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The Bandera Trail
By Ralph Compton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1993 Ralph Compton
All rights reserved.
December 10, 1842. San Antonio, Republic of Texas. Gil and Van found the trio they were seeking, not far from the ruins of the Alamo, in a dirt-floor saloon. The three were conspicuous because it was a time when there were few unoccupied men in the territory. Most of those owning land grants were simply trying to survive, while others — especially the young men — had joined the militia and were clamoring for a fight with Mexico. Although it was broad daylight outside, the saloon was dark. The only light was a single guttering candle, its own wax holding it upright on a makeshift bar. There were no chairs. The tables were long X-frames, made of rough boards. The bench on each side was another rough plank, each end of which was pegged to the table's X-frame. Two of the wanderers sat with their backs to the door. The third man sat on the other side of the crude table, his back to the wall, and it was he who answered Gil's question.
"Yeah," he said, "we'd hire on fer a spell. Long as ye ain't askin' fer references."
His companions laughed. Gil said nothing. The stranger took that for agreement, and got to his feet. He was a gangling scarecrow of a man, seven feet tall without his hat. When the other two men stood up, the contrast was startling. The trio followed Gil and Van outside, and although there was a crude bench at the front of the saloon, none of them sat. They stood facing one another. The tall man spoke.
"Th' scrawny jaybird, here, is Shorty. T'other, with th' bug eyes, is Banjo. Me, I'm Long John Coons. An' see that ye keep it plural. First man calls me 'coon,' I'll gut him."
For emphasis, he drew a Bowie knife from his belt. It was a terrible weapon, looked sharp enough to shave with, and was. He drew the razor-keen blade along his lanky forearm, peeling off a patch of hair. Without a word he slipped the fifteen-inch knife under his belt. Gil nodded. The five of them mounted their horses and rode out, bound for the Bandera range.
December 12, 1842. The Bandera range, Republic of Texas.
Gil and Van saddled their horses and rode south, leaving their enormous land grant in the hands of three men about whom they knew little. Long John Coons was a Cajun, and there were rumors that he had left Louisiana by popular demand.
"I'm almighty uneasy about them three," said Van. "Long John, with that blade of his, just purely scares hell out of folks."
"That's why he's our segundo," said Gil. "Remember what old Granny Austin always said: an ounce of prevention's worth more'n all the cure that's to be had. I talked to Shorty and Banjo some. All they told me was, Long John's mama is a conjuring woman, and Long John's got an evil eye. Whatever that means."
"Maybe we're goin' at this all wrong," said Van. "I can't shake the feeling we oughta be takin' Long John and his pards with us." He sighed. "But we'd need an army to keep us alive. At the very least, we'll need a dozen good riders, if we're trail drivin' two hundred horses, and five thousand longhorns."
"Clay knows that," said Gil. "We'll have to count on him havin' a plan of his own. But you know Clay Duval; he's always long on courage, but a mite short on common sense. Once he's made up his mind, he'd bridle the devil, ride the joker without a saddle, and rake him with gut hooks all the way. I concede we could use the horses and longhorns, but we can't sneak 'em out of Mexico in our saddlebags."
"Knowin' how mule-stubborn Clay is," said Van, "I'll bet you a horse and saddle he won't leave all that livestock behind and just run for it."
"He may not have a choice," said Gil. "By the time we get to him — if we do — we'll have some idea as to the odds of any of us gettin' out alive. Remember, Alexander Somervell has an expedition somewhere along the border right now."
"Yeah," sighed Van, "I know. By the time we get to the river, them Mex soldiers are goin' to be almighty eager to get their hands on some Texans. Any Texans. Especially a pair that's fool enough to ride right into their midst."
"We won't make it easy for them," said Gil. "We'll ride at night. But they'll have the advantage, knowin' the country. Ridin' in don't bother me as much as ridin' out. By the time we're ready to leave, Santa Anna will have had time to force-march the rest of the Mexican army between us and the Rio Grande."
December 24, 1842. Laredo, Mexico.
Gil and Van found the town tense and virtually deserted. The inhabitants peered nervously from their log-and-mud huts. Seven horsemen rode wearily along the bank of the river, approaching the town from the east.
"Hey," cried Gil, recognizing the lead rider. "That's Ben McCulloch!"
Gil waved his hat, and the lead rider veered the little column toward them. Benjamin McCulloch was from Tennessee, and had been a close friend to David Crockett. McCulloch had been at San Jacinto, with Gil, Van, and Clay fighting under his command. Only recently had McCulloch begun scouting for the Texas Rangers. McCulloch halted his column and trotted his horse forward to meet Gil and Van.
"Cap'n Mac," said Gil, "what're you doing here?"
"Gettin' the hell out," growled McCulloch, "while I can. Take some good advice, the pair of you, and ride back the way you come."
"I wish we could," sighed Van, "but we got business in Mexico."
"I hope it's worth your life, then," said McCulloch.
Gil explained their mission, and the Ranger shook his head. With some bitterness, he spoke.
"Son, when you see the Rangers backin' off, it's time to call in the dogs and ride. Somervell had six hundred men, managed to take Laredo and Guerrero, but he's ordered his troops to head for home, by way of Gonzales."
"Have they?" Gil asked.
"About two hundred of them have," said McCulloch. "The rest of them have left the command, elected William Fisher as their leader, and aim to attack the Mex settlements across the river."
"Sounds like a fool move," said Van. "Is that why you're pullin' out?"
"Damn right," said McCulloch. "The Rangers are here on orders from Sam Houston, as scouts for the Somervell expedition. But I don't figure we owe Fisher and the rest of these damn fools anything. We done all we could. We rode across the river to Mier and reconnoitered the town. The Mex army is gathering there, and I warned Fisher. He ignored my warning, and yesterday they had a look for themselves. Tomorrow, they aim to cross the river and attack the town."
"But you don't think they can take it and hold it," said Gil.
"No," said McCulloch. "They'll be killed, or taken captive."
"Then we can use that as a diversion," said Van, "and get into Mexico without being seen."
"You likely can," said McCulloch, "if you're hell-bent on going. It's about ninety miles to Mier, and you'd best ride well beyond there, before you cross the river."
Gil and Van rode until past midnight before making a cold camp.
At first light, Gil built a small fire, while Van brought in their picketed horses. They cooked and ate their meager breakfast, put out the fire, and mounted up.
"Merry Christmas," said Van.
"Yeah." Gil grinned. "What do you want, most of all?"
Van sighed. "To get back to Bandera range without havin' my carcass shot full of Mex lead or Injun arrows."
"I'd settle for that too," said Gil, and he didn't smile.
They pushed their horses as hard as they dared, and it was an hour before sundown when they first heard the rattle of distant gunfire.
"Somebody's opened the ball," said Gil.
"I feel some guilty," said Van, "using their fight to sneak into Mexico."
"I don't," said Gil. "I wouldn't throw in with 'em, even if we didn't have other snakes to stomp. McCulloch warned 'em. When a Ranger says back off, you back off."
"We're not really using their fight for cover," said Van. "It'll be dark long before we're far enough beyond Mier to cross the river. Besides, we don't know how long they've been fighting. It may all be over before we cross the river."
"Won't make any difference to us," said Gil. "If they're up against three hundred Texans, the Mex army's got a hell of a fight on its hands. When it's over, they won't be marching south for a while. They'll have to see to their wounded. Gettin' past this bunch at Mier won't be a problem. We don't know that Santa Anna ain't sending more soldiers, and if he is, we may be ridin' headlong into 'em."
But the distant firing continued, and although it was already dark, they rode wide of the river until they were well past Mier. Finally the rattle of the battle faded to silence. Reaching a point where the Rio Grande narrowed, they trotted their horses across the shallow stream.
"The easy part's over," said Gil.
"Yeah. It's hard to believe a piddling little branch like this can mean the difference between livin' and dyin'."
There was a pale quarter moon, and they rode slowly, depending on their horses to avoid obstacles their riders couldn't see. In that final hour before first light, when darkness seemed to swallow the tiniest star, they paused to rest the horses.
"We'd better skip breakfast," said Gil, "and at first light find us a place to hole up for the day."
But they were destined to ride no farther. In the first gray light of dawn, Van's horse nickered, and was answered. The Texans froze, their hands on the butts of their Colts. Within seconds they were facing a line of mounted Mexican soldiers.
"They ain't armed all that well," said Van through clenched teeth.
"Maybe not," said Gil, "but there's a hell of a bunch of them. This ain't the time. Stand fast."
A soldier whose gold-braided coat proclaimed him an officer, trotted his horse within a few feet of them, careful not to come between his armed command and the two Texans. The Mexican was hog-fat, with a thin moustache, a sadistic grin on his moon face, and a malevolent gleam in his pig eyes. He spoke.
"Captain Hernandez Ortega at your service. Now move away from the horses, hombres. Slowly."
Gil and Van dropped the reins, backing away from their saddled mounts.
"With thumb and finger," said Ortega, "remove your weapons and drop them at your feet."
When they had dropped their Colts, the Mexican said, "Now, perhaps you wish to explain why you are here. Did you not see the river?" The Texans said nothing. The cat was playing with the mice.
"Ah," said the fat man, with a smirk of anticipation. "The quiet ones, without excuses. Perhaps I should just shoot you."
"We're on our way to the Mendoza ranch, near Durango," said Gil. "We have business with Senor Mendoza."
"Senor Mendoza is dead," snapped the officer.
"Then we will conduct our business with the Senora Mendoza," said Gil.
"Ah," said the Mexican with a vulgar laugh, "I am sure the senora could accommodate the two of you. But alas! We shall never know, shall we?"
He gave an order in Spanish, and two of his company dismounted.
"Hands behind your backs, Tejanos," said Ortega.
The soldiers worked swiftly with rawhide thongs, and within seconds Gil and Van had their hands bound behind their backs. Then came the ultimate indignity, as each Texan had a rope looped about his neck, with the other end dallied around a Mexican saddle horn.
"Now," said their captor, with a chuckle, "you shall join your foolish comrades."
"You could at least let us ride," said Van through gritted teeth.
"I am so sorry," Ortega said piously, rolling his eyes, "but I cannot. Were you mounted, you might attempt to escape. It would truly break my heart, were I forced to shoot you."
They set out, Gil and Van afoot, and their destination soon became evident. The ominous sound of distant gunfire became louder as they drew closer. The desperate Texans, foolish as their attack might have been, were taking a terrible toll. As they neared the scene of battle, they came upon the bodies of scores of mules and horses. But there were human bodies too. Literally hundreds of them. A few still lived, begging for water or for aid, but most of them were beyond all human need. Ortega halted the column, dismounted, and stood looking at the carnage in horror. Some of his soldiers turned away, their faces pale.
"Damn fools," said Van, under his breath, "but by God, Texans every one."
The fat officer heard, and turned on Van. Gil gritted his teeth. Never had he seen such hatred on a human face. Ortega swung his heavy quirt, and the butt end of it struck Van just above the eyes. He slumped to the ground like an empty sack. Furious, the soldier turned on Gil, the quirt raised for another blow.
"Go ahead," said Gil quietly, "while you can. Before we leave Mexico, you're going to die."
The blow never fell. A chill crept up Ortega's spine, and he turned away. There had been no fear in Gil Austin's cold blue eyes. Only death.
Fisher's valiant Texans held out for twenty-four hours, until, hungry, thirsty, and almost out of ammunition, they were forced to surrender. The captives were marched into a field, like cattle. The wounded went untended, and the dead lay where they had fallen. Gil and Van had their hands freed, and were thrown in with the other prisoners. Suddenly, a bloody Texan sat up and opened his eyes. It was like the dead had come to life, and Gil was startled.
"I reckon," said the wounded man, "them Rangers knowed what they was talkin' about. We must've locked horns with the whole damn Mex army."
"What do you reckon they'll do with us?" Gil asked.
"Who knows? Beat us, starve us, march us to Mexico City, maybe. God, I wish I'd never heard of Mier. It ain't a name Texas will want to remember."
Mexican General Pedro Ampudia was in charge of the forces at Mier. The captive Texans were marched on to Matamoros, where they were held until ordered to Mexico City. But the Texans had no intention of going to the capital city. Word was quietly passed from man to man. Somehow, somewhere, there would be a chance to escape.
"The rest of 'em will be going home to Texas," said Van. "My God, how I wish we could go with 'em."
"That's exactly what the Mex army will expect," said Gil. "They'll look for us all to run north. The very last thing they'll expect is for any of us to go deeper into Mexico. What better way to escape than to go on to the Mendoza spread, like we planned? Besides, Clay's countin' on us."
"Before we rescue Clay," said Van, "there's one thing I aim to do for myself. That fat bastard that cracked my head with a quirt's still here. I promise you, he'll never get to Mexico City alive."
"He took our Colts for himself," said Gil. "Notice he's got one on each hip, like a Texas gun thrower?"
"Yeah," said Van, "and that makes it even better. "Be easy to snatch 'em off his dead carcass, when I'm done with him."
February 11, 1843. Salada Hacienda, south of Matamoros Tamaulipas, Mexico.
The rain came down in gray torrents, and the roiling mass of thunderheads seemed to hang at treetop level. The march had been halted for the day. The Mexican officers huddled in tents, a few of the soldiers had their slickers, but the captive Texans were exposed to the fury of the storm. But it was exactly what they had been waiting for. It was time for the break! Word was passed along. The hands and feet of the captive Texans were bound at night, but once it got wet, nothing stretched like rawhide!
"We'll let the others go first," said Gil. "Even with the storm, this won't happen without somebody soundin' the alarm. When they do, these guards will be scattered from here to yonder. They'll be shootin' at one another in the dark. I don't aim to leave this camp without a weapon of some kind, even if it's only a Bowie knife."
"Then when it all busts loose," said Van, "let's work our way to fatso's tent. He's got our Colts, and I purely don't believe he'll crawl out in this storm to look for us, unless Santa Anna shows up to give the order. Once these greaser guards get scattered about in the dark, I'm goin' in that tent."
But the soldier guards were hunched down in their inadequate slickers, or standing on the lee side of huge tree trunks, seeking to avoid the wind-driven rain. The Mexican soldiers were alerted to the impending break only when a frightened horse nickered. There was a clatter of hoofs, a shout, and scattered riflefire. Gil and Van crept through the rainy darkness toward a certain tent. As Van had predicted, their fat tormentor had not braved the storm. Instead he had drawn aside the tent flap, had stuck his head out, and was shouting orders into the darkness.
"Do not let them escape, you peladoes! Kill them, you sons of donkeys!"
Van stepped out of the darkness and silenced his bellowing by crushing his skull with a huge rock. Then they dragged Ortega out of the tent and recovered their Colt revolvers. They took a Bowie knife from the officer's belt, and a derringer from his coat pocket. Gil grabbed the dead man's pack and saddlebags from the tent, and the Texans vanished in the stormy night. Gil and Van walked for hours, unsure as to their direction. The rain continued, becoming more intense.
Excerpted from The Bandera Trail by Ralph Compton. Copyright © 1993 Ralph Compton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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