Excerpt of "Trail of Hope"



 Central Texas, Along the Colorado River, March, 1836 

            My lungs heaved, begging for air. My heart pounded as I raced along the river's edge, ignoring the mesquite thorns ripping snags in my homespun shirt. I fought panic trying to focus on reaching the cabin in time.

  I first saw them as I worked my traps along the shallows where the wagon trail veered close to the river. Crouching in the water behind a growth of cattails, I heard bits of their Spanish conversation and occasional laughter filtering toward me from no more than fifty yards away. Their muskets repeatedly thumped against their canteens as they marched along the trail toward the cabin. Sunlight glinted off their weapons through the cottonwoods and tangled undergrowth. A dry, high-pitched squeal emanated from the wheel hubs of their heavily loaded ox carts. Their three leaders in blue  high-collared jackets with gold trim rode in front of the marching soldiers, saddle leather squeaking beneath them. Tobacco smoke from the pipe of the bearded one permeated the air. I knew who they were and why they were here. Oh God, my nightmares were coming true.

  I’d been waking in a fit every night since the man from the Smith settlement came galloping up the road to the cabin three days ago on a heaving, frothy stallion. He was spreading the word about the fall of the Alamo in San Antonio and Santa Anna’s sweep through the Texas countryside burning out all the white settlers. The man’s final warning to Papa was still etched in my memory: “Mister, you take your family and get on outta here right now! Everybody’s headin’ east to get beyond the Sabine River, out of Meskin territory.
They done killed almost two hundred good men at Fort Alamo. They ain’t stoppin’ till they run everybody that ain’t Meskin outta Texas. They’re burnin’ ever cabin they find and ain’t takin’ no prisoners.”
I’ll never forget the fearful look on the lanky man’s face as he turned to me before he spurred his bay to warn more settlers to the north.
“Boy, you help your pappy get the family outta here.”

  I remembered the vacant, far away look on Papa's face as the man rode away from the cabin. He stood in the yard, his arms at his sides, staring at the ground for the longest time. Then, head still bowed, he walked back into the cabin to take care of Mama. Papa had lost interest in everything but taking care of Mama. It seemed that he had lost touch with reality since Mama had gotten so sick. He didn't talk much to me or Rosie any more. He spent most of his time in the cabin, ignoring the planting that needed to be done, just looking after Mama. For the last couple of weeks he hadn't left her side. 

Mama had pushed to take care of the things that needed to be done for all of us as long as she could. But she collapsed on the floor of the cabin two weeks ago and had been in bed ever since. I rode the mule to the Smith settlement to bring back the doctor, but was told he was in Galveston. Nobody knew when he would be back. 

Rosie tried to talk to Papa sometimes but her questions usually went unanswered. She spent most of her time with me outside the cabin for the company, sometimes just following me around like a puppy. But on this day I was glad I'd told her to stay home when I went out to check the traps along the river. 

I was confident the Mexican soldiers hadn't seen me. I was separated from the soldiers moving up the road by the boulders alongside the river and the thicket between me and the road. I grasped my side in pain as I ran, pushing harder, trying to put more distance between me and them.
Tears stung my eyes and rolled down my cheeks as I ran, remembering how I tried to get Papa to agree to load Mama and Rosie in the wagon and go east with the rest of the settlers. That was the first time I ever yelled at him and the first time I had seen him cry. I even tried to lift Mama from the bed and carry her to the wagon myself, but Papa overpowered me and pushed me away.
“Son,” Papa said through his tears, “she won't last overnight in that wagon traveling cross country. She talked a little this morning. She might get well, Andy..., she might....” 

Before Mama got sick, she was stronger than Papa in many ways and he depended heavily on her during their marriage. He told me once that he considered himself a lucky man to have attracted the beautiful, intelligent school teacher when they were younger. She had been courted by several men with better potential, but she had chosen him.
Now Mama looked nothing like she did before. She’d lost so much weight that I hardly recognized her. Her thin, putty-colored skin was draped over the angles of her face and her eyes were sunken. She hadn't been able to talk to anyone for over a week. Sometime she made noises in her pain, but most of the time she just slept. Papa wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to make a plan for what we would do if the Mexicans came. He just brushed me away.
“The Lord will deliver us. The Lord will provide,” he said. Papa was never a religious man, but now I guess it was his way to cope with Mama’s illness and his inability to reason.

I startled Rosie from her play when I broke through the brush and into the cabin clearing. She was squatting, barefoot, in her threadbare cotton dress next to the rain barrel at the corner of the cabin, rolling out mud pies. I couldn’t hide the look of fear on my face. It frightened her.
She forgot her mud pies and stood when she saw me. “What's wrong, Bub? Why you running?"
I bent over, resting my hands on my knees trying to catch my breath. I scooped a handful of water from the barrel and wet my mouth so I could speak. “Rosie!” I gasped between breaths, “We gotta leave! We gotta get Mama and Papa outta here!”
“But Papa already said he’s not leaving.” She followed me as I headed toward the cabin door. “Are the Mexicans coming?”
“They're coming up the trail right now. There’s not much time. Come on!” I burst through the door into the dimly lit cabin, shattering the silence of the room. “Papa, we gotta go.” I was almost yelling. “The Mexicans are just down the hill! Must be thirty of 'em! We don't have more than a few minutes! You grab her up by her shoulders and I'll get her feet! We'll hide out in that cave back up on the hill behind the house.” I threw the covers off Mama’s legs, grabbed her feet and started dragging her off the bed.
Papa glared at me, his sad eyes red-rimmed and blood-shot. “Leave her be, boy.”
“But Papa, we gotta go! We don't have time to talk about it!”
“I said leave her be!” He returned his gaze to Mama’s face.
His face softened, his voice barely above a whisper, “I talked to your Mama again this morning. She said we'd be fine right here." He swabbed her neck with a damp cloth and looked at me in a blank stare. "You take your sister and go up on the hill. Come back after they pass us by. Me and Mama ain't goin' no place.”
“Papa, please!” I pleaded, snatching the cloth from his hand.
He ignored me, smoothing Mama's hair. "Every thing's gonna be all right," he whispered and kissed her on the cheek. "You'll be feeling better soon.”
I stood beside the bed, helplessly looking from Mama to Papa, trying to make a decision. Rosie held Mama's hand and cried softly.
“Rosie,” I was desperately trying to choke back tears, “give Mama and Papa a hug and tell them 'bye.” I reached for Papa’s rifle, checked the load and leaned it against the foot of Mama’s bed, then kissed her on the cheek and hugged Papa. “Papa, here's your rifle.”  I grabbed Rosie's hand, took another look at Mama over my shoulder, and then pulled Rosie reluctantly out the door.
Rosie was too confused and scared to fully understand. She only knew she was leaving her Mama and papa. “Wait... My baby.”
She pulled away from me to pick up the rag doll she'd earlier dropped in the dirt.
“Okay. Come on, let's go. Hurry!” I again took her hand and led her running toward the cedar breaks behind the cabin. Both of us wiped tears from our eyes.
We dodged the low hanging cedars and live oaks and avoided the jagged rocks and prickly pear as we started climbing the rise behind the cabin.
            I knew the rugged hill country well. I had explored the river and hills for miles around the cabin. There was a vertical cave covered with low brush near the top of the ridge, about a quarter-mile away. It would be a good hiding place.
I continued to pull Rosie up the hill, pushing our way through the small cedar brush. Twice her long skirt caught in tangles in the mesquite thorns. Once as I yanked her skirt loose it tore, causing her to cry harder.
I stopped and knelt, pulling her close, wrapping her in my arms, trying to calm her. I looked in her frightened, blue eyes. “Rosie, you've got to be quiet. If they hear you crying, they'll find us.” I wiped her tears with my finger as she tried to choke back her sobs.
Soon we were again running up the hillside.
“Here it is,” I said, pushing aside a clump of brush on the rock-strewn ground. I parted more of the cedar bush, exposing the lip of the cave.
“I'm not going down there!” She looked down the dark hole in fright, struggling to pull away from my grip. “It's dark and scary. Bub, there may be snakes in there.” She started crying again.
“Look, I've been here before. It's all right. Here, I'll go in first to show you it’s safe.”
“Oh, Bub! Don't let the snakes bite you!” She grasped her rag doll to her chest with both hands and watched me lower myself into the hole.
“Shhh! Be quiet!” I scolded. My feet touched the bottom of the pit and I stood still as my eyes adjusted to the near darkness.
“Come on down,” I called quietly. “There's nothing down here but me. Just grab hold of those roots and climb down.”
“No. I'm scared.” She stood at the edge of the hole, looking down into the darkness holding her doll tightly.
“Rosie, listen to me.” I hesitated briefly before continuing. “I don't want to scare you any more than you already are but... but if the Mexicans find us, they’ll kill us. Do––you––understand?”
She didn’t answer for a few moments. Then in a quiet voice she answered, “Yes.”
“Look, I'll climb back up part way. Just grab the base of that bush up there and lower your feet to me. Please, Rosie, we've got to get out of sight.”
            “Here, catch my baby.” She leaned over the hole and dropped her doll into the darkness. “Will you catch me if I fall?”
“Yes, I'll catch you. Now come on.”
I cushioned her body as we fell the last couple of feet to the floor of the small chamber.
“There better not be any sna—”
I clamped my hand over her mouth and cocked my head to listen to the faint rattle of gunfire from the valley below. It lasted only a few seconds, but there must have been at least twenty shots fired. 

We huddled together at the bottom of the pit, watching the light fade from the small opening at the top as clouds moved in. For the longest time neither of us said anything. Rosie broke the silence.
She looked at me and in a quiet voice asked, “Bubba, what do you think happened to Mama and Papa?”
I knew what had happened, but I didn't know how to share it with Rosie. I struggled to get the words out as tears welled in my eyes.
“I, uh..., I don't know, Rosie. I just don’t know.”
Oh God ..., How can I do this? How can I tell my seven-year-old baby sister that Mama and Papa have just been murdered and we’re totally on our own in the wilderness? All the other families left days ago and we’re hundreds of miles from safety––in the middle of a war.

Trail of Hope 
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Andy's Escape - Artist Debbie Lincoln

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