Stars and Stripes Trilogy|
The uneasy truce between Britain and America is broken when the British decide to reassert the might of their empire, and set in motion plans for another attack on America. They begin building a road across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where Mexico is at its narrowest; this will enable them to bring troops from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and attack the United States along the undefended Gulf coast.
Discovering the plan, the Americans attack the road. But President Lincoln knows this won't be the end of the matter, they must come up with some way to stop the British once and for all. General Robert E. Lee comes up with a plan to attack the Britsh where they least expect it, and from very close quarters - and there are plenty of Irish-Americans willing to put the plan into action.
SALINA CRUZ, MEXICO
The two British officers sat at the table on the veranda, sawing industriously at the tough steaks before them. Their faces, running with sweat, were almost as red as their uniform jackets. This was no meal to have in this moist, tropical climate—but they would have no other. No matter that the temperature was already in the nineties and that far lighter, and cooler, food was available. Red meat, well-boiled potatoes and overcooked vegetables, that was the only fit food for an Englishman. They chewed on the gristly freshly-killed beef, stopped only to pat at the perspiration on their foreheads with their kerchiefs when it ran into their eyes.
"And this is only April," the officer with the pips of a captain said, then coughed as he washed down a mouthful of resisting meat with the thin red wine. He took a bite of the maize pancake with little relish; no proper bread either. "The food is impossible and the weather incredible. Worse than India I do believe. What will it be like in the summer?"
"Hot, old boy, damned hot. We're in the tropics you know," the major said. He looked out at the crowded life that was now surging through the tiny fishing village of Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The arrival of the transport ships, now anchored close off shore, had changed everything. Fields had been trampled down so tents could be erected. The locals, in their white clothes and wide-brimmed hats, were well outnumbered by the variously uniformed soldiers of the British army. Many had been turned out of their homes so that the officers could live in comfort. The displaced Indians had built reed-shelters on the beach, where they waited with stolid patience for the tall strangers to leave. Meanwhile they earned some much needed money by selling the invaders freshly caught fish. The major pointed with his fork.
"Madras sappers, and miners. They should work a lot better in this climate than the Sherwood Foresters and Dragoon guards."
The captain nodded agreement. "Heat—and disease, there is no escaping them. Working in the sun, the men are exhausted almost as soon as they begin their daily labors. And they are weakened as well. They get the fever and die from it, more every day. We must be losing ten men to the mile building this road."
"Nearer twenty I would say. Take a look at the new cemetery near the shore."
"Too depressing. So it is, let us say, a hundred miles, from the Pacific to the coastal plain and then on to the Atlantic Ocean. At this rate we will lose a regiment that way."
"It's the same distance again, if not more to Vera Cruz."
"Yes, but the land there is dead flat. Once the road reaches the plain it will just be a matter of smoothing the donkey track that is already there."
'I pray you are right. England is too far from this stinking hole. I fear that I will die here and be buried in the moldy soil. I despair of ever seeing her blissfully cold and fog-shrouded shores ever again."
The dark-skinned man at a nearby table apparently took no notice of them. His thin shirt was more suited to the climate than their wool tunics. His meal of guacamole and juevos rancheros was far easier to digest as well. He scooped the last of it off of his plate with half of a fresh tortilla. Washed it down with black coffee, sighed and belched slightly. A single languid wave of his hand brought the proprietor rushing over to serve him.
"A sus órdenes, Don Ambrosio."
The fat owner of the cantina hurried away and returned moments later with an open box of long cigars. He held it out for inspection. Don Ambrosio took his time in selecting one, then held it to his ear and rolled the tip in his fingers to test the cigar's texture. He nodded approval and opened a large clasp knife and carefully cut off the end of the black Orizaba cigar. The proprietor, Chucho, scratched a sulfur match on the underside of the table, waved it to life, then carefully lit the cigar.
"You, there, more wine," the captain shouted. Chucho did not respond until the cigar was lit and drawing well. Only then did he stroll slowly into the back room, returned some minutes later with a clay jug.
"The locals get all the service, don't they," the captain said scowling in the direction of the dark-skinned man who was languidly blowing a cloud of rich smoke into the air.
"Helps to speak the lingo I imagine."
The wine slopped onto the table when Chucho put the jug down. He wiped at it lazily with his stained apron. Major Chalmers sipped at his wine and looked idly at the man at the other table who was now using his clasp knife to sharpen a point on his pencil. He put the knife away, opened a small bound book and began to write. The major looked at him and frowned with suspicion.
"I say—who's that blighter?"
"That man, the one at that table there who is doing the writing. Who is he?"
"Yes. He ees Don Ambrosio. A big planter from Santo Domingo Tehuantepec. Much land, many trees with fruits."
"Next town down the road," the captain said. "What's he writing down in that bloody book? Has he been listening to us? I can't say that I like any of this."
"Nor do I," Chalmers said, coldly suspicious. "If he speaks English he could overhear our conversation with great ease. Does he understand English?"
The proprietor shrugged and called out differentially to the gentleman.
"Mil perdones, Don Ambrosio. Habla usted inglés?"
"Solamente español, Chucho."
"He say he only speak Spanish. No one speak English here but me 'cause I work with gringos to the norte. Most not even talk Spanish, got a language of their own…"
"I couldn't care less about that. What I want know then is what he is writing in that infernal book?"
Chucho raised his eyes heavenward as though seeking inspiration there. "Don Ambrosio he is a very great man, he is also a great, how you say it, he is a poeta."
Hearing his name spoken the don turned and smiled at the officers.
"Poesía, si." He riffled through the book, found the right page, then read from it with great Latin feeling.
"Mas si osare un extraño enemigo
profanar con su planta tu suelo,
pensa, oh Patria querida!, que el cielo
un soldado en cada hijo te dio.
Mexicanos al grita de guerra
el acero aprestad y el bridón,
y retiemble en sus centros la Tierra
al sonoro rugir del cañón."
The bored officers turned their attention back to their tough steaks while the poem was being read aloud. Chucho stayed and listened to the poem with wide-eyed appreciation, turning reluctantly away only when the officers called out loudly for their bill. As always they cursed him and called him a thief. He reluctantly lowered his price, still charging three times what he normally would.
Only when the Englishmen had paid and gone did the don flip back through the pages of the book to check his memory. Dragoon guards, yes, and Bengal cavalry. And Bombay infantry. And how many men there were who died every day. He looked through the handwritten pages and nodded happily. Good, very, very good. More than enough. His visit to the village was coming to an end.
"You have a quick mind, Chucho," he said when the man came over to clear his plate away. "I should have been more circumspect when I was making notes—but I wanted to get those outlandish foreign names down before I forgot them. I have never heard of the places they mentioned, but I am sure that there are men who do. You were inspired to tell them that I was a poet. You deserve every peso I promised—and more." The small bag clinked when he pushed across the table; it vanished instantly under Chucho's apron.
"Well, it looked like a book of poems. And I was right, that was a most powerful and inspiring poem about our country battles—"
"And written by a powerful poet, alas not me. I take no credit for it. That was written by the patriot Francisco González Bocanegra, Mexico's greatest poet. He gave his life for his country, just two years ago. Now—get in touch with Miguel, tell him we leave at dawn."
At first light Don Ambrosio was waiting outside the half-ruined hut where he had been staying for the past weeks. The Indian woman in the adjoining house had cooked meals for him, and washed his clothes, and was more than grateful for the few coins he gave her. Miguel had been caring for his horse at one of the nearby farms. She whinnied when she saw him and he rubbed her nose with affection. In a fit of classical enthusiasm he had named her Rocinante after the great knight's own mount.
"She looks fine."
"There was good grass there. She was in the fields with the donkeys."
Miguel's donkey was so small that the rider's feet almost dragged in the dust of the trail. He led another donkey loaded with their belongings, while Don Ambrosio brought up the rear mounted on his fine bay. The full force of the sun blasted down when they left the narrow village streets. The don wore his wide-brimmed and handsomely decorated sombrero on his back secured by its string; he put it onto his head and settled it into place.
They quickly left the small village behind and followed a twisting path into the jungle beyond. There was shade under the trees now, but little relief from the muggy heat. They plodded on. For a short while their path paralleled that of the new road below, where it cut a dusty track through the forest. When they passed through the occasional clearing they could see the laboring soldiers hacking through the jungle and digging into the rich volcanic soil. When the road was finished it would stretch from Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast, right across the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to Vera Cruz on the Atlantic shore. That's what the officers had said: he had heard it more than once. They talked a lot when they drank, never considering for a moment that they might be overheard. All if them agreed that this was a most ambitious project. Don Ambrosio agreed with them—and a most unusual one in this poverty-stricken and neglected country. Because when it was finished it would also be the only road in all of Mexico. The British were the first invaders to ever have bothered building a road. Certainly the Spanish, in all their centuries of occupation never had. The most recent invaders of this unfortunate country, the French and the Austrians, had followed suite. All of them too interested in plundering the country that there was never enough time to bother bringing the benefits of civilization to these shores. Communications were slow and commerce primitive where all of the messages and trade between cities went on muleback.
Don Ambrosio touched his jacket pocket where the small book was safely settled, and smiled. His time here had been well spent. He had watched the sailing ships arrive and the soldiers come ashore. He had counted the men and made careful record of their number. He had noted their guns and their cavalry, and recorded as well their progress on the construction of their road. And, most important of all, he had transcribed every spoken word that he had heard. But all of his effort would be wasted if he and his book did not get to Vera Cruz as soon as possible.
The trail wound upward to the pass at Matias Romero, then sloped gently down towards Campeche Bay. They stopped when they reached the summit to rest their weary animals.
"Tell me, Miguel, will we reach the city by dark?"
"I cannot promise. But once out of the mountains the going will be easier because the land is very flat along the shore."
"I am certainly hopeful of that. I am not used to the jungle and I am afraid that I do not like it all."
"The jungle is rich and kind to those who know how to live there."
"I wish them the best of luck. It is in the cities that I feel most at home."
"Do you know, señor, why the tall gringos have come here to the build this road?"
"They say to each other that it is to cross Mexico and connect one ocean to another."
"And when this is done—what will they do with it?"
"I must admit that is a mystery that I have puzzled over. But I have not lost sleep over it. Sharper brains and wiser minds may know the answer. Now—do you think that we should push on?"
"The animals are rested. We will make better time now."
Insects hummed in the heat; birds called loudly from the trees. Don Ambrosio was tired and found himself nodding off in the saddle. He woke up with a start when Miguel suddenly hissed a quick warning—and held his hand up as he pulled his donkey to a stop. He pointed.
Three men had emerged from between the trees on the far side of the clearing that they were now crossing. Two of them held long, sharp machetes; the third had an ancient musket. Don Ambrosio kicked his horse forward past the donkeys, reined it to a stop.
"We come in peace," he said quietly.
The man with the gun hawked and spat, then half-raised his weapon.
"Gold?" he said hoarsely.
"Only lead," Don Ambrosio said in a quiet voice. He loosened the carbine that was holstered to his saddle with his left hand, his right hand resting on the pommel of his saddle. The bandit pointed his own gun in response.
With a motion too swift to follow the don pulled the Colt .45 from his waistband and fired three quick shots.
The armed man was down, as was the second man. The third staggered, wounded, turned to flee. A fourth shot dropped him by the others.
"We must move quickly now," Miguel said, kicking his mule forward. "If there are others close by, they will have heard the shots."
"Who are they? Or perhaps, more correctly, who were they?"
"It does not matter. Hungry men with guns fill this poor land. We have had too many revolutions and rebellions, too much killing. Now, please, we must ride."
"Take this," Don Ambrosio said, pulling out the carbine, turning and throwing it to him. "I'll go first." He reloaded the pistol as he rode. "I'll watch the path ahead—you watch the jungle on the side."
If there were other bandits hiding in the undergrowth they wisely kept their distance. A few miles later the track finally emerged from the forest and passed by the corn fields of a small village. Don Ambrosio put his pistol away and Miguel once more led the way. But he still carried the carbine. Years of war, revolution and invasion had left the countryside well populated with bandits. And now there were others—who were far more of a threat then bandits. Don Ambrosio, riding high on his horse, could see further along the path.
"Dust!" he called out. "A lot of it up ahead."
They reined up, looked around for cover. There was little of it here on the coastal plain.
"We can't go back—so we must go ahead. Those trees ahead," Don Ambrosio said, pointing to a small grove close to the beaten trail. "We must get there before they do."
He galloped ahead. The donkeys followed protesting loudly when Miguel goaded them cruelly with his stick. The sound of marching feet could now be clearly be heard in the distance as they crashed through the underbrush between the trees. Moments after they had found cover the first of the blue-clad soldiers came into sight.
Dusty, hot and weary, they nevertheless marched steadily on, an officer on horseback leading them. Muskets on their shoulders, heavy packs on their backs. The invaders.
Concealed by the trees and undergrowth the two men watched the long column march by. Even when this main body of soldiers had passed, they remained under cover in case there were stragglers. And indeed there were, a limping band being urged on hoarsely by a sergeant. Only when the track was completely clear did they continue with their journey.
It was almost dark when they entered the cobbled streets of Vera Cruz. Don Ambrosio led the way now through the narrow alleys, avoiding the main roads and the crowded squares. The only French they saw were a few soldiers drinking outside a pulqueria, too drunk to even notice them. They passed a crowded street market rich with the scent of freshly ground spices and chilies. Most of the stalls were closing up for the night, though some Indian women still sat in rows against the walls, offering handfuls of fresh limes for sale. It was dark when they came out of the back streets and onto the waterfront. There was just enough light from the full moon for Don Ambrosio to find his way to a courtyard filled with nets and cordage. A fat man stood on a ladder there and was reaching up to light a lantern, grunting with the effort, tottering precariously on his wooden leg. The wick caught and he blew the match out, turned to look at the newcomers when the Don called out a greeting.
"Good evening, Pablocito. We've come a long way and are very tired."
"Don Ambrosio!" He climbed down the ladder, stumped over and threw his arms around him in a warm abrazo, for they were old friends. "Come inside and we will drink some mezcal, the very best from the city of Tequila. Leave your animals, my men will take care of them."
"I will go with them," Miguel said. Don Ambrosio untied his wrapped bedroll from the horse.
"You will take good care of Rocinante while I am away," he said.
"As always. Do you know when you will return?"
"Not yet. I will let Pablo know if I can, and he can get a message to you in your village."
Pablo took the bedroll from him and led the way into the building.
Inside the well-lit kitchen Pablo opened a cabinet and took out a bottle, slammed it down and pushed forward the cut limes and the bowl of salt. Don Ambrosio nodded happily and reached for a glass. Put the salt on the web between thumb and index finger; licked the salt and then in a quick movement emptied the glass of tequila. Bit the lime and sucked on it so that all three blended deliciously in the mouth. Derecho. The only way to drink the fiery maguey spirit.
Don Ambrosio smacked his lips with pleasure and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "That is wonderful. Now tell me, it is most important—is the ship here yet?"
"Not only here but it has been waiting for three days now. I have talked with them but they will not listen. They say that they cannot stay in port any longer. The captain says they must leave at dawn."
Don Ambrosio sprang to his feet, unconsciously touching the book in his pocket to be sure it was safe. "Then I must go now."
"Will you not eat before you go?"
"You are sure that they won't leave before dawn?"
"The captain gave me his word on it."
"Then I accept your kind invitation. All we had on the trail were some cold tortillas."
"We will have carne asada. That will stick to your ribs. You know you can leave your horse with me if you want to."
"Your are kind to offer. But Miguel will take her with him back to his village. He has done it before. He is loyal and strong."
Pablo nodded, drove the cork into the tequila bottle and passed it over. "Take this as well. You will need its warmth where you are going."
They ate quickly. When they had done they left, Pablo locking the door behind them, then leading the way down along the docks. To the grimy side-wheeler tied up at the very last berth. They said their quick good-byes and Don Ambrosio climbed up the gangplank to the deserted deck. It seemed to be empty—then he saw the glow of a cigar in the shadow of the pilot house. The man in the uniform cap stepped forward and looked suspiciously at the newcomer.
"What are you doing on this ship? Speak up. Habla usted inglés?"
"Indeed I do, sir, indeed I do speak English. Now tell me, if you would be so kind, is it the noble captain of this fine vessel that I am speaking to?"
"Then I am the man that you have been expecting."
"None other. Thank you for waiting so long for me—but your wait is at end. If you have no other reasons to stay in this port might I suggest that we cast off as soon as possible. I have with me information of the greatest importance."
The captain was bellowing orders even before Don Ambrosio O'Higgins had finished speaking. Down in the engine room coal was shoveled liberally over the banked fires. A sailor jumped ashore and cast off the line, swung back onto the ship as she drifted away from her berth. As soon as steam was raised the big paddle-wheels slowly turned, then faster and faster as they thrashed their way out of the harbor. As soon as they were out in the open sea, well clear of the land, the flag was raised on the stern.
The full moon cast a clear light on the stars and stripes, flapping proudly in the air that was rushing past.