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In the early spring of 1835 an American botanist named Edmund McGowan travelled southeast from Béxar on the La Bahía road, following the course of the San Antonio River as it made its unhurried way through the oak mottes and prairies of Mexican Texas. He rode a big-headed mustang mare named Cabezon and led an elegant henny mule loaded down with his scant baggage. Professor, a quizzical-looking mongrel, scouted ahead of the little caravan, sniffing out the road when it grew obscure and threatened to disappear from sight.
Edmund McGowan was forty-four years of age that spring, very much the confident, solitary man he aspired to be. He was of medium height but heavy-boned, his hands blunted and scarred by decades of hostile weather and various misadventures involving thorns and briars, snakebite, and the claws of a jaguarundi cat. His features were pleasingly bland, but there was a keenness and luminosity in his eyes. He possessed all his teeth but one, and most of his hair as well, though his side-whiskers had lately broken out in polecat streaks of gray. He wore a once-fine hat of brown felt, a frock coat, and pantaloons that he protected from the brush with leather botas that covered his legs from his knees to his brogans. His saddle, bit, and round wooden stirrups were Spanish, and like a vaquero he carried a loop of rope on the cantle. It was his ambition to use the rope to lasso a turkey.
Though the weather was mild, winter still lingered across the landscape. The great live oaks, always in leaf, formed intermittent glades along the road, but the limbs of the hardwoods lining the river were bare, and few wildflowers had yet emerged from the brittle grass. No matter. Edmund had packed a modest amount of drying paper, his press, magnifying glass, a dozen vascula, and a few essential books like Drummond's Musci Americani and Nuttall's Genera, but this was not a trip for botanizing. He was on his way to pay a visit to his employer, the government of Mexico, or at any rate the entity that was currently being promoted as the government. No doubt by the time he arrived in the City of Mexico, another junta would have arisen and taken its place. As far as he knew, his commission -- to provide an ongoing botanical survey of the subprovince of Texas -- was still in effect, though in the last year his payment vouchers had not been honored in Béxar when he presented them at the comandante's office on the Plaza de Armas.
He had no great hopes for this mission to the City of Mexico; indeed, he feared that his continued employment had less to do with a keen governmental interest in undescribed flora than with bureaucratic oversight. After the completion of the Boundary Survey of 1828, he had expected his services to be courteously terminated, and yet year after year, as Mexico suffered from an endless pageant of civil insurrection and foreign intrigue, his quaint little job on its far frontier had remained secure. But he had come to depend on those 2,400 pesos a year. Without them, he would soon be reduced to selling seeds to Kew Gardens, or to hawking ferns to the London gentry like some common Botany Ben. He considered himself to be a scientist, not a scavenger and purveyor of ornamental plants. His little house in La Villita overflowed with books and notes, with dried specimens and drawings and Wardian boxes filled with carefully nurtured living plants -- all of the materials that were waiting to be compacted into his Flora Texana. He saw the Flora as a great, solid book as thick and incontrovertible as the Bible, a book that would justify a life of cruel endurance. ("What labor is more severe," he had been gratified to read in Linnaeus, "what science more wearisome, than botany?") But now, because no doubt of some fastidious clerk in a government palace, his work was in jeopardy. The only hope he had of restoring his commission was to present himself and make his case to whichever bureaucrat might listen.
The road out of Béxar led past a series of crumbling, desanctified missions, their old irrigation ditches clogged with leaves and their apartments inhabited by ragged Indian laborers who huddled within the broken walls at night in fear of Comanche raids. The Spanish friars had left behind mouldering aqueducts as well, and here and there Edmund spotted the crosses they had carved in the trees a century ago to mark the route of the Camino Real. Age had blurred and weathered the crosses, but at the place where the La Bahía road took leave of the old imperial highway the markers were fresh -- a series of pointing hands sharply chiselled into the bark of the live oaks.
He followed the hands urging him southeast, toward the Gulf of Mexico a hundred and fifty miles distant. After a while the hands disappeared and the road itself grew faint, as if deferring to the greater authority of the river. Edmund retained an animal alertness as he rode along, but a part of his mind was lulled into hypnotic contentment. He watched kingfishers and herons sweeping along the bright river, the hawks perched with brooding detachment in the bare trees. He sighted the terrain ahead through the markers of Cabezon's bristly ears, and found himself entranced by the powerful sweep of her neck, the cascading hair of her cinnamon mane. He had bought the mare a year ago from a Lipan who had captured her in the Wild Horse Desert. The creasing scar still showed, a deep furrow in her neck that marked where the mustanger had expertly disabled her by tickling her spinal column with a rifle ball. Edmund rubbed the furrow idly now with his thumb, feeling the taut, vigilant muscle in which it was buried. Cabezon's scar saddened him whenever he considered it. It was the mark of her servitude, the sign that he would always be her master and never, as he strangely craved to be, her comrade.
Her left eye was bluish and weak, and her left ear in compensation was always nervously erect. The fact that she was nearly blind on that side made Edmund a bit uneasy in a country known for Comanches and dangerous brigands from the States. He imagined all sorts of hazards skulking in the field of her sightlessness. It would have made more sense to ride Snorter, the little mule, who had two good eyes and, it pained Edmund to realize, a finer mind than Cabezon. But, perhaps even more than most norteamericanos, he required the scale and grandeur of a horse. It was his habit to be aware of the figure he presented to the world.
Cabezon was prone to dainty, sputtering farts, and for a moment that's what he thought he was listening to. But then he realized the sounds came from above, from far away in the bright vault of the sky. It was a guttural, whirring chorus, a primeval sound that made his skin tingle. Uncertain, he slipped the leather hammer stall off the frizzen of his shotgun and waited to learn more. Professor, hearing the sound as well, came running back and looked up to Edmund for an answer.
The cries grew louder, and then he finally caught sight of the birds -- hundreds and hundreds of lush gray cranes flying north, flying with such conservative grace that each wingbeat seemed a product of rigorous deliberation. They spanned the sky almost from horizon to horizon, and the whole procession moved with the quiet, ordained manner in which events unfold in a dream.
Professor woofed at the great birds as their chattering voices rained down upon the earth. Then, in confusion, he began to howl, his usual response to anything beyond his knowing.
The cranes were beyond Edmund's knowing too -- he felt it acutely -- but he watched their cloudlike passage in silence. The spectacle made him light-headed, but after the birds were gone the sensation lingered -- a prickly, empty feeling in the top of his cranium. He feared that what he was experiencing was not the rhapsody of nature but an onset of the ague. After a few more miles, subtle pains began to seep up out of his joints, and he noticed with apprehension that his energy and good spirits were starting to trickle away.
In an hour or so Professor came running back again on his short legs, his eyes sparkling with new information about the road ahead. Edmund peered out over the grasslands and saw, a half-mile distant, the dark blue coats of presidial cavalry travelling toward him in a thin cloud of dust.
Professor growled at the horsemen as they approached, and danced about in indignation at Cabezon's feet.
"Shush," Edmund said distractedly, more a suggestion than a command. The dog, in his usual manner, seemed to think about it before complying, and he kept up a low, suspicious growl as the patrol rode up to greet them.
"Don Edmundo, it's good to meet you."
"Cómo está, Teniente," Edmund said, smiling. The lieutenant's name was Lacho Gutiérrez. He was a young man with one good eye and one leaky socket, whom Edmund had often seen promenading with his wife and three young children on the plaza in Béxar. He had lost the eye fighting the Tonkawas.
"You saw the birds?" Lieutenant Gutiérrez asked, showing off his English for the weary lancers behind him. "They were grullas, I think. I am sorry to have forgotten the English word."
"Ah, yes. Cranes. Are you going all the way to La Bahía?"
"Más lejos," he answered, forgetting for a moment that they were speaking in English. "All the way to El Copano, where I board a supply ship for Vera Cruz, and then on to the City of Mexico."
The lieutenant cocked the eyebrow over his good eye, impressed with the magnitude of this journey. He himself, Edmund suspected, had never been out of the Provincias Internas, and the capital of his country was as fabled and hopelessly remote a place as it might have seemed to Cortés three hundred years before.
"How is the road ahead?" Edmund asked.
"Safe enough for a group of men, but I do not like to see you travelling alone, Don Edmundo. Four days ago Comanches attacked a village on Las Animas Creek and killed six people and stole a child."
"Those with the bald-headed chief. Bull Pizzle."
"I know Bull Pizzle."
"Ask him not to kill you, then," Gutiérrez said, smiling. "And tell him we're looking for him."
Edmund bowed and reined Cabezon to the side of the road to make room for the patrol to pass. The lancers' uniforms were faded, patched, and covered with dust, but their horses and tack were well cared for and the men all pridefully wore a white crossbelt that identified them as belonging to the flying company of Alamo de Parras. The company was garrisoned in the sprawling old Valero mission -- better known as the Alamo -- that commanded a low rise several hundred yards away from Edmund's house. The Alamo was as decrepit as all the other missions, but it was the closest thing Béxar had to a real fort.
"You look pale, Don Edmundo," Gutiérrez whispered, with innate discretion, when the last of the presidials had ridden by. "Are you well?"
"Well enough for the present, and no doubt better tomorrow."
"You are welcome to ride with us back to Béxar," the lieutenant said, "and start your journey on a better day."
"Thank you, Teniente, but the day is good enough."
"As you wish. We have four men stationed on the Cibolo. It would be wise to stay there tonight rather than in the open. The Comanches know where all the usual parajes are. They might come up to you while you are camping and steal your horse and mule and scalp you and your dog."
Edmund smiled courteously at what he thought was a witticism, but the lieutenant's face was set.
"I have seen it, señor. A scalped dog."
They rode off with their lance points gleaming, their escopetas jouncing on their carbine sockets. The men of Alamo de Parras were seasoned frontier fighters, and Edmund watched them go with a vague unease, wondering to what use those lances and muskets would be put in the months ahead. Nothing was certain in Texas, except that some ugly event was brewing. Edmund expected war within the year, though he could not predict the nature of this war or who exactly its protagonists would be. Perhaps the radicals among the American colonists would be the ones to spark it. They were restless and aggrieved, always meeting in conventions and forming committees of safety, petitioning the distant Mexican government to make Texas a separate state, to grant it special concessions on slavery, on taxes, on tariffs -- all the while harboring in their hearts the conviction that Texas should not belong to Mexico at all. The colonists had all sworn loyalty to Mexico and, sometimes with winks of disdain, had allowed themselves to be baptized as Catholics, as the colonization laws required. But Edmund knew that Mexico had come to perceive his countrymen as a nightmarishly avid race, a race of parasite worms that would eventually eat out the heart of the shaky republic.
But if a revolt came, he suspected it would not be limited to Texas. It might be a massive civil war in which the inhabitants of Texas, both Anglo and Mexican, would join with the citizens of Zacatecas and Coahuila and the Yucatán to overthrow President Santa Anna and replace him with another just like himself, another tyrant stalking his way to power in the guise of a republican reformer.
Either way, the war would be one more wave in a forever turbulent sea. Seven years before, travelling with the Boundary Commission on the Medina River, Edmund had stopped to sketch a frostweed flower and had noticed a whitened oval buried at the base of the plant. It was a skull, and when he stood up and inspected the nearby ground he discovered he had come upon an ossuary, a field of bleached human bones -- skulls and jawbones with loose, rattling teeth, scattered vertebrae, splintered femurs, and pelvic cradles. The bones marked the spot where another wave had passed back in 1813, when an alliance of Mexican and American adventurers had come charging into Texas, determined to pry it loose from Spain. Eight hundred of them had died here, their bodies left for the wolves.
He rode another five miles, his mind slowly twisting itself in thought, reaching for some connection between the scattered bones and the gray cranes spanning the sky. He felt an increasingly urgent need to find this linkage, to bind these images into a reassuring whole. But the world would not come together; it kept splintering apart. Professor looked up at him with deep concern.
"As I suspected," the dog said. "You have the ague."
Edmund could feel the warmth of the fever spreading through him.
"Have you seen these before?" Professor asked, standing in a sudden field of yellow flowers -- small star-shaped flowers, notched at the tips, the blossoms completely evolved though it was still only March. "One of the Compositae, of course, though previously undescribed."
Edmund peered at the flowers with fleeting interest. His morale was sinking, and a glimmer of rational thought told him he was in danger. He remembered his last attack of the ague, several years ago, as an almost pleasant experience. He had been collecting on the San Marcos River when he fell ill near the homestead of a family named Kenner. Hugh Kenner had claimed not to be a doctor -- at least not anymore; like practically every other American in Texas he was in flight from an obscurely troubled past -- but he had doctored Edmund all the same, binding him in tight bandages like a mummy to keep the shakes from rattling him to death, and then dosing him with Peruvian bark until the fever had gone off. Because of his skill, both the fever and the chills had been mild, and Edmund and Kenner had carried on a three-day conversation touching on everything from the treatment of hydrocephalic infants to their mutual distaste for the poetry of Byron, whose martyrdom in Greece had further annoyed them both.
But now Edmund had no Peruvian bark, and the fever was steadily enveloping him. In his delirium, Cabezon's ears assumed vast importance. He imagined that the ears, with their ceaseless twitching, were trying to communicate with him, the way Indians sometimes spoke in signs. It bothered him greatly that he could not decipher the message.
"What is she saying?" he asked Professor, possibly out loud.
But the dog had resumed being a dog and had no opinion.
From the Hardcover edition.