Several days following the final assault on the walls of the Alamo, word was recieved in Gonzales, the nearest Texian settlement to San Antonio.  Sam Houston had gone there to rally the Texas Army … and a company of local men had gone to the Alamo in response to Travis’ plea for help. From Daughter of Texas, this is what happened on the day that Susannah Dickinson brought the world from San Antonio that the Alamo had fallen.

            The hours and days of March dragged past at a snail’s pace; a week and a half since the Gonzales Ranging Company had ridden down towards the ferry and the road to Bexar. Surely they had achieved a safe passage into that crumbling and shabby fortress and other reinforcements were on the way? Now and again, Margaret fancied that when it was very still – at dawn, or just after sunset, and the light breeze came from the north that she could hear a faint continuous rumble, like distant thunder – the sound of cannon-fire. Toward the end of that time, rumors swept Gonzales, each more dreadful than the last: the worst of them had the Alamo fallen and all the defenders put to the sword, but that tale had been brought by a pair of Mexican cattle-drovers, who – as it turned out, had not seen anything of the sort, but had heard the dreadful tale from another drover.

Within days of reading Colonel Travis’ declaration and plea in the Telegraph, soldiers, militia, and ranging companies began arriving in Gonzales, singly or in companies. Colonel Neill, who had taken leave from his duties at Bexar, thinking that all would be in order and there would be time enough to finish reinforcing theAlamo, began gathering those new recruits to his little army. Race, with his face seeming to be pale skin stretched over the bones of his face, had recovered enough strength to resume his duties as a courier and dispatch rider.

Margaret herself went with Race to the sprawling encampment on the Military Plaza, on the pretense of extending the use of part of their house to the General, or whoever of his staff might have need of lodgings. The gathering volunteers had set up there, at some distance from the back of those houses alongSt. John’s Street. The morning sun sent spreading shadows all across the grass and the tents; grass and canvas alike were sodden with morning dew. A line of small campfires sent narrow columns of smoke up into the air. Under the shelter of a spreading oak tree, a handful of rough-dressed men riding winter-shaggy horses were just dismounting and tying their reins to stakes and picket-posts, as if they were awaiting momentary orders sending them on some errand. Race greeted one of them, a rangy man with a long and slightly crooked nose. Thinning hair straggled over a high forehead, and his ears stood out from the sides of his head like the lugs on a sugar-bowl.

“Erastus,” Race said, and then repeated himself, slightly louder. “Erastus, is General Houston within?”

“He is, that,” the man thus greeted answered, in a slightly flat voice, which at once sounded as if he spoke a little too loud. “He’s in his tent, but he’s mighty busy at the moment with Colonel Neill. I can bear him a message, though. How you been keepin’, Race? You don’t look so good.”

“I’ve been better,” Race answered. “Erastus, I don’t believe you have met my wife, Margaret – her father is Alois Becker, that big outspoken Dutchman with a tract at Waterloo on the upper Colorado, and her brothers are with Fannin’s company. Daisy-mine, this is Erastus Smith – a gentleman of Bexar, a scout and tracker of truly legendary skills. To hear the stories, he is equal that of Natty Bumpo, but in truth, all the better for he is real, and Natty merely an engaging fiction. No scout knows Bexar and the area around as well as he, not even the wild Comanche.”

“I am very pleased to meet you,” Margaret answered, and Erastus Smith bowed over her hand, looking slightly puzzled.

“You will have to speak louder,” Race said, in an aside. “I fear that he is very hard of hearing.” Margaret repeated herself, feeling slightly foolish – surely she ought to have noticed – and Mr. Smith answered, “And I you, Mrs. Vining.”

Searching her mind for a polite and social topic of conversation, for such seemed to be expected, she said, “We are waiting on such tenterhooks for news from Bexar, news of our friends – as I have no doubt that you are also. Did your family remain there? Do you have assurance of their safety?”

“So we all wait.” Mr. Smith looked grim and rather tired. “Although I think the General will not be content to wait patiently much longer. As for my own family, Mrs. Vining, I had my wife and family removed back east to Fort Bend. Such stories as came to me through my wife’s relations over the winter about Santa Anna’s armies made me fair uneasy. I thought to remove them from harm’s way, although my wife was most reluctant to leave her kin, thereabouts.” Mr. Smith scratched his jaw, reflectively, “I could not make others perceive the dangers which I did, to my own sorrow. I spoke as plain as I could.”

“There are those who perhaps cannot hear,” Race observed, to a wry and almost boyish grin from Mr. Smith. “Which is something of a social inconvenience. Then there are those who will not hear – which can often lead to tragedy; or at the least, a degree of embarrassment.”

“And what of your particular friends in Bexar, Mrs. Vining?” Mr. Smith asked. “Were they not urged to leave the city?”

“No.” Margaret thought of Sue Dickinson, with her arm around Almaron’s waist. “Indeed, the friend for whom I am most worried went most eagerly toward Bexar with her husband last fall. Susanna Dickinson and her little daughter; her husband is the commander of artillery within theAlamo. She would not be parted from him, under any circumstance  . . .  but they were staying with the Musquiz family, and I pray that she remained under their protection rather than go into the fortress.”

“We all pray for their safety,” Mr. Smith answered, although the tones of his voice were bleak, instead of hopeful. “Their safety and safe return – although hope for such a resolution dies a little, every hour. Henry Karnes and I go out to scout along the Bexar road this day in hopes of putting the worst rumors to rest.”

“Thank you,” Margaret answered softly, and her husband added, “Erastus – if you would be so kind, convey to Colonel Neill my compliments. I am more or less fit to return to service  . . .  and my wife and I can make part of our house available to any of his staff who need lodgings – as well as any friends among those arrived.”

“I thank ye,” Mr. Smith replied, “and I will pass that on with your compliments. We may not stay long enough to have need of lodgings, though – I fear we will be living in the saddle for a mite. Report to my second tomorrow, with your horse and all your gear – you may as well have one more night under a good roof.”

Silently, Margaret and her husband returned to their home; that General Houston and the army would not remain long in Gonzales was disquieting to Margaret. What did that mean? If the Alamo fortress had fallen then there was no use in going forward. Would the General and his men wait for Lopez de Santa Anna to move against them?

“I do not know,” Race confessed when Margaret put the question to him. “We do not have cavalry to match his – and to fight on the open plains against such horsemen? I fear that to attempt so will not turn out well.” In the morning, Race added a few things to his saddlebags, embraced the boys, and smiled patiently at Margaret as she tied a thick knitted scarf around his neck.

“Keep yourself as safe as you may,” she said, with a catch in her voice and a pain in her throat, “and as warm and dry as you can.”

“Daisy-mine, I am likely going only as far as General Houston’s camp,” he answered, with deep amusement. “If there is no need of me by tonight, I might very well come back and sleep at home.”

And so she thought it was Race, early that evening, as the setting sun painted ruddy light against the western-facing window, for that was a man’s booted footsteps walking across the verandah. She wondered briefly why he did not open the door and come in, but when he tapped instead on the door she knew then it was not her husband but a stranger. She opened the door, to a heavy-set young man in a buckskin hunting coat. He took off his cap immediately; he had bright red hair and a pale face splattered with freckles.

“Ma’am,” he ventured awkwardly, “Are you Miz Vining? I’m Harry Karnes. Deef sent me ahead, on account of you bein’ a friend of Miz Dickinsons’. That is you an’ not this other lady, ma’am?”

“Deef?” Margaret was taken back. Mama, rolling out pie-crust dough on the table, looked as if she was keeping herself from smiling. The young man reddened with embarrassment.

“Deef Smith. They call him that on account o’ him being deef as a post. That is, he don’t hear too well. You are Miz Vining, ain’t you?”

“I am,” Margaret was still puzzled, but young Mr. Karnes freckled countenance looked momentarily brighter, and then went somber again.

“Deef said you should come at once. He said it would be best to have another woman there; a friend, if you can. We found Miz Dickinson and two darkies this afternoon, twenty miles out from here on the Bexar road. She was mighty wearied, so Deef stayed with her an’ sent me on ahead. They came with a message to Gen’ral Sam from ol’ Santy-Anna.” At his words, Margaret felt a sinking in her heart, and Mama let the rolling-pin fall. It fell against the pie-dish with a clatter.

“Let me get my shawl,” she said. “Where are we going, then?”

“To the Gen’ral, at the Turner’s Inn– that’s where Deef said he’d bring her.”

“Mama?” she said, over her shoulder, “I’ll be at the Turner’s. I don’t know for how long. Don’t wait on me for supper, the boys will be hungry soon.”

In silence, she walked with Harry Karnes, he having offered her his elbow with something of a tentative air as if he had been told that was the proper courtesy for a lady, but never having had much experience with actually performing it.

Presently, she asked, “What of the Alamo, then? What did Susanna tell Mr. Smith and yourself of events there? Has it truly fallen to the Mexican army?”

“It has,” Harry Karnes’ lips tightened to a pale line. “I can say no more, Miz Vining. Deef said that the Gen’ral must hear of it from her first.”

“What of the garrison?” Margaret demanded, in some shock, although such tidings had not come entirely as a surprise. Rumors had been flying for almost a week. “Mr. Karnes – I only ask, as many were men of Gonzales, men of worth and substance, our friends and neighbors. Surely you can tell me of their fate, and if any survived!” Young Karnes looked bleakly ahead, his plain blunt features working with emotion.

“None did, ma’am,” he answered, and Margaret felt as if she had suddenly fallen with great force, and had the breath knocked out of her. “A bare handful who survived the final assault – they were cut down in cold blood by order of Santy-Anna hisself.”

“All?” Margaret repeated, more to herself, trying to get her mind to adapt to those few words.

“Yes, ma’am.” Harry Karnes looked straight ahead, as if he was trying to do the same, save that he had had more hours in which to force his mind to accept the enormity of such news. They walked on in silence, out towards the Turner’s hotel, and the canvas sprawl of tents and brush-arbors, away out in back of it. It seemed as if the camp had grown just in the few hours since the day before.

As they approached the steps of the hotel, a little party on horseback came upon them: three men and a woman, and a Negro man, striding along on foot beside and looking almost cheerful. Margaret knew Erastus Smith at once – but at first she did not recognize the woman with a Mexican blanket pulled shawl-like over her head, slumping with exhaustion in the saddle of her horse, with a child in her arms. The Negro man was leading her horse by the reins; a second Negro man rode behind. Only when the horseback party came closer did Margaret know for sure that the woman was Susanna. All the mischievous gaiety and liveliness in her had been quenched, her face as ashen as the grey-powdered coals of a fire long dead. Her hair hung lank and uncombed, straggling around her face. She stared straight ahead, as if she had no energy or mind to do anything else.

“Ma’am, the Gen’ral’s waiting for ye inside,” Harry Karnes went from Margaret’s side to Susanna’s, and reached up his arms towards her. “Hand me down the little ‘un. We sent for yer friend, Miz Vining. She came to be with you when you talk to Gen’ral Sam. Don’t you fret, Miz Dickinson – he’s a kindly man . . .  it’s just that you are sent with a message, and the first trusty party to come out of the Alamo, so he must speak to you.”

“Give him the baby, Sue,” Margaret commanded, gently. “I will carry her for you then, she knows me.” For a long moment, Sue’s eyes went between Margaret and Harry Karnes, and then to Erastus Smith, who had also dismounted and hovered close by.

“He won’t take Angelina?” Sue answered, in a distant voice. “General Santa Anna  . . .  he was taken with her. He said he would adopt her and send her to Mexico City. But I said no, once and again, and finally he stopped saying that he would. ”

“Gen’ral Sam, he won’t do any such thing,” Harry Karnes answered. “He ain’t that kind of general – and I ain’t that kind of sojer would go ‘long with that. If you like, give the little ‘un to Miz Vining.”

“Let me hold her, Sue,” Margaret urged her again. “She knows me, she will not be frightened.” And she reached up towards Sue, who reluctantly yielded up Angelina to her; a fearfully silent and filthy child who smelt of dirty diapers and hid her face in Margaret’s shoulder. “Come with us into the house, Sue. You are safe now.”

“No,” Sue shook her head, even as Harry Karnes and Mr. Smith, each took her arms and lifted her carefully down from the saddle of her wearied horse. Her knees buckled momentarily, and then she stood straight, the skirts of her dress just brushing the tops of her shoes. Margaret noticed that the hem of it was dabbled and edged almost all the way around with rust-colored mud, as if Sue had waded through a puddle and allowed her skirt to drag. The stains were the color of dried blood. Then she realized, with horror – they were indeed bloodstains. “I am not safe, and neither are any of you – for Santa Anna has sworn to hang our leaders as rebels and chase the rest of us out ofTexas.”

“He shall not do any such thing,” Margaret rejoined, swiftly, “For our homes are here, homes which we built and lands that we settled ourselves – not him or any of his soldiers. We have our rights . . .  and General Houston has gathered hundreds of our own here, ready to defend those rights.”

“So they said,” and Sue laughed, a mirthless laugh. “Our rights and our lands  . . . and for all of Colonel Travis’ fine words? They are all dead, Margaret – all of them and my husband among them. They came to our aid – but not so many as could hold it. Now they are all dead, and Almaron is dead and Colonel Travis, too, and my child is an orphan. They burned their bodies, there were so many of them fallen! There were two great pyres on the road leading to Powder House Hill. They sent me with the message.”

“Sue, Sue . . .” Margaret tucked Angelina into one arm, and embraced her friend with the other, “Oh, Sue my dear – I am so sorry to hear of this!  But you are the first come to come from Bexar, who has seen what happened there  . . . so these men – they need to hear of what you have seen.”

“That letter from General Lopez de Santa Anna,” Sue replied, “may say all that these great men need to know!”

“Dear Sue,” Margaret said in answer, “A letter for the General; that may be one thing. But of what you have seen, and may yet tell of it is another. We – we must know of what befell our friends.”

“I don’t know of what I can tell!” Sue cried, “I was with the other women, in a little stone room by the old church. My husband came to me shouting that the Mexicans were within our walls – he kissed me and begged that if I were spared to save his child. I did not even see him die, so I know not what I can tell of others!”

Behind Margaret, someone cleared their throat – it was Erastus Smith, who said, in somewhat louder tones, but with exceeding tenderness, “Ma’am – tell us of what little or much you can. Come with us into the house, and I will give Santy-Anna’s letter to General Sam, and when you have answered such questions as I cannot, then you may rest.” He took her arm, with such careful and fatherly tenderness. Margaret walked on her other side, the heavy weight of Angelina in her arms. At a gesture from Harry Karnes the two Negro men followed after them. The big parlor of the Turner hotel now seemed cramped, the air in it thick with tension and crowded with men. Most of them stood in the corners or along the rough-plastered walls, gathering wherever there was room. It was hot and airless with so many within, especially after the evening chill outside. Three chairs and a small table sat in the middle of the room; as they entered, a tall man sprang up quickly from the largest.

To him, Erastus Smith handed a much-folded oblong of heavy paper, sealed with a blood-colored ribbon and a wax lozenge, saying quietly, “This is Miz Dickinson an’ her little girl, Sam. Her man was Colonel Travis’ commander of artillery, an’ she was in the fortress to the last. This is the message which Santy-Anna sent with them. Miz Vining was good enough to come, also . . .  thought it best, meself, having another woman present. These two boys here – Ben was a servant of Colonel Almonte and sent to escort them. This other is Joe. He b’longed to Colonel Travis, but he did not see much until after it was over.”

So this was General Sam, Margaret thought; curiosity momentarily distracting her from her concern for Sue and her distress over the tragic news that she brought. He was ruggedly built and dark of hair and eye, with a cleft in his chin and strong features which just missed being handsome. He seemed to crackle with energy barely reined in, and something of the same intense vitality which drew people to her brother Rudi, like iron-filings to a magnet. But Rudi was young, hardly more than a boy – and General Sam was at least twice his age. He reminded her of a panther, or some other large cat, prowling restlessly because he must move, having too much energy to merely sit still.

Now, he took both of Sue’s hands in his, saying with curious gentleness, “Mrs. Dickinson, we grieve with you for your sorrowful loss and the loss of so many brave and loyal sons ofTexas. Would that we could allow you seclusion, and a proper time of mourning  . . .  but there is no time. Pray forgive us our intrusion on your grief, but I and my officers, and your friends of Gonzales seek answers, and you are the one person who may reliably provide them. We will take no longer of your time then we need. I will look at this letter first, and leave you time to compose yourself. Mrs. Turner will bring you some small refreshment . . . no?”

Upon Sue’s refusal of food or drink, he settled Sue in the chair in which he had been sitting, and turned to Margaret. “I thank you for your assistance and your time, Mrs. Vining.” His hands were warm, and very strong. “You are of this settlement, then? Pray assure me that your husband was not among the Gonzales company which answered Colonel Travis’ plea.”

“He would have been,” Margaret answered, “but he was ill on the day set for departure – although he has since recovered. He came to the camp today, to take up service again.”

“Ah,”Houston’s eyes lightened; he immediately appeared more cheered. “He was pointed out to me – the schoolteacher with the splendid black horse! I taught school once, but I did not have as fine a horse as that, for all the pains that I took! Be assured, Mrs. Vining, Houston will have better use from him and that noble steed than to be mewed up in a fortress – he has already been dispatched to Mina, with instructions for the militia there! Do sit, Mrs. Vining – close, that you may attend on Mrs. Dickinson. Pray pardon me for a moment. I have a communication from the Napoleon of the West which must take my attention.” Margaret sat, arranging the half-asleep Angelina in her lap, whileHoustonbroke the seal of the letter and opened it.

“Gentleman,” he said after a moment spent scanning the lines written on a sheet of fine heavy paper, “the General-in-Chief of the Army of Operations of the Mexican Republic writes to us as the inhabitants of Texas  . . .  doing the courtesy of addressing us as citizens  . . .  oh, and also calling us a parcel of audacious adventurers  . . . dividing amongst themselves the fertile lands contained  . . . Oh, here is contained an especially good portion,” and Houston read from the letter, his voice fairly dripping with sarcasm and mockery. “It became necessary to check and chastise such enormous daring; and in consequence, some exemplary punishments have already taken place  . . . Your city and the fortress of the Alamo are already in possession of the Mexican Army, composed of your own fellow citizens; and rest assured that no mass of foreigners will ever interrupt your repose, and much less, attack your lives and plunder your property. The Supreme Government has taken you under its protection and will seek for your good.” Houston crumpled the letter, half contemptuously, and tossed it down on the table. “Myself, gentlemen, I care little for a supreme government taking me under protection and seeking for my good. I’ll not waste the ink in reply but make our response in black powder and shot. Now, Mrs. Dickinson  . . .” and Houston’s voice softened. He sat himself down at Sue’s other side and took her hand in his, once again. “Tell me  . . .  tell us all, of what befell in the Alamo since Colonel Travis’s final messages. Tell me also of his fate, and the fate of my friends, Colonel Bowie and Colonel Crockett. I presume they made a brave end?”

“Colonel Bowie  . . .  he was dreadful sick,” Sue whispered. “Some said he was dying already. He was not able to leave his bed for many days, or take any part in the defenses. Joe said  . . .” she looked across the room, to where the two Negro men stood. “A Mexican officer took him around afterwards, to tell them the names of the dead officers. Colonel Bowie was bayoneted by many soldiers where he lay in his sickbed, in a little room apart from the other wounded. And Colonel Travis, he died at the beginning of the last assault of the walls.”

“On the north wall bat’ry,” the younger of the two Negro men said. “Shot clear in the haid, fell down stone dead. I doan’ know of what happened then.”

“What of my good friend Colonel Crockett, then?” Houston pressed her hands, and Sue’s voice grew stronger,

“He wasn’t a colonel, not really. He told them all to call him a high private. He was so good and kind  . . .  and so funny, with his stories. He and Mr. McGregor from Nacogdoches – they had musical contests sometimes, to see who might make the most noise; Mr. McGregor with a set of bagpipes and Mr. Crockett with an ol’ fiddle he found someplace. I know nothing of how he fell, but I saw him dead in a heap with many of his Tennessee folk, not far from the church doors, when we were brought away from that place in the church where we had taken refuge. I knew him at once from his fur cap  . . .  and that was the place that his Tennessee company were to hold, for it was the place of weakness, with just a timber wall. The church – that was to be the last defense.”

“Go on, Mrs. Dickinson,” General Houston encouraged her. “What of the last day – what can you remember?” Margaret re-settled the sleeping Angelina in her lap, thinking how well she had grown since she had seen her last. The child slept still with a thumb in her mouth and something clutched tight in her other hand, something small hanging from a string around her neck. Margaret gently prized the object from her fingers – a heavy gold ring with a dark stone, a man’s ring. It did not look like a keepsake from her father.

“That was Colonel Travis’ ring,” Sue said. “He gave it to her just before the very last day. He asked her to keep it safe for him, and tied around her neck. That was the last time we saw him.”

“The families of the Gonzales troop – they will want to know of what befell them,” Margaret tucked the ring back into Angelina’s hand. “Did you see anything of those friends of ours which might give comfort to their families? Did any other have time to send a letter or a memento with you?” and Sue shook her head, as tears began to pour down her cheeks.

“Nothing which would give comfort,” she answered, brokenly. “I saw only Gal Fuqua – he ran into the little room where we were and he tried to tell me something, but I do not know what, for he was shot through the jaw and could not speak so that I could understand, even though he tried to hold his face together.”

Margaret closed her eyes – oh, what a horror. She thought of the three boys – Gal, Johnnie, and Will, larking together at the back of the column on the day that the Gonzales Company departed. They had been so excited to have been allowed to join the older men, to take their place in the company and play the part of a brave soldier. Race – that would truly be a stab in the heart, knowing that his cherished students had gone ahead, gone into that fire-and blood-streaked darkness, in the shade of the arrows. Sue went on speaking, although Margaret could not take in all of what she was saying. The room had gone silent, although she was aware of more people gathering outside the door and the windows, of whispered confabulations among them, as those who were near enough to hear passed along what was said. She opened her eyes, at last – someone had lit a lamp, which only made the parlor seem hotter. General Houston sat, still holding Sue’s hand, and weeping unashamedly.

After a time, which seemed like hours – General Houston thanked Sue, and gave her over to the care of Mrs. Turner, who took the sleeping Angelina into her own arms. When Sue had left the room, so pale and drained that she looked like rag wrung entirely dry, General Houston dismissed all but Margaret, Harry Karnes and Erastus Smith.

“Mrs. Vining,” the General said at last, dragging the sleeve of his coat across his face, “may I impose upon your time for a little while longer? I have a sad obligation to undertake for the citizens of Gonzales, which you may best assist us with  . . .  before I give orders for yet another such. We have been assailed all this day and the day before with queries from the kin of those who were called to the greatest honor. Now that we know of their sad fate, I take it as my duty and obligation to inform them of what has befallen husbands and sons. You are well-acquainted with the families of those who sent their most beloved to the aid of our forces within the Alamo? Good – then if you would, tell me the names of their wives and parents who live within the town. This is a duty which no commander relishes,” and to Margaret’s ears, he sounded as if he choked on those very words, “but which I am obligated to perform. They are owed such honor and courtesy, to hear such words from me. Of those which are best known to you  . . .  where may their kin be found at this hour? They will be sent for at once.”

“There is Maggie Darst,” Margaret began, feeling at first that she might also choke on her words. “She lives in a house just down the street at the corner of St. Lawrence and not a block from here.  She and Jacob Darst had a son, David, but everyone calls him Davy. And Prudence Kimball – she is with child. Her husband commanded the company . . .  and John King – his oldest son Will took his place in the company on the day they departed from Gonzales, so that he and his wife will want to know  . . .  The Fuquas live halfway between the Darsts, at the corner of St. Lawrence  . . .  and the Kellogs  . . .  they sent two of their kin in the company.” She went through the list of the Gonzales Mounted Rangers, each of their faces and the web and weft of their friendship and connection within the town clear in her own memory, as she called them up, one and another for the General. She felt as if she sang a dirge for them, and for their town, naming each, and their trade, their family and friendship connections. And at the end of it, the General sat with her hands in his, just as he had sat with Sue, and she had the feeling that he looked out into a dark future as well as a bleak present. The Turner’s house echoed with the sound of many heavy feet, as the General’s staff and officers came and went. Outside the parlor window, there was a great bustle in the camp, campfires burning with a red-gold blaze and torches flaring and moving against the darkening sky.

“I thank you, Mrs. Vining. Nomads such as I have been for too many years without counting – we do not know so much of the close friendships and connections of an established town such as yours; but I assure you that I have taken careful note. All of those that you spoke of shall be sent for within the hour.”

“It speaks well of you, sir, that you will take on this task, yourself,” Margaret said, and General Houston laughed, a very short and bitter laugh.

“It is perhaps only slightly less pleasant to me than the other task that I will undertake tonight, Mrs. Vining – and that will be a matter which, in ordinary times, would be seen as at least as great as a tragedy of the magnitude which has befallen Gonzales.”

“And what might that task be?” Margaret asked. “I cannot think of anything which would add more to our grief this day.” She did not think that he would answer in any other than an oblique fashion, and added hastily, “I do not really look for an answer, sir; you need not give me one if it is not something which affects us directly – I don’t know very much of military matters, other than what which my husband has shared with me from his books.”

“Alas, my dear Mrs. Vining, my other task today will affect you and your neighbors substantially.” All animation had drained from General Houston’s features as he spoke the next words. “I have already issued the orders to prepare to abandon Gonzales. Our forces will withdraw from here falling back to the east bank of the Colorado. Fannin has been ordered to forsake La Bahia and meet with us at Victoria. We must also evacuate the many settlements and holdings west of the Colorado, without delay – and destroy all foodstuffs, animal stock, and shelters as we go. Santa Anna’s armies must find a barren wasteland. Your husband is a schoolteacher? Is he acquainted with the deeds and strategies of Quintus Fabius Maximus in the Second Punic War?”

“I believe so,” Margaret answered, thinking that when she returned to home, she would have to refresh her memory with Races’ copy of Plutarch’s Lives. “But I cannot call the specifics to mind. My younger brothers are with Colonel Fannin, sir. Have you heard anything of their situation? Are they likely to be besieged and risk the same fate as those in the Alamo?”

“No matter – the strategies of Fabius are more agreeable to the mind of a soldier than a soldier’s wife.” General Houston answered, with a quick and reassuring smile. “With regard to your brothers, Mrs. Vining, I have not received word yet of such an undertaking by the Mexican Army, although the garrison at La Bahia may yet be at such a risk until my orders pry Colonel Fannin and his troops out of their little stone shell.” General Houston shook his head. “I fear that massing our few companies in such strong points is a trap of sorts. I believe that mobility is our best defense, and the key to victory will be choosing the right field for battle and at the right time. Fear not for your brothers, Mrs. Vining – or at least, fear for them not over any others in our army.” The General’s face went somber again. “But the heart of the matter pertaining to Gonzales is that we must present a scorched earth to the Mexican Army  . . .  and by that, in plain terms is that the families of our soldiers must evacuate with us tonight. As soon as you are safely gone, then Gonzales will be put to the torch, along with everything that might be of use that we cannot take with us.”

“I  . . . see,” Margaret answered, battered by what had happened in the Turner’s parlor over the last hour into an odd and accepting calm. With a tiny portion of her mind, she thought – that if they had not just listened to Sue’s account, and the few words of the Negro servant Joe, than this would be a blow beyond withstanding; that her home, and all those of her friends, the Zumwalt’s store, and George Kimball’s hat factory – all of that would be no more in the next few hours. “This soon, sir?”

“This very night,” General Sam answered. “I regret that I have kept you so long, Mrs. Vining  . . .  and I regret most of all the necessity of what must be done now.”

“I understand,” Margaret said, although it was the juiceless and polite response, rather than reflecting her true emotions. She rose from the chair, and the General rose also. “Good night, sir.”

“Good night, Mrs. Vining,” he bowed over her hand, and then hesitated – just for a moment he looked boyishly uncomfortable. “May I know if we can be of further service to you and your family? We are abandoning much of our baggage so that our wagons may carry those women and children who have no conveyance of their own at hand.”

“I thank you – but we have a wagon and two yoke of my father’s oxen at our disposal,” Margaret answered, and the General’s face lightened, just a little.

“Good. Follow us as best you can, Mrs. Vining. By departing tonight, we will have gained some time – time that will be the saving of us all. Karnes!” he suddenly shouted, and Harry Karnes put his head around the door of the parlor. He was gnawing on a hasty meal of bread and cured ham slapped together. He put it into his other hand, and saluted casually.

“Sir?”

“See that Mrs. Vining is safely home – either yourself, if your duties allow, or task another trusty man.”

“Aye, Gen’ral,” Harry Karnes took a gulp and a swallow. “Sure enough, Miz Vining. I’ll see ye to home  . . .  although I swear, the boys are too busy tonight to give offense to any woman.”

Margaret took his proffered arm; he was still somewhat uncertain about how to manage it, but seemed to have gained some confidence by his most recent essay in chivalry. She walked with him, back along St. John Street – but looking back at the camp, she saw now that the soldiers and volunteers were striking their canvas tents – and burning them in the campfires.

“Aye,” Harry Karnes said, when he saw that she had noted this. “It’s the Gen’rals’ orders now that we move fast, and without our trash an’ traps. I’m sorry for this, ma’am, for it will cost your home an’ all. Special sorry, as I am one of the rearguard detailed to stay behind and see to the burning of it; better us, than Santy-Anna’s sojers, picking over all, ma’am. I’ll try an’ burn your place respectful an’ all. Do not delay – at once, take what you can of what is precious to you or wrap in oilcloth and bury it in a place that you may find again easily. That’s my advice, ma’am, and sorry I am to be giving it to you tonight.”

1 Comment

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    Excellent, Celia, as always. I’ve read quite a bit of Texas history. This story brings it alive in a way many of the other histories haven’t. Thank you for posting.

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