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I WAS AS WILD for glory as any of us.
Before too much time had passed, we had all changed our minds, had given up on dreams of glory and were fighting only to win. And not too much longer after that, all that was on our minds was a good cool drink of water; and before it was over, all any of us wanted was simply to get back home.
How much of it was hate, and how much love? In our expedition, there was plenty of both. Our commanders, Thomas Jefferson Green (named for his great-uncle in Virginia) and Captain William S. Fisher, were adept from the start at braiding the two together, love and hate, in such a fashion as ultimately to possess us. We became a rope that they kept coiled, and then used for their purposes — Thomas Jefferson Green pursuing love, I think, while Fisher was intent on chasing down his hatred. It’s a miracle that any of us got out alive, and though I was only sixteen when they came riding through, asking for volunteers, I do not hold them accountable for my own free-will choice. They were just passing through: one counseling patriotism, the other vengeance. Between them, they caught the few of us who were left unclaimed by that one emotion or the other.
The purpose of our militia, Fisher informed us, would be to hunt down a band of infidels, Mexican nationals, who had come across the new border of Texas and staged an attack on San Antonio. There would be plenty of fighting, he assured us, all we could ever wish for. The glory existed just beyond our reach, he told us, but only barely. All we had to do was go out and search for it, he promised, and it would be delivered to us.
Too young to have fought at the Alamo, my friend James Shepherd and I thought we had missed our opportunity for war. We thought that with the victory at San Jacinto less than a month after the fall of the Alamo, a disgusting wave of peace and softness had settled on the land and that weakness had come flooding in. We thought our manhood would never be tested.
Thomas Jefferson Green, like his namesake, was in love with his new homeland and the potential of the new republic — he had political aspirations and was said to be one war away from being eminently electable — as popular one day, perhaps, as General Houston himself — while Fisher simply wanted to injure, maim, and destroy.
My own town of LaGrange had a firsthand acquaintance with such sentiments. One of our native sons, Captain Nicholas Dawson, had rushed to the defense of San Antonio against one of General Woll’s invasions. It was infuriating to all Texans that Mexico was coming back for more: six years earlier Mexico had surrendered half her nation — the whole of Texas — following Santa Anna’s expensive victory at the Alamo and humiliating defeat at San Jacinto — and then the Mexican army, having pinned Dawson into a position of surrender, went ahead and massacred thirty-five of his men, despite the truce. Only five had escaped the terms of the “surrender,” including our own Dawson, who spoke ceaselessly of revenge, and how he would never trust the flag of Mexico again.
I had one day helped him repair a fence, through which some of his father’s cows had escaped — he was a quiet, strong, pleasant young man, only four years older than I was — though when he came back from the Dawson Expedition his arm was shattered and held by a makeshift sling, a saber scar ran across his thigh, and he was no longer pleasant but always angry and frightened.
So we knew, or should have known, what we were getting into, but we couldn’t help it.
A great victory had been achieved at San Jacinto, and there was no call, save pride and fury, to risk ourselves now. We should have let the bandits be. We should never have joined when Captain Fisher and Captain Green came calling. And having joined their militia, we should have pulled up shy at the Rio Grande, letting Mexico understand that we would defend our newly gained territory, but we should never have gone on into their country.
Five hundred of us left LaGrange that day — three hundred and eight of us would go on to cross the river into Mexico, and only a handful returned. That was fifty years ago, and whenever young people ask, I tell them that there is no shortage of war in the world, and that wars always come looking for someone to fight them — particularly if you’re from Texas, with war born in blood. But young people don’t often ask and instead plunge into war.
I live on the outskirts of a small town, and I watch mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers grieve.
And it’s not only the bloood of the enemy and of their own that they grieve, but also the heart’s blood — the heart’s drying out.
What fun, what glory, what joy must war hold, to summon them thus?
I remember how it seemed that the voice of a beautiful woman was calliiiiing and that a spacious country filled with bounty lay just ahead.
Why was I one of the tiny handful who survived the entire journey? I can find no clue, no scrap of order or design, even as I knew all along — or almost all along — that I would survive.
Have I subsequently lived in such a fashion as to justify being spared? Have I done anything magnificent, achieved more than those who died would have? Fifty years later — a farmer of stock, a raiser of goats, sheep, and cattle, a grower of corn and cotton — I can find no reason for my survival, but then I can find no good reason for having crossed the border in the first place.
The night before Green and Fisher arrived, I had been troubled by dreams. In the first dream, my friend James Shepherd and I were camped along the James River, which was where we liked to go in the summer to fish for catfish. We could catch them closer to home, in the lower meandering of the muddy Brazos; but in the James River, farther up into the hills, the water ran clearer and faster and the fish tasted better. It was Comanche country, though, and we usually went there only in the early summer, when the People, as the Comanches called themselves, had gone north to hunt buffalo.
There was nothing Shepherd and I loved more in the world than to eat catfish from the James. There was no finer food, no finer times than on those days and nights when we camped beside the clear-running river and feasted on catfish and dreamed about the shape our lives might take. James Shepherd was going to be governor of Texas, or a senator at least, while I, James Alexander, was less sure of my role. I was the better student, and I thought for a while that I might become a physician. (Shepherd, on the other hand, was troubled by the sight of blood, so much so that I had to clean and prepare the fish for him at our meals each morning and evening.) In this dream that came to me the night before Captains Green and Fisher arrived, Shepherd and I had built a little hut woven from oak and juniper branches — a mound that we latticed and stitched tight with leaves and smaller branches until it resembled the larval encasement of a caddis fly. Such structures kept us warm and dry during even the most violent thunderstorms, and we had spent countless nights in these little huts, bathed in the sweet scent of our oak cook fire, as well as the odor of the crushed juniper bushes and their gin-scented berries.
But in this dream, our earth and branch huts were blazing, and it was neither campfire nor lightning bolt that had ignited them but some dark bird flying through the night, dropping clumps of soil onto every hut. Seconds later, each hut would burst into bright flame, lighting the night.
Every hut of our childhood was there, every sanctuary, and the dark bird dropped load after load of rich soil onto our thatched shelters, each one blossoming into flame; and in the dream, we were sometimes in those huts, and other times we were running from the giant bird and the burning huts.
The bird, or whatever it was, seemed to have no knowledge of us personally but was mindlessly intent on destruction, and this cold-blooded indifference made its terror slightly less frightening.
I woke drenched in sweat. The dream was so real I went outside to see if any fires were burning, but the horses were quiet in the barn and there were only a few fireflies circling in the meadow and an owl murmuring down by the creek.
I sat down and wrapped my arms around my legs and watched the stars for a long time, as if waiting for something.
My heart was racing, but the world seemed large and quiet, unperturbed. I went back to bed, and almost immediately upon falling asleep I dreamed the second dream, which was more real than the first.
I was up in the loft of an unfamiliar house. Giant beams were crashing down, breaking through the roof and cracking open the walls, and though the timbers seemed directed toward me, I did not seem to be at risk. This time when I woke, I could not go back to sleep but went outside and sat until dawn, watching and waiting.
I think I knew then that I would survive many tests — that some are chosen for no reason — and the loneliness of that revelation was fierce and complete, involving my greatest fear of being left alone, or behind. It was a fear that had a place in the world. It seemed that I might be called on to keep a certain terror burning in my heart, until finally it burned no more.
Both Green and Fisher rode bay mares, exquisite animals gotten from the spoils of war. Green, a small, chesty man, seeming as wide as he was tall, rode the larger of the two horses, one that was two hands too big for him, so that although he rode it well, he never quite seemed graceful but appeared to expend considerable effort to control the horse. Fisher was taller, more military-looking, and rode a more average-size horse. When the two men were asaddle next to each other, the eye was drawn to Green, as his tall, stiff-legged horse turned and backstepped, cantering and crabbing sideways and rattling her bit. Fisher sat motionless beside such prancings, his eyes searching the crowd, until his gaze narrowed on someone as if that person had disappointed or betrayed him. Then he gazed upon that person with an almost tender forgiveness, but with a fierce, angry curiosity as well, as if asking, How could you? As if calling into question all the choices a person had made in a lifetime.
Such was the look that fell upon me that morning they rode into town.
Fisher seemed to study me for hours, but it could only have been seconds. When he finally released me, I turned to search for James Shepherd and saw that he was watching the curious exhibition of Thomas Jefferson Green atop the massive bay, which was turning in tight circles like a copper-colored dervish.
Shepherd saw me and then raised his hand to enlist. He took a step toward the soldiers, who looked so clean and sharp and precise — so alive — and I found myself raising my own hand.
We didn’t know then that the soldiers, or irregulars, had stopped the day before and bathed in the river and scrubbed their hair and washed their uniforms; they had hung them out to dry in the late-autumn sun, and had brushed and curried their mounts and filed their hoofs in preparation for the next morning’s recruiting. We didn’t know that they needed only forty more volunteers to attain their desired goal of five hundred, which was what they had ascertained was the ideal strike force, able to travel fast and far and light, yet also sufficient, when under focused discipline, to present formidable, lethal force against the enemy.
Neither did we know that the night before at their encampment the two captains had debated — not quite arguing — about whether to go searching for those final forty in LaGrange, or to veer northwest to Bastrop.
“We only need forty,” Fisher had said.
“Surely we can find forty in LaGrange.” “But Bastrop is larger,” Green said.
“And if we don’t get forty, then we have to go on up to Bastrop anyway, losing two extra days.” They debated some more, out of earshot of their men, and finally decided by Fisher’s choosing one of two twigs from Green’s fist. The short twig meant they would take the near path to LaGrange, while the longer twig meant traveling directly to Bastrop, bypassing LaGrange. The men, women, and children — the farmers and teachers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters — slept peacefully in Bastrop, never knowing, never being asked to die, spared, as I would be — but without the choice and the challenge.
In LaGrange, Fisher and Green secured forty-two volunteers. They came from a mix of society: the unschooled and the well educated, the poor and the elite, the sons of ne’er-do- wells, of politicians, of farmers, clerks, and grocers. What burned brightest in us all was a love of the land, with its wild pecan groves and deer and turkey, and the fertile river bottom and endless timber and grasslands.
Surely we would not have had so many wars, had our land not been so beloved — fighting the Indians to the west, and Mexico to the south, as the flow of Appalachian emigrants continued to filter down from out of the highlands.
What our town was like then was the calm in the eye of a storm. We lived in bucolic idyll, and knew it; each morning, dawn’s rising found us already out in the fields, working. And paradoxically, it was the pastoral existence, this peace within the whirlwind, that compelled many of us to leave the calm and venture out into the storm. Looking back, I can see clearly the irony and wrong-headedness of it, but back then it seemed to make perfect sense: almost as if such decisions and such notions had been foreordained.
My own family were farmers, Gores and Lowrys from Tennessee, whose ancestors had come down from Wales, pausing for a generation in County Cork before traveling across the Atlantic. Like the other forty-one new recruits, I told my parents goodbye and said that our commanders promised we would be back in two weeks, or three at the most. We gathered our weapons — a rifle or a pistol, or both — and ammunition, with which we were never wasteful, and packed a lunch, and rode out that afternoon.
Not all of us were young. The eldest was Claudius Toops, a blacksmith of sixty, who enlisted with his son Buster, who was forty, and Buster’s own son Andrew, who was twenty.
But regardless of rank or age or station in life, that first evening, with the mass of us camped on the banks of the Brazos, we were all in high spirits, conjoined in a new brotherhood.
In the days before our march, the newspapers had been quoting Texas’s president, Sam Houston, as saying that regrettably there was no budget for arming militias and bands of patriots such as ours — that “the government will promise nothing but the authority to march, and will furnish such supplies of ammunition as may be needed for the campaign. Volunteers must look to the Valley of the Rio Grande for remuneration,” he told reporters, and surely he meant from the other side of the river — the Mexican side. “Our government promises to claim no portion of the spoils,” he told the press; “they will be divided among the victors.” He finished with one caveat: “The flag of Texas will accompany any such expedition.” And camped there on the Brazos that first night, Captain Green produced with a flourish a tattered paper that he said was our personal marching orders from President Houston himself. The letter was dated October third of that year and addressed not the bandits whom Green and Fisher said we would be chasing, but Mexico’s General Woll’s surprising attack (with two thousand men) on the southern outpost of San Antonio.
In those early days of the march, our fiddles had not yet been abandoned; a few of the recruits had shoved them into their saddlebags or rode with them tied to their saddles, bouncing and sometimes squealing with a single stray note.
And that night, as Green produced and then began to read from his letter, they fell silent, and we listened as intently as if he were President Houston himself.
“Captain Green, my fellow patriot,” he read. “You will proceed to the most eligible point on the southwestern frontier of Texas, concentrate with the force now under the command, all troops who may submit to your order, and if you can advance with the prospect of success, into the enemy’s territory, you will do so at once. You will receive no troops into your command but such as those who will swear to march across the Rio Grande under your orders, if required by you to do so. If you cross the Rio Grande, you must suffer no surprise, but be always on the alert.
“In battle, let the enemy feel the fierceness of just resentment and retribution. You alone will be held responsible to the government, and sustained by its resources.
“I have the honor to be, Your Obedient Servant, Sam Houston.” Again and again on the campaign, Green would read this letter to us, and he always paused near the end.
It was not until much later in the campaign that I found out he had been skipping a sentence.
“You will be controlled by only the most civilized warfare,” the sentence read, “and you will find great advantage of exercising great humanity toward the common people.” These words were from a man who had been kicked out of Tennessee for alleged marital scandals, stripped from the U.S. Senate for alcoholism, and had gone to live with the Indians in east Texas before it was a nation; who had recovered, in that wilderness, and who had gone on to become a chief of the Cherokees, and then the president of a new nation. It was just one sentence, and perhaps a small one — twenty-four words — but in the end, it was all the difference between what was intended and what was done.
We rode south, led by Green and Fisher, the two sometimes glancing at each other but usually staring straight ahead, as if afraid some of us might look back toward home and change our minds. But in the beginning, as we rode south, searching for mysterious bandits, infidels against the republic, we were certain we would win. It was a feeling like the Holy Spirit descending. Your hands and feet tingle. You feel that all is predestined and you have prepared for glory. You cannot imagine loss or the anonymity brought by time.
We secured beef from the ranches and farms we passed. Everything we saw was ours — ours to defend, and then ours to possess. Shepherd and I shared a tent with two boys from Elgin and Navasota. Each night we cleaned our weapons and sharpened our swords. The sound of the steel seemed like the sound of judgment itself, and we were overcome with wonder and relief at having been chosen.
We would lead remarkable lives. We had been rescued.
Copyright © 2005 by Rick Bass. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.