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A Promise Engraved
Author: Liz Tolsma




September 28, 1835

Recent rains that had broken the long Texas summer heat had swollen the Guadalupe River so that it churned and foamed as it roared over the rocks along the bank. After a long day on her now-swollen feet, the water called to Josie Wilkins, sang its siren song, and beckoned her to slip off her shoes so the water might refresh her.

A song she disregarded. Instead, she inhaled the musty scent of decaying leaves filling her nostrils, awakening her. All too soon, she would have to return to the four-room dogtrot cabin and get supper started. Her father would arrive home from his blacksmith’s shop in a short while and would be hungry.

As it was, Charlotte would scold her for her skirt hem being muddy. Her stepmother was more ladylike than Josie, much more ladylike. And she didn’t hesitate to condemn Josie for her ruffian ways.

She may be only eighteen, but Josie was no longer a child. She’d been in the world, seen and experienced events that many adults hadn’t. Her heart would bear those scars forever.

As usual, she swallowed the tears and reinforced the wall around her heart. She fought to keep her head above water so she wouldn’t drown. If only she could sleep. Keep the dreams at bay and rest.

She shook the dark thoughts off like dust off a rug. Time flew onward, and home called. Already Father would chastise her for being away from Charlotte too long. If there was a problem with this pregnancy, as there had been before, Charlotte would have no help and no one to send a message to Father.

Before she could turn to head for town, a flash of blue across the river caught her eye. She dashed behind the rough trunk of a large oak tree and peeked around it. Some of the crashing filling her ears came not from the water churning over the river rocks but from men moving through the forest on the opposite side.

Glimpses of red and white mixed in with the blue.

Good thing she had chosen to wear her dark brown gown today. This way she blended in with the tree trunks surrounding her. The Mexican army hadn’t learned that lesson so well. Because that’s who came stomping through the trees. A horde of them, many on horseback, pulling up short when they reached the foaming water, all dressed in blue uniforms with white sashes and tall white hats with red and blue plumes. Peacocks strutting about the forest, announcing their arrival for all the world to see.

Josie knew that uniform well.

Was Manuel Garcia with them?

A chill swept through her, a hollow emptiness that left an ache in her stomach. She could only pray he wasn’t, that she would never have to look into his dark eyes again or endure his large, rough hands all over her, in places they never should be.

Her chest pulsed, her knees went weak, and she leaned against the nearest tree for support, digging her fingernails into the rough bark just to remain upright, reminding herself to breathe, to keep the darkness from consuming her.

Then she forced those memories deep inside, to the deepest part of her, where no one, including she, could find them. Sometimes, like now, they resurfaced and sought her out. But she never allowed them to linger for long.

Remaining behind the tree, she set her focus on the regiment across the swirling water. From the looks of it, the soldiers didn’t come on a peace mission. Most held rifles, while a few clasped swords. They were here for a reason. But what?

Tensions had been rising between the Mexicans under the direction of Santa Anna and the Texans, immigrants from America, for some time. Had it truly boiled over into armed conflict?

She blew out a breath. The river would act as a wall for Gonzales for a while, keeping these troops at bay, giving Josie time to discover why they were here, what their intentions were. Too bad she didn’t have her colorful embroidered shawl with her today. With her dark hair and eyes, people often mistook her for Tejano—those of Mexican descent born in Texas. The shawl would better help her play the part.

She melted deeper into the forest, its green canopy covering her. On soft, moccasin-clad feet, she crept farther down the river. Though the water was high in this spot, it didn’t run as fast, but the forest and undergrowth were too thick for an army to cross here.

She glanced around. The trees surrounding her whispered to her, but there were no other noises. No flashes of color among the green and brown.

Good. No one else was about. Not even an army scout.

Even though the rushing water now covered the rocks, Josie had crossed here often enough that she had memorized where every stone was. Lifting her skirts, she stepped onto the first one, the water swirling around her calves, daring her to remain on her feet.

She met the challenge, her steps sure and secure as she crossed the river. In no time, she was on the other side, slinking into the trees that again provided cover. There were many good things that came from having an Indian girl as a best friend. One was the ability to walk over the forest floor covered with twigs and dried leaves without making a sound.

Another advantage was buckskin. If only she had dressed in that instead of this cotton gown. The hide didn’t catch on twigs and thorns. Cotton did. Well, it couldn’t be helped. She yanked her skirt from the branch it was caught on and continued on her way, as silent as an owl in flight.

She didn’t have to go far before a flash of color caught her eye, the contingent of the Mexican Army that had come marching against their own citizens.

She slowed her pace, even more careful than before not to make a sound, concentrating on keeping her breathing deep and even, close enough now to make out the whites of the soldiers’ eyes standing out against their dark skin.

Eyes and skin so much like Manuel’s. Eyes she would never forget. Even sleep offered little respite from their haunting depths. Today the memories refused to stay buried. They demanded entrance to her consciousness no matter the force she applied to shoved them away.

Surely the soldiers must hear the pounding of her heart and her ragged breathing.

Several of the Mexicans’ horses snorted, their tack jangling as they pranced, eager to be in the fight as they were trained.

Picking her way around trees and scrub, she managed to inch closer to the front line. Here the men would know more about what was going on. Though they may not be able to answer the question that almost burned a hole through her soul, she might glean valuable information from them, like their intentions for marching to Josie’s small frontier town.

“They want us to cross that river?” The soldier’s voice cracked, as if it had changed not long ago. “I don’t think so.”

Thanks to Manuel and her time among the Mexicans, she had a pretty good grasp of Spanish.

“We have to obey orders.” The first one’s companion leaned forward on his horse.

“I hope they don’t order us across. I am still not that skilled with my riding. Pedro will lose his footing and send me into the water for sure.”

Greenhorns. That was who they had sent against Gonzales. Good to know it wasn’t a bunch of seasoned veterans, but that begged the question why they came at all.

She moved away from the river. It was risky to go around the back to the other flank, because she might run into stragglers, but these men had no idea why they were here, just that they were here. As swift as a rabbit, she scampered through the forest to the other side of the troops.

“The water is too high.” The deep lines on this man’s face said he was more experienced. A veteran, a higher ranking soldier. Here she would have better luck getting the information she needed.

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