Late on a March afternoon, young Doctor Johann Steinmetz finished paying a medical call upon a patient who lived in a boarding house on Houston Street in the neighborhood of the old Alamo citadel, that crumbling range of stone buildings and barracks, whose plaza now served as a marshalling yard for Army supply trains. His patient turned out to be not so very sick at all; rather feeling the effects of overindulgence the night before. Johann packed up his medical bag, his stethoscope and simples and departed whistling cheerfully. What to do? It was not quite suppertime, and it was a fine spring afternoon. Johann decided that he would walk down Commerce Street, to the old Military Plaza and have a bowl of that delicious, peppery red bean stew that Mexican women sold there, from little stalls set up around the edge of the plaza.Yes, that was what he felt like eating, rather than the bland cooking of his landlady – something plain, spicy and hearty.
He nodded and tipped his hat to a couple of American ladies as he crossed one of the many little footbridges that crossed the narrow water-ways that ran here and there throughout the town and the rambling green river that threaded it as well. Here was a pathway that went along the canal, skirting the backside of the old mission chapel that now was a warehouse and once was a battlefield. As he passed by the ladies, the older of them sniffed contemptuously, and remarked to her younger companion,
“Such a fit looking young man, I wonder that he is not in proper uniform, like all the other boys!”
Johann opened his mouth, and then thought better of it. Why should he have to explain himself to every old biddy on the street? The fact was, he didn’t think he would have minded a uniform – it was the cause that the uniform served that he couldn’t abide. He thanked God nearly every day that he was a qualified doctor, and that his calling had exempted him so far from the draft. But he had endured enough harsh words and contemptuous looks during his time in San Antonio. If it weren’t for his professional duties and a few friendships, he did not think he could have endured.
“I think sometimes of returning to Friedrichsburg, or Neu Braunfels,” he ventured to Doctor Herff once when he was most particularly downcast. “Folk know me there, and they are friends of my father.”
Doctor Herff had looked over his glasses and replied, sternly, “But there is no small need for you here in the city, Johann. I need you, our patients need you. We are doctors,” he added, “Our calling is above such petty things. We are neutral in this war – and folk respect that.”
That was an easy enough matter for Doctor Herff, who was considerably older than Johann, and with a long-established practice. No one looked at him scornfully or thought less of him. Johann was young enough still to feel the sting of contemptuous looks from strangers in the street, men and women alike. On an impulse, he turned aside from the street and took the footpath along the backside of the old citadel. He did not feel like meeting any more scorn, or any more slighting comments this day. Not when it was coming onto spring, with the grass just turning green and the trees in the orchard in back of the old citadel were in leaf. It was warm now, but when the sun descended, so would late-winter chill.
“Juanito!” A familiar voice called his name, a familiar childhood friend, speaking in Spanish, “Little Johnny – what brings you this way on this day of days?”
“Hunger,” Johann answered cheerfully in the same tongue. “I had thought to go and get my supper from the stands in Military Plaza.”
“Juanito,” Porfirio chuckled, “You talk with a lisp, like a delicate gentleman of Castile. They will laugh at you, all those rough men and women in the plaza!” He added a rude suggestion of what those rough characters would think of a young dandy who spoke elegant Spanish with a proper Castilian accent.
“Perhaps so,” Johann agreed, cheerfully. He did not mind Porfirio teasing him like this, for here was relief from medicine and his troubles. Porfirio was once Brother Carl’s stockman and still a friend. He was but six or seven years older than Johann and Fredi, when he and Trap Talmadge had taught them to ride and work cattle, with the aid of a rope and a clever pony. Now, Porfirio did not seem that much older than Johann in years, as he had then. “They might say the same thing of you, with your flowers — as long as you kept your mouth shut! What are you doing here?”
“You do not know, Juanito?” Porfirio’s usually cheerful round face looked unaccustomedly grave, “The date, my friend – you paid no heed to the date?” He was dressed in his customary black Mexican suit, with the short jacket trimmed with silver buttons, and a flat hat with more silver around the crown, carried under his arm. He also had a gathering of flowers in his hand, a spray of white jasmine, twined around a handful of tuberoses and field flowers all gathered together.
“March the 6th,” Johann replied. “But what does that have to do with…”
“I honor my father on this day,” Porfirio replied, “I bring flowers and a candle, to burn at the place where he fell… and his brother found his body.” When Johann still looked puzzled, Porfirio sighed, with a look of mild exasperation. “This is the day upon which General Santa Anna’s men broke into the fortress. My father was one of Captain Dickenson’s cannoneers. Their position was here…” He gestured at the back of the old chapel, looming over their heads. “They had filled the sanctuary with rammed earth and made a cannon-mount on top of it. Three cannons there were. My father had the responsibility for one of them.”
“I did not know…” Johann began, and Porfirio laughed, short and bitter.
“That there were Mexicans within the Alamo? For surely there were, Juanito. My father was one of them, with many others. They sent their families out of the fortress before the siege began– it is in my mind they knew they would die with all the others. No quarter asked, and none given. They fought and died alongside all those Anglo heroes, whose names are written in letters of blood and gold. This was our fortress and our fight also – all of those who fought the Centralists, who wished for our independence. Like my father, like his friend, Captain Seguin. They forget… but I remember!”
They had walked along the narrow path, beaten into dust by many footsteps. They came to the apse of the mission church, a curving wall rising out of the trodden earth and new grass at its feet. At a certain point, which Johann could not tell was different from any other; Porfirio stepped a little way from the path, and waded through the new grass and sparse undergrowth to the foot of the wall. There, kneeling he laid the flowers, and taking a small squat candle from the pocket of his jacket, struck a match and lighted it and set it before them. Johann watched patiently, rather moved. Porfirio appeared so somber. His lips moved, but he spoke so softly that Johann could not hear what he said. Finally he arose, crossing himself, fastidiously brushed the dust from his elegant, silver-trimmed trousers and clapped his hat onto his head. “So much has changed in Bexar since those days, Juanito – yet not these memories…”
“I did not know you had been in the old citadel, before the siege,” Johann ventured as the walked along, “Or that your father had been one of them. What do you remember, of Colonel Travis and Crockett and the rest?”
“Not very much —I was only a boy, Juanito,” Porfirio answered, “Not above four or five years of age. They were strangers to me, being only lately come to Bexar. Colonel Bowie, I knew better. He was married to Veramendi’s daughter — a gallant man with the ladies, but not one that another man should cross.”
“Sounds a little like yourself,” Johann said. Porfirio looked pleased. “What else do you remember?”
“Not much,” Porfirio sighed, a little of his melancholy returning. “My mother’s face as she begged my father one last time to come with us, and take refuge at her fathers’ house. That was the day that Santa Anna’s Army was first reported near. He said that he would not, that honor demanded that he and the others hold their places. Of the siege, I cannot say much – for we remained within walls for two weeks or a little less. Santa Anna gave orders there would be no quarter. My grandfather ventured as far as his roof to see the red banner flying from the tower of San Fernando. We heard the cannons, like thunder, every day until the last but one. The silence, Juanito, that silence was a dreadful silence, more menacing than any bombardment. It held until just before dawn the next morning. And then – such a storm raged then! A furious storm of cannon-shot and musket-fire, of screams and shouting, the thunder of horses hoofs, the bandsmen playing the ‘Degüello’! We could hear it all, clearly as I huddled with my mother in the inner room of my grandfathers’ house. My mother tried to cover my ears so that I would not hear, but my grandfather said, ‘Who are you, my daughter – to keep from the boy the knowledge and the sounds of his father and his comrades dying as paladins, as heroes of the old days?’ My mother wept and wrung her hands, for she knew it was true . There were so many soldiers and cannon with General Santa Anna.”
They had come out onto the edge of the plaza, skirting the newer buildings which now had replaced those which stood in that time that Porfirio recalled so well.
“What happened then,” Johann asked, although he knew very well how it had ended.
“It did not take very long,” Porfirio answered. “An hour and a half, perhaps. It was finished before the sun was well up, a red sky and purple clouds edged in gold and the smell of powder smoke and fire. That afternoon there was a smell in the air of something like pork burning. Santa Anna gave orders for a pyre to be made of all their bodies in the Alameda. We did not think of that at first, for my father’s body was found and brought to my grandfather’s house, by his brother who was a sergeant of cazadores of Toluca. My fathers’ brother sought permission from General Cos to take his body to his family. It was granted willingly.”
Johann looked at him, aghast and horrified. “His own brother? Your uncle was in the army of Santa Anna… how could that have happened?” What a silly question, he told himself – he knew very well how that could have happened. But to have two brothers on different sides, and one to find the others’ body on the battlefield – that was a horror which reduced his own uncomfortable situation to something endurable.
“Ah, Juanito,” Porfirio sighed with infinite melancholy, “They were both good men, men of honor and honesty and the highest ideals – which led them onto different roads. That is the thing, you see. We are not as like to each, indistinguishable as ants in a nest. Men of honor may yet take different roads for good and honest reasons.” He looked very shrewdly at Johann. “In the end, what matters is that an honorable man does in fact act with honor. He does not sit and do nothing at all.”
“Could you see me as a soldier – instead of a doctor, Porfirio?” Johann blurted.
The other man looked at him thoughtfully, spreading his hands on one of those characteristic Mexican gestures, “I could not say, Juanito – my father, he was a clerk and a craftsman. He did not look for glory, only for what he thought was right. You should better ask yourself if you could see yourself as a soldier.” Then he clapped Johann cheerfully on the shoulder, adding, “So – my duty is done now. I am hungry also. Do we still dine at the Military Plaza?”
“Of course” Johann answered. Porfirio beamed, good nature restored.
“Good, good! The good ladies of the chili-kettles call to us. Now my appetite is restored entirely.” They strolled along Commerce Street, taking their leisure and greeting those friends of Porfirio’s that they met along the way. The scent of the chili-kettles wafted to meet them. Johann’s mouth watered with anticipation.
Suddenly Porfirio stopped short, as a man stumbled out of the saloon doorway and almost into their path. Another man followed the first, alertly taking his arm and steering his wavering footsteps on the crowded sidewalk. Porfirio muttered an oath, flinging out one arm to keep Johann back.
“Is that… Mister Talmadge?” Johann ventured. He could only see the men from the back. “Brother Carl’s foreman? I thought he had gone to join the Army!”
“He did,” Porfirio answered carefully, “But they would not take him. Seemingly, he has been trying to drown that sorrow in an ocean of fire-water ever since.” All good cheer had gone from his face. “The other man – did you recognize him?”
“No,” Johann answered. “Should I know him? That chap with Mister Talmadge, that one wearing a tall hat?”
“That one,” Porfirio nodded. He frowned, as he watched the two men – the one with a bad limp, and his companion, who wore a tall black felt hat, such as the Regular Army used to wear – went into another saloon, a little farther along. “He is no friend to the Patron, so why would be drinking with the Patron’s man as if they were the best of friends? This is not good,” he looked very earnestly at Johann. “I do not like this, Juanito.”
(This actually a short chapter which can stand as a separate story, from Volume 2 of the Adelsverein Trilogy. The whole Trilogy is on schedule to be released in December. I am taking pre-paid orders at my website here for autographed copies to be delivered slightly in advance of the official release.