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Authors: Don Worcester

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BOOK: Gone to Texas
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“We don't know,
señor,"
a priest answered. “They haven't told us. Perhaps some of you may be.”

“I guess I'm the one they're after,” Ellis said gloomily, and some of the others nodded in agreement. “But if they've decided to shoot me, I hope they'll let the rest of you go.”

“If they were only after you, they wouldn't have rounded up the rest of us. It looks to me like we're all under the gun,” Duncan said.

Blackburn cleared his throat and ran his bony fingers through his shaggy white hair, his wrinkled face solemn. “Most of you are young and have your lives ahead of you,” he said hoarsely. “If justice is done....” Ellis interrupted him.

“If justice is done and they shoot the worst scoundrel among us, it's got to be Waters,” he growled. “He should have been shot years ago.” There were grunts of approval from the others. Waters wiped the sweat from his sharp nose and sighed deeply, but said nothing.

The next morning, the door swung open again, and Ellis shivered when dignified Antonio Garía Tejado, adjutant inspector of the Interior Provinces, solemnly entered the room holding a paper in his hand. With him were prosecutor Díaz de Bustamante and the prisoners's counsel, Verea. All three wore black cloaks, and their faces were expressionless. Verea motioned to the prisoners to kneel. They've come to pronounce sentence, Ellis thought; at least they've got bad news. He dreaded to hear it.

“This is His Majesty's decree,” Garcia de Tejado intoned. “One man in every five who entered Texas with Nolan and who fired on royal troops must die.” Ellis heard gasps around him, followed by heavy breathing, while his own thoughts were racing. How will they decide who to execute? he wondered.

García de Tejado cleared his throat and continued. “Because your man Pierce is dead and only nine of you are left, only one must die.” He looked as if it pained him to deliver the order, but since it came from the king, he had no choice.

The Spanish troops had attacked them; they had merely defended themselves, Ellis thought bitterly, but there was little time to contemplate the cruel sentence. A soldier immediately entered the hushed room and placed a big drum on the floor, while another set a crystal cup containing a pair of dice on the drumhead.

“You must all throw the dice while blindfolded,” García de Tejado informed them. “The unfortunate one who casts the lowest number must die.” The pale prisoners stood as far away from the drum as they could, staring open-eyed at the dice as if they were rattlesnakes poised to strike. Garcia de Tejado cleared his throat again, but no one stepped forward to test his luck.

“Let's throw in the order of our ages,” Fero said, his voice hollow. “The oldest first.” The others all glanced at Ephraim Blackburn. Ellis thought of all the dangers they'd faced before. Nothing equalled staking their lives on one throw of the dice while blindfolded.

Ephraim Blackburn knelt prayerfully beside the dram. A soldier tied a blindfold around his head and placed the crystal cup in his trembling hands. He shouldn't have to do this, Ellis thought. He came with Nolan, but didn't even fire on Spanish troops. All eyes were on the drumhead as Blackburn cast the dice. He immediately arose and lifted the blindfold, wincing when he saw he'd thrown a four. Swallowing hard, a look of resignation on his ashen face, he stepped back to make room for Luciano, who took his place by the drum. Ellis watched Luciano roll a seven and exhale deeply. Joseph Reed cast an eleven and involuntarily smiled. When he glanced around and saw Blackburn's somber face the smile vanished.

Fero threw an eight, Cooley an eleven, Jonah Waters a seven. Ellis wiped his moist palms on his trousers and knelt while the soldier fixed the blindfold. He cast the dice and arose, almost afraid to look. He'd rolled a five. Duncan followed with a six. The last was William Danlin, who cast a seven.

Solemn, black-robed priests immediately swarmed around Blackburn, clucking sympathetically and muttering Latin phrases. He gazed at his companions, his white hair crowning his somber face. “It's better this way, my friends,” he said in a firm voice. “My death should buy your freedom.” He started to go with the priests, but stopped and turned. “If any of you ever get to Natchez,” he said, “tell my wife that I died, but don't tell her the circumstances.” Then he was gone. Ellis felt a lump rise in his throat.

Two days later, the prisoners were ordered to the Plaza de los Urangos, where a large crowd had already gathered. Ellis caught his breath as he saw the newly built gallows, with the hangman's noose swaying in the light breeze. His face was sweating, but he suddenly felt cold when he saw Blackburn calmly mount the scaffold and stand under the noose. A soldier blindfolded him, then placed the halter over his head and tightened it around his neck. Ellis felt his skin crawl when he heard the roll of drums and Blackburn shot through the trap. A knot settled in Ellis' stomach, while he brushed away tears that streamed down his cheeks.

Three days later, Fero, Cooley, Ellis, and Danlin, the ones who'd been implicated in the plot to escape, were brought to the plaza. Tom House was too sick to move from his bed. Duncan saw a crowd gathering, and went to see what was happening. As he arrived, merchant Manuel Moreno was talking to Ellis.

“I have influential friends in Mexico City, my friend,” he said. “I'm certain they can secure your release once you get there. I will write them immediately.”

“Mexico City?” Duncan exclaimed. “Who's goin' there?”

Ellis nodded his head toward the other three prisoners. “The bad boys,” he said. “The troublemakers.”

The four prisoners were shackled and ordered to mount horses, then twenty-five cavalrymen surrounded them and they trotted away on the road to far-off Mexico City. Ellis glanced back at Duncan, wondering if they'd ever meet again.

Chapter Three

At every town or village along the way, the cavalry stopped for a time in the plaza and allowed the prisoners to walk about in irons. Curious men, women, and children crowded around them, for they'd never seen Americans. Women with shawls over their heads brought them bread and fruit, frowning and exclaiming over their shackles. “
Pobrecitos
,” they lamented.

After weeks of steady riding, the travelers stopped for the night at the village of Salamanca. As usual, the prisoners were allowed to stretch their legs, and chattering people thronged around them. A well-dressed, attractive young woman watched Ellis for a time, then shyly approached him. “Is it your wish to escape,
señor?'
she whispered in Spanish.

Surprised, Ellis looked at her, then shrugged. “It is,” he replied, “but that's impossible. They'll find me again, and if they don't shoot me, they'll make me pay one way or another. I'll just have to take what comes.”


No señor
,” she said softly, her dark eyes flashing, “it
is
possible. I will return soon, and you will see.” She hurried away.

“Who is that lady?” Ellis asked a portly villager, pointing at her. The man glanced at the retreating figure.

“That's María Baldonado,” he replied. “Because of her beauty a rich old
hacendado
married her not long ago. I don't know how many
haciendas
he owns, but more than enough.”

Ellis stretched out on his mat, thinking about what she'd said, ignoring the curious people who came to stare at him. Maria returned shortly before sundown, followed by a tall dark-skinned man in a long blue cloak. She pushed her way through the crowd and knelt by Ellis. The tall man stood behind her, arms folded across his chest, staring off in the distance.

“He has files for cutting your shackles,” she whispered. “You must go to the stables, where he will remove them. Then a man on the wall will lower a rope to pull you up and bring you to me. With me you'll be safe.”

Ellis thought about it some more, recalling Manuel Moreno's assurance that his influential friends would secure his release. If I try to escape I may fail, and they won't be able to help me after that. Then he remembered the men who'd escaped at Nacogodoches, and the calamity that it had meant for the others.

“I can't do it,” he told her solemnly. “It wouldn't be fair to my friends, for they'd surely suffer for it.”

“Your first duty is to yourself,” María said firmly. “God will take care of your friends. I have money and horses; you will have whatever you want without risk of recapture. I have
haciendas
—you can stay at any of them, and no one will ever know.”

Ellis was rising on his elbows, ready to accept her offer, when a soldier called the prisoners to their evening meal. “Come to me early in the morning,” Maria said, and told him where to find her.

Ellis thought of nothing else that night, and slept fitfully. One moment he was ready to go; the next he was sure it would be a mistake. If they recaptured him, or if her husband found out, no telling what would happen. In Mexico City, Moreno's friends would free him without such risks.

Still undecided, at daybreak he asked the officer in command of the cavalry for a soldier to accompany him to a shop, then hurried to the house where María waited by an open window, a gray shawl framing her oval face. Ellis gave the soldier a coin and told him to buy some spirits. “I'll wait for you here,” he said.

“It's now or never,” Maria told him. “There's no time to lose. I can hide you so you'll never be found.”

“Are you absolutely sure?” he asked. “If they find me, they'll probably shoot me.”

“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “Trust me and have no fear. Soon we will be able to ride away together. Though I'm part Indian, I know you're too honorable to abandon me. But we must hurry!”

Ellis gazed at her lovely face, his thoughts racing. It just might work out, and if he wasn't discovered, they could make it to the States one day. He'd be proud to have her for his wife. While she fidgeted nervously, he thought again about Moreno's assurance. But supposing his friends failed? What then?

“Hurry!” María exclaimed.

“All right,” he said, “I'll chance it.” Just then, the soldier shouted, and Ellis turned to see him running toward them.

“The captain says to come
pronto
,” he said, breathing hard. “They're ready to leave and are waiting for you. Don't make him angry at both of us.”

Ellis turned to María, holding his hands out with palms upward in a gesture of resignation. “Adios, my lady,” he said. “I'll never forget you.” Then, as best he could in his shackles, he hurried after the soldier.

“Go with God,
señor,"
Maria called after him, tears streaming down her face.

Another week of travel through the mountains brought-them to the Valley of Mexico, and Ellis gazed down in awe at the splendid city. As soon as they free me, he thought, I'll go back and find María. The prisoners were immediately confined with several hundred other culprits. Ellis watched for Moreno's friends, wondering how long it would take them to obtain his release. The third day, a well-dressed young man came to see him.

“Señor
Bean,” he said, “Don Ramóon Iglesias sent me to tell you he is working to free you, but it may take a month, maybe many months. He asks if you need money, and advises you to be patient.” Ellis thanked him and shook his head. I have money, and being patient is what I do best, he thought, feeling elated. At least it won't be much longer.

A few days later, a guard ordered the four prisoners to follow him to the prison yard, where a troop of cavalry waited. A sergeant beckoned toward four saddled horses, and the prisoners mounted and accompanied the cavalry out of the city on a road leading southwest. Shocked at this unexpected development, Ellis spoke to the sergeant, who appeared friendly. “Where are you taking us?” he asked, his fears rising.

“To the Castle of San Diego at Acapulco,” the sergeant replied, looking from one to another of the prisoners. “But you don't look like dangerous men to me.”

I wonder what that means, Ellis thought. For one thing, he knew, it meant that Moreno's friends couldn't help him now. Damn. I should have gone with María when I had the chance.

In ten days, they reached the city of Chilpancingo, and several days later came out of the mountains and saw the white-washed houses of Acapulco gleaming below them on a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the white sand of the curving bay. Beyond was the Pacific Ocean, deep blue broken by white-caps rolling toward the beach. Ellis gazed at the magnificent sight, holding his breath in awe.

“I'm afraid this is your home now,” the sergeant said, inclining his head toward the huge, star-shaped fortress of San Diego, at the apex of a hill near the bay. It was bristling with cannons. “I hope it won't be forever. Good luck,
señor.
” Ellis saw that he was sincere, and felt his blood turn to ice.

As they rode down from the heights, Ellis felt like he had crawled under a heavy blanket, for the air grew hot and humid, and beads of sweat rolled down his face. Under the lush growth of many kinds of trees were countless varieties of ferns and plants with brilliant red or yellow flowers. Along the shore in the distance, tall coconut palms, their tops ringed with graceful fronds, stood like sentinels. Ellis gazed around him in amazement—he'd never seen anything like it before.

The troops and prisoners followed the trail winding down to the beach across the bay from the sleepy village of Acapulco. Ellis shaded his face with a shackled hand, for the reflection of the sun off the white houses hurt his eyes. The few people they met moved slowly, blinking in the bright sunlight as they stared at the prisoners. They looked up at the castle, then at the prisoners, and shook their heads, as if they knew they'd never see those bearded men again.

BOOK: Gone to Texas
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