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The bodies would lie there till they went to dust, for Santa Anna had lost the battle. And with the battle, he had lost the war.
His saber-cut arm resting in a loose sling, Joshua Buckalew silently waited while his horse was being saddled. His sober gaze drifted across the still and somber San Jacinto battlefield, where score upon score of lifeless Mexican soldiers lay crumpled on the ground or bogged in black mud or floating in the reedy marshes of Buffalo Bayou. Two days ago a swaggering Santa Anna had gone into his tent for siesta, confident that he held victory in his hands, for he had a ragged rabble of hungry Texans backed against the bayou. He awakened in panic to find the sodden plain slashed by musket and rifle and cannonfire, his red flag trampled by desperate men whose voices clamored in fury above the thunder of the guns: “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”
Now it was over. The war was won. A victorious army had repaired to its camp at the edge of the plain, shouting for the blood of the captured Napoleon of the West. Big Sam Houston, nursing a shattered ankle, grimly refused to let them have him. Dead men write no treaties, he declared. And Texas would have her treaty of independence.
Home. The exultation had faded now in the barren stillness of the battlefield, and the Texans thought of home. A bitter taste lay sharp in Joshua Buckalew’s mouth, for he knew his home lay in ashes. What the retreating Texans hadn’t burned, the Mexican army had. He gazed westward, his mind reaching far beyond what his pain-pinched eyes could see. He knew the desolation that waited there: the gutted homes, the burned-out towns, the unmarked graves scattered from here to the Rio Bravo. The land itself still lay there, neglected but otherwise unchanged by the war, still possessed of the elusive promise that had drawn Americans by the thousands into Mexican-owned Texas to colonize under the laws of Mexico. Yes, the land remained, but everything else would have to be built back again with sweat and blood and determination. After all those hard years of work and privation and gradual accomplishment—years that had drifted away in smoke—Joshua Buckalew wondered if he still had it in him.
Times, winning the war is only the beginning of the battle. After the bugles fall silent, there is always the long road back.
Short, shaggy-haired Muley Dodd finished saddling Buckalew’s horse and looked worriedly at the sling. “Josh, you reckon maybe we ain’t rushin’ a mite? You’d travel better if that arm wasn’t so angry-lookin’.”
Joshua Buckalew had been standing hunched in unconscious deference to the throbbing arm. Now he drew himself to his full five-feet-eleven. “It’ll heal as good on horseback as here in this cursed swamp. I’ve seen enough of San Jacinto to last me a lifetime.”
There was another reason to be moving on. He looked gravely at Ramón Hernandez, who finished lashing a blanket-wrapped bundle across the back of a captured Mexican packhorse. Beneath that blanket lay the body of Antonio Hernandez. “Ramón wants to bury his brother at home. If the weather turns warm, we got no time to waste.”
In the early 1830’s, Joshua Buckalew and his older brother Thomas had come to Texas from Tennessee to try to build a home in Stephen F. Austin’s new land. They had drifted west and west and west, until at last they found what they wanted far beyond San Felipe de Austin, beyond even the Colorado River, near the Mexican colony where the Hernandez family squeezed a living out of the raw frontier by plowing their fields and raising cattle and catching wild horses. The Buckalews, copying the pattern, farmed some and branded wild cattle and broke mustangs to trade for supplies and now and again a handful of hard money in the eastern settlements. It had been a primitive life, in the main. But the Buckalews by their nature had been west-moving men, ever since Grandpa had frozen his feet that winter with George Washington.
Then had come Santa Anna, bringing cannon and sword to impose a terrible will upon his own people, finally crossing the Rio Grande to lay the same lash across the shoulders of the Americano colonists. He had slaughtered his way up by the Alamo and La Bahia. At Goliad, Thomas had fallen, cut down with more than three hundred other helpless prisoners in the shadow of that grim stone fortress. Joshua Buckalew had been among the fortunate few who escaped in the confusion of smoke and fire and dying men.
Now, suddenly, he still didn’t completely comprehend it—the war was over. From Houston’s camp the prisoner presidente had sent orders by courier for all Mexican troops to retreat beyond the Rio Grande. Texas no longer belonged to Mexico; it was a free and sovereign republic, rich in land and hope, but in all other things as poor as Job’s turkey.
This was April. Time to go home now and plow the corn.
Muley Dodd pointed westward across the intermittent stretches of water which dotted the greening plain. Heavy rains all month had made eastern Texas a hell for both armies—Mexican and Texan. It would be slow, traveling home. “It’s awful far, Josh,” Muley worried. “You reckon we can make it there with Antonio?”
Josh shook his head, for he had his doubts. “We’ll try.”
Except for a bit of sugar, coffee and cornmeal scrounged from among the defeated Mexicans—who were poorly fed themselves—they would have to live off the land. But Texas had deer and wild turkey aplenty, and sometimes bear. Farther west, where the settlements thinned, there would be wild cattle descended from the original mission herds. The diet was monotonous sometimes, but nobody ever starved.
Josh swung carefully up onto his horse, favoring the wounded arm, sucking a sharp breath between his teeth as the pain gripped hard.
Ramón Hernandez’ brow creased. “Josh,” he said in Spanish, “that arm will give you trouble. Perhaps it is better if you wait a few more days. I can get home alone.”
Josh doubted that. A lone Mexican rider caught by a roving Texan patrol would probably be shot before he could bring out his army papers and explain that he had fought in Juan Seguin’s Mexican company on the side of Sam Houston. The dark brown man’s skin would be taken as evidence enough that he belonged to the enemy.
Josh replied in English. They did that most of the time, the two, each talking in the language that came easiest but understanding the other nevertheless. “I’ll heal.” He glanced at little Muley Dodd, who was off saying his goodbyes to men he had met in Houston’s camp. “Besides, I’ll be obliged for your help. Muley’s intentions are good, but sometimes his results are poor.”
“He fought well,” Ramón pointed out.
Josh nodded but held his opinion. Muley had always been what people charitably called “slow.” Like some lonesome hound dog, he had attached himself to Josh and Thomas and had trailed along with them all the way down from Tennessee. He had no home, so the Buckalews gave him one. Muley was good help if someone told him what to do; he would break his back without a whimper. But he had to be watched like a child whose curiosity outweighs its judgment.
The matter settled, they rode in silence among the huge old oaks, from which the long beards of Spanish moss hung in cheerless disarray like funeral wreaths. Josh never looked back. Most of the time he gazed through the rain at the trail ahead, though now and again he quietly studied the faces of Muley Dodd and Ramón Hernandez.
Ramón. Pity, what the war had done to Ramón. He had always been the jovial one, quick to smile, quick to sing, the best at roping wild cattle, the quickest to throw a raw-treed Mexican saddle on an unbroken mustang and swing up shouting. His brother Antonio had been the grim one, never smiling, never seeing anything but the flat and the gray and the black. Now Antonio lay wrapped in that blanket, dead, and Ramón had taken on the face of Antonio…solemn, unsmiling. It was not a face that fit him. But that was the way of war.
They rode hunched against the slow, chilling rain, minds running over the violence they had put behind them. Ramón’s and Josh’s, anyway. Muley seldom thought back. His mind was always foraging ahead, flushing out one wild notion after another, the way a pup flushes rabbits but seldom catches one.
Muley’s stubbled face twisted as he tried to puzzle through an idea. “Josh, them fellers at camp, they was tellin’ me Texas don’t belong to Mexico no more. They was tellin’ me it’s a republic. That’s really somethin‘, ain’t it?”
“I reckon so, Muley.”
“I thought it must be.” He frowned. “Josh, what is a republic?”
“Well, Muley, it’s…” Josh didn’t know quite what to tell him. “It means we’re free, Muley. We’re independent.”
“You mean we’re like a slave that’s had his chains took off?”
“Somethin’ like that. We belonged to Mexico and had to do what they told us to. Now we do what we want to.”
“Like, we don’t have to work no more unless it suits us?”
Josh scratched his head. “Look, Muley, a man is free, but still he ain’t free. I mean, nobody can tell him he’s got to work, but if he don’t, he goes hungry. It’s like that with a republic. It’s free from other countries, but it ain’t ever free from responsibility. It’s got to raise food or starve. It’s got to make its clothes or go naked. It’s got to keep up an army or its enemies will run over it. In other words, it’s got to take care of itself. Nobody else is goin’ to.”
Muley fretted. “Used to, we could just let Mexico worry about all them things. Maybe we was better off when we wasn’t free.”
Josh shook his head. Trying to explain politics to Muley was like trying to empty a river with a wooden bucket.
Ramón rode along listening, his black-whiskered face furrowed in thought. “His talk is not all foolish, Josh. It is not easy to be free.”
“You wishin’ we hadn’t fought?”
“I wish we had not had to. We fought because of Santa Anna, not because of Mexico herself. It is as if we had to spit in the face of our mother.”
“A mother who beat and chastised us?”
Ramón’s face was sad. “But still a mother.”
Josh knew no way to reply, and he didn’t try to. He knew Ramón’s tie to Mexico was one of tradition and blood. Josh had felt a strong tie once, too, but mostly one of gratitude for opportunities offered. That tie had not been strong enough to endure, once the trouble began. Josh thought he could understand Ramón’s feelings, even though he was unable to share them. And therein lay one of the main factors that had brought difficulty in the first place. The cultural difference between the new Americano settlers and the native Mexicans had been too great for deep understanding. Even when the hand of friendship was extended, there had been reservations and mistrust. The settlers tried hard, many of them, but even between good friends such as Ramón Hernandez and Joshua Buckalew there remained that last tiny distance they could never quite reach across, that final measure of understanding that never quite came.
It’s not our fault, and it’s not theirs, Josh thought. The Bible said all men would be imperfect. Take a horse to a strange country and he’ll always try to go back home, to stay with what’s familiar to him. Men are no different.
They made a long ride in the rain and at dusk camped in the ruins of a homestead the Mexicans had put to the torch. Under a caved-in shed they found blackened wood which hadn’t been altogether burned away and which was still dry enough to set ablaze. They made coffee and ate cold tortillas and huddled around the meager warmth of the little fire, trying to dry out. The damp cold brought a new ache to Josh’s arm, and it showed in his face.
“Josh,” Muley worried, “you ain’t fixin’ to get sick on us, are you?”
“Long as we keep travelin’ west, I’ll make it.”
“Don’t you worry none, Josh. I’ll take care of you.”
The thought was pleasant, if not reassuring.
The rain stopped next morning, but they rode across a trackless country, for any sign of recent movement had been washed away. So far as they could tell, they were the first to travel here since the fighting had ended. They came upon mute evidence of the terrible “Runaway Scrape” which had swept across Texas after the fall of the Alamo and the horror of Goliad. They saw burned-out houses. Along the trail they found abandoned sleds and scattered remnants of the loads they had carried. These had been left behind when the livestock broke down and were unable to pull further, or when pressure of the Mexican army forced fleeing settlers to leave their possessions, mount their animals and make a wild run for the Sabine River and the sanctuary which awaited on the other side.
Twice they came across broken-down wagons, only a fractured wheel and the wagon bed itself remaining, the good wheels having been salvaged. Always they searched the relics for food or useful items, but inevitably someone else had done it first. Whatever one man threw away or abandoned, some other man had need of. Texas had nothing to waste, those days. Nothing but land.
Riding, Joshua Buckalew looked back occasionally in cold regret at the burden which trailed behind on the packhorse.
The day was long. His arm throbbed with fever, and each step the horse took came as a jolt of pain. The cold tortillas lay like lead in Josh’s stomach. Muley frowned. “Josh, you ain’t lookin’ good.”
Ramón reined up and pointed his chin. “Mira, hombre, over there. I see a trace leading off into that canebrake. It is so faint I almost missed it. If we follow it, we might find something.”
After all the years of exposure, Muley had picked up only a smattering of Spanish. He understood only enough to scare him. “Like what?” he asked, full of doubt.
“Whatever it is, it will be no worse than what we have. Maybe a house the Mexican soldiers missed. Maybe hot food.”
“And maybe Mexicans,” Muley worried.
Josh had to blink to keep the haze cleared away, for his fever was rising. The trace could have been an old one, not used in a long time. At any rate, it had not been used since the rains. The horses were making tracks six inches deep in the mud. Anyone else’s would have done the same. “Let’s try it. If we don’t find nothin’, we can always come back.”
The trail meandered through the dense growth. It had been used fairly recently, for cane had been hacked away to clear a path. The horses floundered through the swales, and the packhorse almost fell. Ramón desperately fought to keep it from crushing the body of his brother.
Josh had a futile thought: It’s too far. We’ll never get Antonio home. But he knew that so long as Ramón wanted to, they would keep trying.
They came at length to a sappy-green clearing. A log cabin stood in the center of it. A pair of muddy dogs bounded out to meet them, barking, but they were not hostile. They were tickled to death to see a human being, for they circled around and around the riders and tried to move right under the horses’ feet.
“Hyaww,” Muley shouted at them, waving his arms. “Hyaww!”
The horses snorted and shied. Muley’s let fly with a hind foot, narrowly missing the younger and less observant of the dogs. In the yard, hogs grunted and scattered, a pair of them bumping and squealing, teeth flashing. Chickens flapped their wings and fluttered out of the way, clucking and cackling.
Muley grinned, for chickens meant eggs, unless these two dogs abandoned to hunger had been sucking them all. “I could eat half a dozen of them hens, feathers and all.”
Ramón said quietly, “This place belongs to somebody.”
Muley replied, “He must’ve lit out in a right smart of a hurry. Probably figured old Santa Anna was grabbin’ at his shirttail, him leavin’ all this behind.”
“He probably intended to come back to it. If we eat his chickens, he will have no eggs. And if he has no eggs, he will have no more chickens.”
Seeing disappointment in Muley’s eyes, Josh said, “Don’t fret yourself, Muley. If we don’t find somethin’ else, we can kill one of them fat barrows. Man don’t get any pig crop out of a barrow.”
Josh eased down from the saddle, cautiously holding the arm tight against his ribs but feeling the pain anyway. Muley took his reins. “Go set, Josh. I’ll take care of the horse.”
The dogs reared up, licking at Josh’s hands. One bumped his arm and caused him to double over from the shock of it. Muley came shouting. “Git, dogs! Git, I say!” The dogs took after Muley then. Seemed natural, somehow. Dogs had always taken a liking to Muley, the way they would to a kid. Perhaps they sensed that in ways he was just a boy.
Rain had caused the rough wooden door to swell tight, but Ramón pushed it open. The cabin smelled musty from the rain, and from the fact that all the shutters had been closed. In those times there probably were not three sheets of glass in a hundred miles. Ramón opened the shutters to let the air circulate and told Josh to sit down. But Josh had been in the saddle all day. He wanted to move a little. The arm would hurt anyway.
Muley poked around and discovered a cribful of corn, part of which he shelled for the horses. He brought some to the cabin for supper. Josh found the smokehouse, cured hams hanging from the rafters, and abundant supplies of bacon. Muley took dry wood from under a shed and kindled a blaze in the stone fireplace while Ramón whittled the outer edges off of a ham and threw them to the half-starved dogs. Ramón started coffee boiling in a can and from somewhere rustled up a pan. Muley ground the corn for bread, and they all ate as they hadn’t eaten in weeks.
Afterwards, a momentary smile crossed Ramón’s face as he leaned back, his stomach full. Josh took pleasure in the sight, for he hadn’t seen Ramón smile since San Jacinto. For a while then, Ramón had forgotten the blanket-wrapped burden that lay yonder in the shed, out of reach of the hogs.
Josh said, “What are you thinkin’ about, Ramón?”
Ramón’s voice was quiet. “Of home. Of Miranda, and the baby I have not yet seen. What do you think of, Josh?”
“Of home. And of a girl.”
“María? My sister?”
Ramón smiled and changed the subject. “It is a good house, this one.”
Josh shrugged. Actually, it was a crude cabin built hurriedly of logs and later chinked with liberal slivers of wood and heavy dabs of plaster in an effort to seal out the wind and rain. But they had been so long out of doors, a chicken coop would look good. “By rights,” he said, “they ought to’ve destroyed this so it wouldn’t fall into Mexican hands.”
Ramón said, “But aren’t you glad they didn’t?”
Next morning they ate their fill again. Perhaps it was the food; perhaps it was sleeping dry and warm in a house; but at any rate, Josh felt better. The fever had gone down. He stood in the open door and stared across the clearing into the orange sunrise. Not a cloud was in sight.
Muley said, “I wish we could stay here a week.”
Ramón looked gravely toward the shed. “We can’t.”
“Just wishin’, is all.”
When the three men rode away, they carried one of the hams and some bacon from the smokehouse. The rest they left behind, for it belonged to someone else. Maybe he would return, and maybe he wouldn’t. In the Runaway Scrape, many hadn’t stopped until they had crossed the Sabine River into United States territory. Once there, some would never return to the uncertainties of a land which lay so near to hostile Mexico, no matter how great Sam Houston’s victory. But if this one did return, he would not find his property looted. At least, not by Josh and Muley and Ramón. They took only what they needed, and in exchange they left behind a Mexican rifle Muley had picked up on the battlefield. A rifle was something a man could always use.
The dogs followed a long way before they gave up and quit, forlorn as lost children. The three riders did not retrace their steps but instead followed a faint old trace that led southwestward. It hadn’t been cleared in a long time and was often slow going. The sun had risen halfway to the meridian before they broke out of the canebrakes and into open prairie.
They hadn’t gone two hundred yards when suddenly they wished they had stayed longer at the cabin. Half a dozen horsemen appeared unexpectedly in front of them. Josh had seen enough Mexican cavalry the last few weeks that he recognized these at a glance.
The surprise was as great to the Mexicans. They sat staring, not a hundred yards away. Ramón wheeled his mount and pulled the packhorse after him. “Back to the brakes!”
Whatever worry Josh’s arm might have been, he forgot all about it. For a wild instant he could hear the guns of Coleto Creek, and the brutal massacre of Goliad. He spurred like a wild man. The horses tried, but their feet dug deep into the wet ground, and their hoofs left a shower of mud behind them. Shots rattled. Ramón shouted, and his horse went down, sliding on its side. The packhorse jerked free and kept running. Ramón crawled away from his horse as it lay threshing. Josh leaned low to pull Ramón up behind his saddle but to no avail. Ramón tried to get up but went down again. Blood spread across the torn leg of his trousers.
Josh shouted, “Muley, you keep a-ridin’!”
But Muley had stopped. And then there was no use in running, for the Mexican soldiers had closed in around them, and there was nowhere to go. The rifle under Josh’s leg might just as well have been in Tennessee for all the good it did. The Mexicans would have put half a dozen holes through him before he could have drawn it. He looked into their rifles and slowly raised his good arm.
Muley drew close, his face paling. “What’ll we do now, Josh?”
“Pray some. And do what they tell us to. Climb down slow, so they won’t get nervous and shoot you. We got to see about Ramón.”
The Mexicans grabbed the horses as quickly as Josh and Muley touched the ground. Josh knelt by Ramón. “How bad, compadre?”
His face pinched in pain, Ramón pointed his chin toward the officer in charge. “Not good. It will be worse, I think. We will all get a bullet in the head.”
The officer dismounted with the flair of a man in triumph. Of all the riders in the patrol, only he seemed to carry a pistol. The others carried cumbersome rifles or the clumsy escopetas that had enough recoil to knock a man out of his saddle. The officer waved the pistol and announced sharply that all three men were his prisoners.
Josh pointed at Ramón and said in Spanish, “This man is wounded.” The officer seemed to ignore Josh. His eyes were hostile as he stared down at the bleeding Ramón. “You are Mexican. Why do you ride with these Americanos?” Ramón replied cautiously that they were friends.
“No Americano can be friend to Mexicans while there is a war.”
“There is no war. Not anymore. Have you not heard?”
The officer showed surprise, but he remained wary. “I have heard nothing.”
Ramón gripped his leg, his face twisting as the fire of it began to break through the numbness of the first moments. “The war is over. El general Santa Anna has ordered all troops across the Rio Grande.”
The officer stared at Josh in puzzlement. “Then we have won. But why are these Americanos here?”
Ramón shook his head. “Santa Anna did not win. He lost. There was a big battle at San Jacinto. Houston and the Tejanos, they won it.”
“It is the truth, I swear by the Holy Mother.”
The officer’s hard gaze shifted from one man to another. “Men are sometimes known to lie, even by that which is holy.”
Josh said in Spanish, “What he tells you is truth.”
The officer’s pistol wavered. Josh thought he was likely to fire it at any minute. “No Americano is to be believed. And a Mexican who would ride with an Americano is even worse. I think I will shoot all of you and end these lies.”
One of the Mexicans had ridden out after the packhorse, which had stopped at the edge of the canebrake. Now he came leading the animal. The officer turned to Ramón. “What is tied on the horse?”
The officer’s eyes widened. Ramón went on painfully, “My brother died in the battle I told you about. We were trying to get him home to bury him in holy ground with my mother and my father.”
The Mexican who had fetched the horse said with face twisting. “He may be telling the truth, capitán. Something is dead beneath that blanket.”
The Mexicans’ horses were shying away, their nostrils keenly aware of the smell of death. A couple of the soldiers eased the bundle to the ground. They unwrapped it gingerly, wanting to get the job over with and move away. Josh didn’t look as the blanket was pulled back. He didn’t want to see. Ramón turned his head away, too. Muley knew no better than to look, and his face went white.
They would never have gotten home with Antonio.
The officer swore. “That is the uniform of a cavalryman.”
Ramón nodded, his face grave. “My brother was in the army of Santa Anna.”
Only then did Joshua Buckalew begin to doubt that they were all about to die.
Copyright © 1967,1995 by Elmer Kelton