Bean, one of the Nolan men. They wouldn't allow us to talk to you.” Pike looked around to see if any soldiers were watching.

“I know,” he replied. “But one of your men managed to slip away and see me. David Fero. He was a lieutenant in my father's battalion. He begged me with tears in his eyes to get him out of here. I promised to do all I could for the lot of you. I'm going to send the Natchez
Herald
the information he gave me on all of the prisoners, so their families will know they're alive.” He paused and looked around again. “I told General Salcedo the circumstances of your being with Nolan, that you were all innocent of wrong-doing and should be set free. He said he rescued you from a dungeon and has given you all the freedom it is in his power to give. Now it's up to the king.”

Late in April, Pike and a few of his men, along with Dr. Robinson, were escorted to San Antonio on the way to Natchitoches. A month later, Ellis' friend Moreno stopped in the plaza, as he often did. He shook hands without smiling. “I just learned that the viceroy has reprimanded General Salcedo for releasing Pike,” he said. “It doesn't sound good for the rest of you.” He went on his way, shaking his head.

Ellis pondered his words. The only news we ever get is bad, he thought, feeling sick. They'll never let us go. We'll all die here without ever seeing our families again.

One day early the following November, a soldier summoned Duncan to the
cuartel
, where he saw Joseph Reed, William Danlin, and Jonah Waters. Without explanation, they were locked in a room in the barracks. A few days later, Ellis, Ephraim Blackburn, David Fero, Zalmon Cooley, and Luciano Garcia were brought from San Carlos and San Jeronimo and placed in the same room.

“Does anyone know why we're here?” Fero asked.

“Maybe at last they're going to set us free,” Blackburn answered hopefully. “It's high time they let us go.”

Wondering if that could be true, the prisoners waited, trying to recall their nearly forgotten homes and families. The next morning, Ellis turned pale when three black-robed priests solemnly entered the room to hear their confessions, for he knew that was what the Spaniards always did when men were about to be executed. Most were afraid to inquire about their fate, but Fero asked, “Does this mean we'll be put to death?”

BOOK: Gone to Texas
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