The Yellow Rose of Texas, A Novel
Sunlight slanting in from the west, brilliant in the fresh-washed sky, glared through the silk of the white marquee and pressed against her eyes. Rubbing them, Rose sat up. In the distance she could hear music.
She recognized the song as one of those the men at the bar might sing on a particularly rowdy night. "Will you come to the bower I have shaded for you." Frontier romance. But who could be playing such music now? And was that a shot she heard? Or was she still dreaming those vivid dreams?
The shots were unmistakable now and memory rushed in. Nearby she heard a shout, sharp with alarm. A bugle shrilled and there was an answering shout. It sounded like Pedro Delgado and Manuel Castillon. She heard a clatter of voices and she could hear the sound of running feet.
And then, from further off, she heard a roar rapidly growing louder. Deep voices thundered in unison. Even at the distance, she could make it out. "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!"
An immense volley of fire seemed to shake the ground.
Outside the tent there were screams.
Even above the boom of muskets, the roar of men and the shouts and shrieks of the hunted, she could hear Houston's bellow. "Hold your fire! God dammit, hold your fire!" But the firing went on. Coming closer. Someone else was shouting, "Give 'em hell! Give 'em hell! Cut 'em down! Don't stop!"
Beside her Santa Anna sat bolt upright, staring wild-eyed. Without a glance at her he was out the door, still in his underclothes. There was more shouting just outside the tent. A panicked argument of many voices. She could hear Santa Anna's voice above the others. Other voices shouted other orders. More yells. And above everything, the screams and the roar.
"Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!"
Weighted by the heavy dress she still wore, Rose crawled to the doorway. Santa Anna was running, racing for the corral with death at his heels. He leaped on the huge white horse she remembered from Morgan's ranch. With neither saddle, bridle nor spurs, he wrapped himself to the animal like a centaur, dug in his heels, and was away from the fray in an instant. Around her men were racing to grab their guns, stepping over the bodies of the fallen. Through the trees nearby she saw General Castillon struggling with the cannon as men jerked and collapsed around him, blood spurting from the holes that suddenly opened in their bodies, in their heads. But he stayed at his post with the cannoneers, loading, aiming.
Fire exploded from the cannon's mouth. A fast reload and it exploded again and was answered by twin explosions from across the field. The screams intensified as shards of glass, nails, metal struck all around. Once more the Mexican cannon roared and then shattered as the Texian cannon found its mark. The cannoneers fled. Castillon turned to face the foe.
The Texians were upon them now, a torrent of terror hell-bent on destruction, striking the camp from one end to the other. They were shooting point-blank, muzzles jammed into bellies and chests. Long knives ripped through cotton shirts and heavy uniforms alike and the raised and emptied muskets became clubs, splattering brains and blood on the trees and on the ground.
Just past the breastworks now destroyed by the oncoming army, she saw Houston go down, his big white horse shot out from under him and a bullet through his boot. A cavalryman was at his side in an instant, leaping off his horse to help him up. Then he was astride again, sword still in hand, blood trailing from his boot as he raced the lines shouting encouragement. And all around her the unarmed Mexicans along with the women and children fled back into the swamp.
The Texians followed, firing, hacking, clubbing.
She saw Tom Rusk approaching Castillon where he still stood beside the demolished cannon, loading his rifle. Rusk's hand was out as he shouted, "Wait." But a red-haired soldier who was closer rushed in with a knife roaring "Remember Goliad!" And Castillon went down, his uniform and his body split, his entrails showing greyly through the blood.
She felt nauseated. How was it that she had never imagined the actual scene of war? How could she have forgotten it was meant to end in death? Surely, she too must die for her part in this slaughter! The screams felt a part of her soul though she could never have said, afterwards, whether she ever opened her mouth.
A booted toe lifted her almost off the ground and she fell, gasping on her back. The butt end of a gun was over her, poised to smash, but before she could cover her face with her hands another hand seized the weapon and a voice spoke roughly.
"He don't like you killing no women and children. You heard him."
"She ain't no woman. She's his whore. Traitor bitch."
The other man, more weathered and turning grey, laughed. "Looks like a woman to me." He bent closer, peering through the filth on her face. "Hey, ain't you that girl from Morgan's Hotel? How'd you get out here? They capture you or something?"
The first man kicked her again. "Traitor bitch! Look at that dress! She ain't here like no captive, nossir. She come to him because she liked it. Liked what he done for her." Another kick. "You like that, bitch?" And another kick. And another. He raised the rifle butt again.
"I wouldn't do that, Clem. Old man knows this girl. I seen them together once at the hotel. Talked a long time. Wouldn't want to have to tell him you was the one took her out, if he asks." He slapped the first man on the back. "Go get yourself some Mexicans, son. Got plenty of them still alive."
With a scowl, the first man walked away. The other leaned down. "Best get yourself out of sight, girl. Ain't nothing to nobody much to murder you right where you lay." He looked up at the tent. "Can't say I'd blame them, neither, you dressed like Jezebel right here in his tent."
Groaning, unable to move through the pain, she stared up at him. He shrugged and unsheathed his knife. She covered her face. Oh God!
The billow of silk folded over her as he slashed the ropes that held up the marquee, already full of bullet holes. Dazed, she remained where she was, hidden, still and silent. An occasional boot came down on her. She made neither movement nor sound. Around her the noise of slaughter went on and on.
She had never imagined such noise. Groans deeper than a grave. The screams without language. The growl in the throat of the attacker. The whimper, loudest of all. The unexpected calls for "mama," oddly the same in either language. A difference in emphasis, that was all.
How much time had passed? Fifteen minutes? Thirty? Why had she never imagined this ending? What had she thought? That battles were clean? Bloodless? That Sam Houston would swoop in and carry her away before the carnage?
"Gentlemen!" she could hear him shouting nearby. "Cease fire! Cease fire! The battle is won! The battle is won!"
But the fire and the screams and the roar went on. Even in Spanish came the shouts. "Recuerden el Alamo! Recuerden Goliad!" And the plea cut off in the throat. "Mi no Goliad! Mi no Alamo!"
"Parade!" shouted Houston. "Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Cease fire! Parade! Parade!"
A scuffle, a grunt and a cry just above her. A body fell heavily on top, blood seeping through the silk to cover her face and hands. She didn't move.
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen! I applaud your bravery but damn your manners!"
The silence came down at last, broken only by the sounds of dying men and the more distant sound of rough English voices. Moving with the caution of an injured cat, she dragged her body from under the dead one above it and pulled back a corner of the covering silk. There were bodies everywhere, lying twisted in pools of blood, open eyes staring at nothing, faces frozen in hate or terror or pain. The aide who had brought her the wine lay nearby doubled on his side like a man asleep but his eyes were blindly open and blood still trickled from his mouth and a knife wound in his chest. She wondered if he had blamed her before he died. If he had guessed about the wine. The blood looked like wine congealing.
A child lay further off. She thought she recognized the cook's son and wondered what happened to his mother. A musket blast had taken off most of his head.
From her place on the ground she stared about, catching no movement beyond the twitchings of the nearly dead. The Texians were not within her line of vision. Then carefully, she edged her way back towards the marsh behind her away from the vengeance that had rushed across the plain. Head down, she inched along on her stomach, slipping here and there through pools of blood. It might have taken an hour but only when the underbrush had closed around her did she dare to look around.
Still on his horse-though it was not the one she had seen him mount when Saracen went down-Houston was surrounded by a rough and bloody clump of men a few hundred feet away. Approaching them, encircled by Texians leading horses, was a large group of prisoners, their tall plumed hats still in place. Their uniforms matched the cavalry she had first seen on the beach at Morgan's Point. Marching alongside Tom Rusk who led them, she recognized Juan Almonte and marveled at the rush of relief she felt that he was not dead.
Others were coming out of the swamps now, men with muskets herding groups of disarmed Mexicans, a few women and children among them. She saw Juan Delgado there, soaking wet, his uniform in tatters, his feet bare and bloody. But there was no sign of Santa Anna.
They all approached Houston, a crowd swelling past a thousand. She could see him giving orders though she could not hear the words. Then, followed by a few of Santa Anna's wagons, the General led the men back through the waving grass. It crossed her mind to go to him but fear and better sense held her back. What could she claim there in his hour of triumph that would not diminish it for him? No, he would not want to see her now. Against the reddening sky she watched the tall horse and rider disappear into the valley that crossed the plain. Moments later no one could be seen. And then in the shadows of the underbrush she wept.
Nearer noises brought her back to herself in the waning light. Not everyone had left with General Houston. The noises came from among the bodies where a few soldiers scavenged, using their knives to rip open pockets and sacks. Dead fingers were examined for rings. She saw one body's unblemished pants removed though there were no jackets or shirts that were not stained with blood. She stared in horror as one man bent over Castillon, using his knife to pry a gold tooth from his mouth.
At Santa Anna's tent a small group paused to argue. Three stalked away. The others, furtive, bent to their task, stuffed what they could in their pockets and followed them.
There was no more light to see. She put her head down in her arms and closed her eyes. In the distance, a few birds sang. The furtive scuffling died away.
A touch on her face and the sound of her name awakened her.
"Shhh, there. Shhh, now. You're all right." It was Deaf Smith's voice. "I've brought you some food."
She sat up, feeling her way in the darkness. The man must have eyes like a cat. She could see nothing at all. But strong hands touched hers, leaving behind a bone with meat on it. She gnawed at it, feeling like an animal, starving. She drank half the jug of water he handed her and by the time she finished she could make out the shape hunkered down by the bush. He passed her another fleshy bone as she flung away the first one.
"Feel better." It was not a question and she did not answer, knowing he could not hear and doubting even his eyes could see her lips move in the darkness.
There was a toneless chuckle. "I am glad to find you. I was afraid-" A long silence. "I cannot take you back with me but I will send someone for you tomorrow. The General said maybe Captain Isaac Moreland, a good man. He will take you safely off the battlefield."
"And then? And then what?"
The voice droned on. "Much has been destroyed but aught yet remains. A place will be found for you. You have greatly aided the cause and though the General cannot thank you in person, he is most grateful." There was another long pause. "You must believe that, Miss."
A blanket was laid over her feet. "Stay here so we can find you tomorrow. Do not show yourself, our men are likely to shoot first and ask questions later. Hidden, you will be safe."
He sat with her for a while, patting her hand from time to time as one might pat a dog. The comfort of his presence overwhelmed her, brief though she understood the meeting would be. They did not speak but when he rose without a word and started away, she could not stop herself from calling after him.
"Did General Houston really send you?"
He melted without a sound into the dark.
Leaning heavily on the stout hickory stick he had used as a crutch more than once, Houston made his way very slowly to the foot of a giant oak in the center of camp. It was well past noon. All morning he had been receiving officers and men alike in his tent, grateful not to move. The ball had passed through his leg, breaking two bones which had been clumsily set by the field surgeon. But he had one of his boots back on, at least. Hurt like hell to move the other leg but it was more than worth it. The euphoria around him held him up, lifting the spirit he had feared was permanently cast down.
They had won the day! Had won the battle with only two casualties and twenty-four wounded though the surgeon said that six of those would die. The carnage was awful on the Mexican side. According to the morning reports some six hundred and thirty soldiers were dead. It could have been worse. If he had not shouted himself hoarse trying to stop the slaughter, if Juan Almonte had not rounded up his cavalry and others for surrender, if a few of his officers had not halted the target practice on the Mexicans swarming out of the marshlands to leap into the water, swimming for their lives-God knows there would have been a thousand dead. As it was the hastily jammed together stockade held some seven hundred prisoners.
The victory on the battlefield had exceeded his wildest dreams though Texas civilization had been virtually destroyed in the process of waiting for it. No doubt he would be blamed for that, too. It did not matter. When he concluded the coming business with Santa Anna he would wash his hands of Texas and go visit New Orleans for a while. Might have to get another doctor to look at his ankle which still hurt like all bloody hell. And if it healed, well New Orleans was a fine enough place for rest and recreation. At least-he permitted himself a smile-until they called him back to govern the rowdy state. Or nation, as the case might be. He was not sure the United States would take them, even now, with independence surely won.
The victory he had lived for through the past six months of abuse-months of running and waiting, running and waiting, drilling his men without pause while ignoring all suggestions to engage the enemy-had almost escaped him. Santa Anna was not found among the prisoners or the dead and reports from Henry Karnes, his scout, as well as from Almonte had him fleeing the scene on a big white horse, seconds before the wave of Texians washed over his camp and annihilated most of his men. Cowardly, it would seem, but perhaps the head of a country might justify the need to save, first of all, his own skin.
That skin was worth a great deal. Another smile escaped the lips drawn tight against the pain. He was grateful to God, yes indeed. Grateful, finally, to the God he had not trusted since the church in Tennessee refused him sanction-refused him baptism-after his divorce from that girl who never wanted him. He had always suspected God was much more broad-minded than the church. And surely God had guided Henry Karnes and Deaf Smith through the swamps where they had finally flushed the Generalissimo out, sloshing along, barefoot and masquerading in the rough clothes of a slave. They found out later he had tried to take Vince's Bridge, hacked apart by Deaf that very morning. Trapped and turning back, the Generalissimo's horse had finally dropped him in the mud. They had not even recognized him at first-surprising, perhaps, but even faces change with fright and circumstances. If the prisoners had not called out as the scouts brought him back to the stockade, "El Presidente, El Presidente," he might even now be skulking among them, laying plans for his next battle when he re-joined the thousands of Mexican soldiers still in Texas.
Yes, God was good. Houston wondered about that shout of recognition from the Mexican soldiers. One might imagine it an error in judgement. Stupidity, even, to give away their leader. But there must have been at least a few who had seen him leave unscathed and were infuriated, given that his negligence had cost so many lives. El Presidente had not even posted sentries! The girl had done a fine job on him, after all. He did not imagine Santa Anna was often so careless.
When the guards laid hands on him, ripping away the old cotton clothes he wore, his status became more clear. There were diamond studs on the fine linen shirt he wore underneath and his underpants were silk.
Reaching the giant oak, Houston allowed the men to help him get down to the blanket they'd placed for him. Leaning back against the tree he took a deep breath, restraining himself from shaking his head to clear away the pain that seemed to film his eyes and ears. More than six hundred people were dead, he reminded himself. All he had was a busted leg. He looked up.
Santa Anna stood before him with Almonte at his side to translate, closely surrounded by a half-ring of Texas soldiers, guns at ready. A few hundred more were packed noisily behind them, rough voices raised in suggestion of how to treat their illustrious prisoner.
"Hang him!" came several shouts. "Got plenty of trees and rope!" Houston said nothing, watching the face in front of him grow paler under its layers of dirt. "Hell, don't hang him," came another voice. "Cut him up in little pieces and feed him to the dogs!" "While he's still alive and watching!" someone else shouted. "Do it like the Comanches! Fingers first!" Then the hanging chorus started up again.
By God, the man was trembling though his head was as high as it would go! Houston stared at him, silent. But when Santa Anna began to speak in Spanish the General held up his hand to quiet the crowd. Almonte translated the full-blown words.
"That man may consider himself born to no common destiny who has captured the Napoleon of the West. It now remains for him to be generous to the vanquished."
"You should have thought of that at the Alamo," said Houston, evoking more shouts for a hanging.
"My government demanded that the enemy be destroyed. I, myself, am a gentleman born. I am distressed by such orders but as a soldier, I must obey." said Santa Anna.
Houston leaned forward, jabbing a finger at his foe. "As dictator of Mexico you are the government. And you were personally responsible for ordering the massacre of the men who surrendered to General Urrea at Goliad. I have it on authority that he pleaded for their lives and you denied him."
"Hang him! Hang him right now! Hang him" The shouts grew louder. Santa Anna's face grew paler. The hands he lifted in supplication trembled. Houston could swear the man spoke English. But it was not a point worth making at the moment.
Houston kept him there for more than an hour, almost enjoying watching the waves of fear that washed across his face as the shouts for his death grew more and more insistent. Indeed, the men around him would have cheerfully swung him from the very tree above him but the General knew he was worth far more alive than dead. He could only hope that none of his stubbornly independent soldiers would decide to take matters into their own hands.
"I will spare your life," he said at last, "in exchange for the everlasting freedom of Texas. You are, after all, the government. You will be held prisoner here while we secure your written promise on several issues and convey them to your generals." He took a piece of paper from his pocket and read:
"You will swear never to take up arms again against Texas.
"All hostilities between your nation and ours will cease immediately. Your armies will immediately withdraw below the Rio Grande.
"All Texas prisoners of war will be released immediately."
He handed the paper to Almonte and continued. "Furthermore, should we ever allow you to return to Mexico you will be pledged to work with others in your government for diplomatic recognition of Texas as an independent nation, bordered by the Rio Grande. You will develop a treaty of commerce with us and in all ways respect us as your equals."
"Equal, hell!" came a shout. "Dammed superior, if you ask me!"
"I say hang him! Cowards never keep their word nohow!"
Almonte was translating.
"I will do all that," said Santa Anna. "And more."
"You will write a letter immediately to General Filisola informing him of the terms of your surrender and ordering him to immediately command the removal of all Mexican troops in Texas. Your life will be forfeit if he does not obey."
"I will do that," said Santa Anna.
The soldiers, wanting blood, would not be quieted. "Take him away," said Houston. "Keep him away from the other prisoners and post sufficient guard to protect him. And provide him with paper and a pen. In my tent, if necessary." He leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes. His leg throbbed like hell. But the job was done. At least, he would consider it so when the courier was on his way to Gonzales. Ah yes, one more thing must be done.
"Send Almonte with the courier and a guard to General Filosola," he told Wharton who stood nearby. "That officer's word will be good in any case. We want no misunderstanding of our action, today."
"Yes sir," said Wharton. "It's a good day, Sir. Excepting your leg, of course."
Houston did not bother to answer. A little longer he could linger underneath the tree and then he must go back to the tent for the final bit of business with Santa Anna. The girl must not be mentioned. He didn't imagine the Mexican Commander would be hard to persuade but he must put the best face on it for himself. No point in letting rumors start. Were the Texians to learn that his great victory came from the clever work of a female spy, God only knew how much his reputation, already battered to a bloody pulp, might suffer. She, not he, would be hero.
No, he could not let that happen. He had lost his political future in Tennessee because of a woman. He'd be damned if he let it happen again. He needed this victory, this glory, all to himself this time.
He let nearly an hour go by before he motioned to Deaf, who was standing nearby, to help him rise. It took two to help him back, to his shame, but he couldn't touch foot to the ground and was too much gone in trembling pain to hop it. Santa Anna was still in the tent, sitting rigidly before the pen and paper on the table. The letter, finely crafted, was finished. A guard stood on either side of him; four more were just outside the door.
Houston dropped heavily onto his pallet. "You can all go except Mr. Smith," he said. "Mr. Smith can translate for me."
The guards left but slowly, stopping a few paces outside. Houston smiled. They were not going to find out much either way.
"I have one more condition for you," he mouthed quietly to Santa Anna whose eyes widened. "You will not mention the woman in your tent. You will not accuse her. You will not name her. Because if I hear of her among my men for so long as you are my prisoner you may consider your life immediately forfeit."
And Smith translated.
Hidden deeply in a thick patch of brush, a bare hundred feet away, Rose had dozed through the morning and watched through the long afternoon, feeling almost as if her own life depended on the proceedings. She had not expected Santa Anna would be captured. The speed of his reactions, dead-asleep as he had been when the opening volley was fired, rendered him almost untouchable in her eyes. Seeing his bareback escape on the horse, she could have imagined him leaping rivers on his free way back to Mexico. But for all his craft with horses he could not make them fly and the General had outsmarted the Generalissimo once and for all by having Deaf Smith knock out Vince's Bridge. When Rose saw the scouts returning with him she vacillated for an instant between sorrow and joy.
And yet, the capture felt like a gift of God. She wondered why she should find it so, sitting alone in a bloody and bedraggled gown, all her earthly possessions gone, all her dreams of glory-even the humble glory of running the hotel, let alone consorting with a president-all gone.
What destiny awaited Houston now? Would she be part of it? She doubted it. If her treatment thus far were any shade of what was yet to come, there would be no glory in it for her. Houston, it seemed, had put her from his mind though Deaf Smith was kind. He had come back for her long before dawn, waking her, urging her up. She could not remain there, he explained. The area would be too well explored the next day. He had pulled her forward, half-carrying her for the long mile across the plain to Houston's camp. He had made a hiding place for her there at the edge of camp. He would bring her food, he told her, but she must not show herself.
But he turned his deaf ears to her questions. When would she see the General? Was he pleased? What were his plans for her? None. None that Deaf Smith knew of. Beyond Captain Moreland. The Captain would see her off the battlefield and "situated." Meanwhile, Smith showed her the nest he made in the brush, padded with a blanket. He left her with a jug of water, a couple of rags, a loaf of hardtack bread, an orange and cheese, He was not sure when he could be back, he breathed in her ear. But she was to keep silent and still.
She had used the morning to wipe most of the blood from her skin. She understood that her life was now in danger from the Texians. And she understood that Houston would not claim her.
Yet she watched, fascinated by the exchange between the two men, by Santa Anna's ability to rise, however unsteadily, to any occasion, and by Houston's transformation from the mouse to the cat. But Houston was not going to kill his quarry. She knew that long before the men around him seemed to grasp it, let alone Santa Anna. She hoped the Generalissimo was grateful, being granted a reprisal he would never, himself, have bestowed. She would like to believe the man understood gratitude though he had no inkling of compassion. If Houston were surrendering instead, no question he would be dead.
So there the choice had hinged. If she were doomed by Texas from the start-given that all the destruction would have happened, with or without her-it felt better to lose it all in service to a good man than to a bad one. Her definitions of good and bad had simplified greatly. Good had a heart.
She watched as Houston painfully dragged himself back to the tent where he had sent Santa Anna, Deaf Smith right behind him. The General looked almost broken, hanging from the necks of the stalwarts on either side of him. But she noted how he paused at the door, straightening himself, assuming authority. She saw the guards come out after he went in, leaving him alone with Deaf Smith and Santa Anna. She wondered what they spoke of and whether her name was mentioned.
Not too long afterwards Santa Anna was marched away to the jail. A tiny separate stockade had been built that morning. Houston did not reappear.
Smith did not come back to her until the last campfire had died down and the last man laid down to rest. His hand in the dark roused her. He laid clothes in her hands-pants, a shirt and a jacket-then turned his back while she got out of her dress, wiping at her skin with a wet rag before putting on the clean things. Pushing the blood-soaked gown aside, she remembered Luke's letter still in the pocket and pulled it out as Deaf laid a hand on her arm and drew her outside.
The slender moon was surrounded by stars in the clear dark skies and a small breeze was blowing from over the bayou, bringing the smell of salt and sea things. A sense of great freedom came over her, her pain seemed to fall away, and the memories, for a moment, disappeared. Striding along in pants, trying to match the long legs of her guide, she felt as new and easy as if she had been born yesterday. Her hair was tucked under a hat, her chest concealed by the jacket. Anyone seeing them on the faintly moonlit night would have supposed her a man. It was something she had never experienced before.
The freedom stayed with her as they crossed the plain to the other side where the stench of rotting bodies was already beginning to rise. Handing her a kerchief to cover her nose, Smith led her past the black shades of corpses, grotesque as when they had fallen, and on to the end of the camp. A man waited there with two horses.
Deaf Smith handed her over.
"God be with you, Miss," he said awkwardly. "God bless you." And before she could answer, he was gone.
Captain Isaac Moreland laughed softly, flicking the reins. "So I'm to have charge of you," he said. "The hotel hostess."
She drew herself up. "The hotel is burned down, Sir, and no one has charge of me now."
"Is that so?" Strong hands seized her arms and drew her to him for a rough kiss. Pulling back hard, she slapped him with all her strength.
"Hellcat, are you?" He chuckled, rubbing his cheek. "Very well then, Miss. You shall walk and I will ride until your temper has