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Confusion. All around is churning smoke,
a supernova's planet-flensing shroud,
an embryonic solar system's yolk.
No shapes, but for the shadows in the cloud
that swell and sway and pulsate to the loud
oceanic throb, a thunder to convulse
a cosmos, the percussion of a pulse.
The fog unravels. But this is no fog,
this blear amalgam of a stumbled dust
and stinging fumes. An isolated leg,
wrapped like a maize ear in a tattered husk
of trouser cotton, glows in noonday dusk.
A headless soldier bows; the freckling paint
has made his gulping pal a stigmaed saint.
Across the fuming field, the dying stir
among the dead. Their moaning and their throes
alert the splendid cavalry, who spur
their horses and parade amid their foes.
Wielding their spears as bargemen would use
their staffs to lever flatboats, lancers pole
from man to man and spare no pleading soul.
Beyond, more butchery. The rebel town
is bleeding streams of black into the skies,
the way a seal, when sharks have dragged it down,
will stain aturquoise current as it dies.
Across the splintered barricades with cries
of "Death to traitors!" grimy conscripts vault.
The breastworks tumble under their assault.
With bayonets, daggers, and naked hands,
the stormers hack and chop and stab and slash.
The slow notes of Deguello from the band's
emplacement drone through cannon croak and crash;
the melody that Spain learned in its clash
with Muslim arms, "No Quarter," starts to swell
as Zacatecas is annexed by hell.
These scenes a spyglass frames within its lens;
lowering the lorgnette, the architect
who drafted this methodic violence
gives rage a voice: "Serrano's almost wrecked
my strategy! I told him to connect
with Rivas at the square... They've let some go!
Where are the lancers? Why are they so slow?"
He gnaws plug-opium, although in truth
he's grown already giddy with the aid
of hot twelve-pounders. Still a handsome youth
in aspect, this commander, in his braid
and bicorne, might be marshal of a parade;
the frills may be a fop's, the soul within
belongs to a practiced puppeteer of men.
Santa Anna scowls, barks, paces like a coach
upon the sidelines in a frantic game,
only to fill silent, as horsemen approach,
shepherding gentry diminished by shame.
A captain gives one prisoner a name:
"This one is the alcalde..." "Excellency,"
the mayor begins, "for all of us I plea—"
"Where is Zavala?" Santa Anna snarls.
"Where is he? Where's the traitor? Has he flown?"
The alcalde murmurs something, then he curls
in pain around a stock, emits a groan
as soldiers warp his arm. "Zavala's gone
to Texas—" "When?" The President wants to know.
"He left a day...perhaps two days ago..."
"Gone to Texas." The young caudillo swears.
"The man is now a traitor to his race,
and not just to his country. Damn it, where's
Almonte?" The adjutant assumes his place
beside the general, trying to keep pace
with Santa Anna's stride (his master, bred
of Creoles, tops Almonte by a head).
"Almonte—a dispatch to General Cos
up in Coahuila. Tell him to prepare
to reinforce all the presidios
along the Texas coast—and the one at Bexar—
what is it? Alamo. I once fought there,
with Arredondo. Fifteen years ago
we crushed seditious San Antonio."
"That was a day like this—" A cannon thud,
succeeded by a whistle, punctuates
Santa Anna's reminiscence. "So much blood,
such slaughter! Every old Tejano hates
the name of Arredondo. Still, the gates
have been secure a while on that frontier,
thanks not to loyalty, but thanks to fear."
"What that old butcher taught me, I'll remind
the yanquis up in Texas, if they dare
to join the rebels here. They have designed
for years to sever Texas; if they tear
that province off, then powers everywhere
will join them in their plundering—Britain, France,
and Spain, they'll rush to amputate our lands."
The autocrat watches his conscripts prod
the men of Zacatecas into groups,
forcing them to strip and kneel, to be shot
or bayoneted. Nearby, inside loops
of hooting, waiting comrades, other troops
rock atop stunned women. "See the fate
seditious towns in Texas can await."
The rebel leader and the forlorn hope
who won the war for Texas in defeat
I aim to recollect. The lonely troop
who spurned alike surrender and retreat
to stand with stubborn Travis will repeat
their vigil on the consecrated wall
of Alamo and with it once more fall.
That legion yet stands watch on the frontier
between imagination and the tract
of memory, where echoed speech rings clear
as poetry, the truth's own dialect.
The dame of that domain, if lore be fact,
embodied in blue light will sometimes prowl
a hollow lane or glide through a corral;
more often, she's a woman in a cloak
on horseback, face occulted by a hood,
no sooner glimpsed than blent with wind and smoke—
the Weeper, whose half-lost, half-understood
lament will swell through cactus clump and wood
as she hunts for new children who, when found,
can take the place of those whom she has drowned.
Our Lady of the dolorous frontier,
search for your brood no more. Tomorrow we
as well must follow you through bend and tier
to melt in eddies of infinity.
Those who precede us, Lady let us see;
restore what the assimilating flow
absorbed, two armies at the Alamo.
From Zacatecas orders galloped forth.
Before the month had ended (it was June
of Eighteen Thirty-Five) a pair rode north
from occupied Coahuila through the moonlike
craters of the Texas road. By noon
the second day, the couriers vaguely knew
their shrinking shadows had grown shadows too.
Swerving as one, the soldiers left the trail,
spurs pumping the felt bellows of each beast.
They did not slow in answer to the hail
of masked pursuers—three of them, at least.
Just when the riders thought the chase had ceased,
they saw the fourth one waiting. Summer sun
flexed like quicksilver on his leveled gun.
Morosely the two messengers looked on
as captors skinned the bags. Though kerchiefs masked
their features, their accented tones belonged
to North Americans. Their leader tasked
his men to hurry, though not one had basked.
Above his silk bandanna, turquoise eyes,
scanning a dispatch, widened in surprise.
That night, in the informal capital
of Texas, the crude cabin colony
of San Felipe de Austin, in the full
town-council chamber, settlers mobbed to see
the civil war's most famous refugee,
lately ambassador of Mexico
in Paris, now his former master's foe.
"This tyrant never tires," Zavala told
the Texans jostling in the lamplit room.
"The blood of Zacatecas makes him bold,
that vampire bat. Now equal horrors loom
for sad Coahuila, sentenced to its doom;
its Governor, Viesca, has been seized
by General Cos. No doubt Santa Anna's pleased."
"Before the Governor was overthrown,
he moved the seat of government to Bexar;
the net Santa Anna's weaving will be sewn
completely, if he plants an army there.
I dread to think how Texas then will fare."
The dapper rebel daubed a somber face
belonging to his nation's ruling race.
"The choice is yours, my countrymen, my friends.
Let Texas thunder `No!' to tyranny,
and here this Caesar's dream of empire ends.
If San Antonio is not to be
our Philippi, we must prove liberty
is not the creed of cowards. `Cicero!'
must be our cry. Let Roman daggers glow!"
Zavala's answer came from J. B. Miller,
the town's boss: "Don Lorenzo, shouldn't we
be fretting more about this Meskin feller
than all them Romans?" The raucous glee
had to be gaveled down insistently.
"Now, folks, I have a letter, signed by Cos,
addressed to `countrymen'—that's us, I suppose."
"Now General Cos, he tells us he's restored
lost `order' to Coahuila—that's his phrase,
in Spanish. He goes on to give his word
that from now on our customary ways
will be respected. Oh—in a few days,
as part of Santa Anna's amnesty,
our good friend Stephen Austin will be free."
His later words were lost beneath a cheer
no gavel could restrain. There was no man
respected more in Texas than the austere
successor to the Moses of this land.
His skill in parley with those in command
had won Stephen Austin fame—till his arrest
in Mexico, as warning to the rest.
If even Austin, peacefulest of all
the Texan leaders, could be seized and penned
without a hearing, what fate might befall
those fellow Texans aching to defend
their chartered rights with more than ink and wind?
The news of the impresario's release,
to this, added an argument for peace:
"We have to wait, till Austin has returned
unharmed." The voice was that of Lemuel Wright,
a farmer, but the thought, it would be learned,
was common property. "This ain't our fight.
Forgive me, Don Lorenzo, but we might
just have to dicker with this latest corps
of Generals, as we did with them before."
To shouts of "Yellow-belly!" Wright replied,
"You call me what you want, but I have seen
these revolutions come in like the tide
and go out the next day. What do they mean
for us up here in Texas? We'll just lean
toward Santa Anna as we did before
toward Bustamante; our peace, and their war."
"You do not understand!" Zavala cried.
"I know Santa Anna well. This amnesty
for Austin, it's a ploy meant to divide..."
The voices medleyed, their cacophony
too fit a symbol of their polity.
Like ants within a hall a twig has wrecked,
the settlers were convulsed to no effect.
Debate declined when, through the crowd, with slow,
majestic strides, a graying giant lumbered
whom none in hall or country did not know.
This white-skinned Cherokee had often slumbered
upon the robe in which he was encumbered;
his hat was Mexican; like souvenirs,
accoutrements evoked the man's careers.
Before the grave Sam Houston could begin,
Lem Wright assailed him. "Houston, you and all
your War Dog friends want to stampede us in
a war with Mexico. That's been your goal
since you arrived. And as for us—to hell
with us old settlers, who came here in peace!"
Sam Houston faced the crowd, and spoke with ease:
"You've heard me called a `War Dog' here tonight;
a `War Dog'! That's not rhetoric, it's rant.
A warrior, I'll own to; if a fight
is justified, I'll add my strength, I grant.
To hint, though, that we blooded soldiers pant
for slaughter, just because we plan and spar,
proves ignorance of warriors and war.
"Each morning I am wakened by the wound
I've worn since, with my brother Cherokee,
I rushed the barricade at Horseshoe Bend
for General Jackson. No one need tell me
about the costs of war's ferocity;
the orphaned child, the bride both newly wed
and widowed I have seen; and I have bled.
"There's nothing in the world that's worse than war,
with one exception, and that is defeat.
To win a clash, and at the same time spare
the ready warrior, that is a feat
to match a sack or siege. Those who can treat
successfully need never peel the steel;
a diplomatic triumph's triumph still."
His face conveyed no secrets with its flex,
no more than does the mask upon the snapper
that broods beneath the Mississippi's dregs,
invisible but for the fleshy clapper
inside the beak's dark bell. The patient trapper
bemuses prey with its tongue's wagging pink,
then gulps down the hovering fish in a wink.
"We've learned tonight that General Cos has vowed
to treat our chartered freedoms with respect,
and I believe a man should be allowed
to prove he's honest. Some folks might suspect
an oath made by the officer who sacked
Coahuila's legislature—but we've heard
that General Cos has given us his word.
"Now General Cos is brother, through his wife,
to General Santa Anna. Some might doubt
a man so placed would risk his rank or life
rather than lie in a decree sent out
to foreign settlers. Still, only a lout
would hide the policy that he preferred;
and General Cos has given us his word."
As Houston paused, the murmur in the place
grew deeper. Through the doorway in the back
a figure eased. The tall latecomer's face
was hidden by a brim and silk cravat.
As if by accident, he touched his hat,
and Houston just as casually replied
by nodding, negligently, and unspied.
"The question, then," the Tennessean resolved,
"is whether we are willing to believe
the claims of a commander who dissolved
a Congress before turning to relieve
a Governor of freedom. Our reprieve
is more than such a tyranny deferred—
for that, we have—what else? the General's word."
"The General is a liar—here's the proof!"
The voice, cornet-crisp, came from the man
beneath the broad-brimmed hat. No more aloof,
he sauntered forward, waving in his hand
a lettered page. "I hold here a command
from Cos to Anahuac's presidio,
intercepted only hours ago."
The room convulsed, despite the gavel's clang
and Miller's: "Mister Travis, you can wait
your turn to speak!" Sam Houston's thunder rang:
"The floor is his. We need to hear this late
intelligence, before there's more debate."
The hubbub ebbed, as Travis doffed his hat
and paused to place his bangs, just like a cat.
Four summers less than thirty he had seen,
but Travis was far more than the absurd
young dandy neighbors knew. A mind too keen
for one of his thin years could be inferred
from nervous eyes the color of the bird
that haunts the jungles by the Mayan sea
and dies if forced into captivity.
"Your Honor, would you kindly verify
the authenticity of this dispatch?"
When Miller gave both sheets a careful eye,
he nodded. "Yes, the signatures do match."
Zavala next translated, patch by patch,
the orders Cos had meant to keep covert
from all but those he wanted to alert.
"`Some veterans from the recent campaign
will be arriving,'" Don Lorenzo read
to his hushed listeners. "He can only mean
the siege that left half Zacatecas dead.
There's more, and worse," the learned exile said.
"`With these new troops, the Texas situation
must be resolved in favor of our nation.'"
The voice of Travis carried through the cries
that these last words educed. "Thus General Cos,
the friend of Texas, ventures to apprise
his underlings of what he plans for those
he's marked for carving—here, a fine fat roast,
and there, a steak—the feast to be delayed
till he equips the butcher with a blade."
Once more the town was tangled in debate:
"We'll stop `em in the west!" "No, seal the coast!"
"We ought to free Viesca!" "He's just bait!"
The cautious Miller, who had been opposed
to any provocation, saw that most
of his constituents were now agreed
upon a course too dangerous to lead;
he nominated Houston to enlist
militiamen from Austin's colony.
From Houston, a recusal: "I insist
that Travis take command. He knows the sea
approaches to Fort Anahuac, which we
must make our own." He added, "I hear tell
that Mister Travis knows that fortress well."
Like honking geese that cease their aimless eddy
and fall in, one by one, behind a bird
that rakes a wake with strokes both sure and steady,
frontiersmen followed Travis, undeterred
by neighbors who insisted they had erred.
The doubters shared misgivings with Lem Wright:
"Because of that young fool, we'll rue this night."
Beneath a canvas curve, the schooner named
Ohio hurdled swells the next afternoon.
A small six-pounder on a truck was aimed
at mocking gulls; it favored a spittoon.
The soldier-citizens brayed out of tune
and passed a flask and wagered on the pack
of dolphins racing them to Anahuac.
In sight of palisades that sentried sand,
the schooner anchored. Soon her cannon throbbed,
and water poled where foam besieged the land.
Then, following the missile they had lobbed,
a dozen raiders, in a bark that bobbed
and bellied up, rose dripping from the suds,
like foot-washing Baptists, dunked in their duds.
To half a dozen farmers and their wives,
young Captain Travis (so he had been styled
that morning by the crew) announced, "Your lives
and property will never be defiled
again by tyranny!" A staring child
advanced and, in a flute's high piping note,
quizzed Travis, "Hey, mister, is that your boat?"
"When they seen you boys coming, they cleared out,"
explained a sideburned settler, at whose side,
atop a gig, his bride, lipless and stout,
was staring solemnly. When Travis tried
to supplement his muster, none replied
with baying to the trumpet of the hunt;
they'd come to see, not be, the elephant.
An ancient story held that while Rome slumbered
one midnight, it was menaced by the Gaul,
unheard, unseen, unconquered, till the unnumbered
geese who dwelt there awoke the Capitol.
A Latin goose on duty—that was all
that still remained in Mexico's stockade,
with picket pigs, and pullet enfilade.
The presidarios had disappeared
into the motte's dim maze, the way a corps
of snuffling javelinas blend with weird
when Travis, tracked by marksmen he had picked,
traversed a moonlit trail into the dark.
"Tenorio! Tomorrow we expect
our force to be increased. You can select
a peaceful exit, or prefer a fight ...
I won't wait for an answer here all night."
A shadow that had seemed to be a tree
abruptly moved. Startled, the rebel heard
a Latin voice: "What is the guarantee
that we shall not be harmed?" "You have the word
of William Barret Travis that no hurt
and no disgrace will be inflicted on
your troops, if they come out unarmed at dawn."
The Mexican commander, in a moment,
responded, "Travis ... Colonel Bradburn shared
some anecdotes of your campaign to foment
revolt a few years back. Twice you have flared
the tinder here. Senor, you should beware,
lest General Santa Anna and his men
ensure you never take a fort again."
At Harrisburg, a town a little way
upriver, settlers watched the schooner dock
and then divulge the filibuster's prey.
The commandant, in braid, stirred fervent talk
beneath the bonnets that turned with his walk.
The Mayor of Harrisburg stepped forth to greet
the officer, repealing his defeat.
Infuriated, Travis told the Mayor,
"Tenorio's a prisoner of war!"
The answer made the rebel clench and glare:
"No, sir, he's not a captive anymore.
It's you they'll fit for feathers and for tar;
the settlements are voting to condemn
your raid as one young vengeful hothead's whim."
"What's happened, Travis?" his companions pestered
their bitter Captain, as he climbed the boat.
He spat out: "They've surrendered to the bastard."
On shore, a band struck up a jaunty note
as notables admired the fancy coat
and saber of their unexpected guest.
Men's hands he shook, and ladies' hands he kissed.
Now rumor gusted inland. Hurricanes,
in carouseling, send the selfsame shock
through blinded lakes and tawny, hackling plains;
on hearing thunder nearing, horses pock
their pens with nervous runes, the roosters squawk,
and cattle boom in answer; so the towns
were stirred by murmur. Travis was denounced.
"They're saying Cos is heading toward us now!"
a rider shouted to the startled settlers
in San Felipe's tavern. "This is how
I told you it would be, if we let meddlers
like Travis have their way!" A hiss like a rattler's
assented to Lem Wright's vindictive croon.
The mob dived into dusk from the saloon.
Like hounds whose prints erase the puma's paw
they follow, as they drag ranchers despoiled
of goats or beeves, contemptuous of law
and warden alike, the colonists roiled
around the shack where Travis slept and toiled
beneath a lawyer's shingle. When they wrenched
his door, they learned their prey would not be lynched.
A few miles north, the prairie was at peace.
The cattle lowed in shadow. In corrals
the horses stood like trees. The dogs had ceased
their clamoring. The fluting of the owls
emerged from thickets, and the bobcat's growls.
The way was lit for possum and raccoon
by a belligerent Comanche moon.
Two tiny riders, in that silver noon
at midnight, made their slow uncertain way
across the chaparral. A satrap moon
spied from the river where they chose to stay.
Their camp was spare, in case there was a fray;
fearing a campfire's flicker would reveal
their bivouac, they gnawed a dry, cold meal.
"Remember, Joe, the night we waded through
the border?" The slave shifted on the ground
beside his master. "Sure enough. Wind blew
the fire plumb out." The pensive Travis frowned.
"You fussed, I cussed, we nearly turned around.
Joe, tell me if I'm wrong; the old Sabine,
her eyes, they didn't glitter half as mean."
|Book One SHIPWRECK||3|
|Book Two THE FIRST REVOLT||27|
|Book Three IDYLLS||49|
|Book Four HORSE SOLDIER||71|
|Book Five THE BATTLE FOR COMMAND||97|
|Book Six THE NEARING STORM||119|
|Book Seven BESIEGED||143|
|Book Eight COUNCILS OF WAR||165|
|Book Nine DEATH AT DAWN||191|
|Book Ten WAR IN THE WALLS||211|
|Book Eleven HAND TO HAND||235|
|Book Twelve EMBASSIES||259|
|Appendix: On Epic||285|