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THE ENDS OF SEVERAL ILLUSTRIOUS CAREERS
Paul Wayne Hiaumet
They outran the Mexican patrol with relative ease. They had been clumsy--a mistake of fatigue--or they would never have been spotted. Their horses were tired (Thimblerig thought they might die waiting outside the cantina. "Better them than us," Buddy Ebsen had grumbled), but they were long-legged Tennessee beasts, and the cottonwood trees, in addition to providing good cover, allowed them to utilize their cutting skills.
Crockett felt drained from tequila and the heat. Of whether Texas was the hottest place he'd been in February, he couldn't be certain. But it was damn sure the dustiest.
The sun was humping the horizon as they reached the mission. Long shadows spilled out of the crumbling adobe walls, and Crockett saw his own, stretched across the courtyard, edging toward the door of the chapel. The place smelled of lathered horses, urine and feces. Chickens clucked somewhere in the shadows. The men, dirty and tired, stood in small groups, smoking and talking. Crockett expected something more and grumbled his disappointment, remarking to no one in particular that Texans barely had the energy to be curious.
He had dreamed of this for four nights now, had walked through the fields of blue flowers, met Bowie and Travis each time. Each night they had ballyhooed that Crockett's arrival surely spelled victory for Texas. There had been much drinking and back-slapping, things Crockett loved and believed all true men of adventure, all freedom-fighters, loved. Going to Texas was their destiny, he had told Buddy Ebsen. Buddy Ebsen had kept his opinion to himself, as he had since they crossed Alabama. It was all right; he didn't know about the dreams, or the flowers.
The cantina's proprietor had told Crockett that indeed there were blue flowers, great fields of them, or, at least, there would be in the spring. And then Crockett had been sure he was right.
He reminded himself now of the flowers, as he watched the glut of lethargy surrounding them.
Travis was electrified by Crockett, seeing the rugged lines strained against his sweat-stained buckskin, the way it clung to his thighs and hips. He was not as large or intimidating as the legends preceding him.
Bowie had spurned Travis for the Mexican whore in the village, saying Travis was too pretty and fussy and besides, he needed something with tits to hold on to, so he wouldn't fall off in his drunkenness.
Travis said; "Colonel Crockett?"
"I'm Crockett. And these are Thimblerig and Buddy Ebsen."
"I'm Colonel William Barrett Travis."
Crockett grunted. A name to match his uniform, impeccably clean, the creases even, the trouser legs tucked neatly into his boots, surreal amidst his mud and sweat caked charges.
"Colonel Bowie is indisposed at the moment..."
"Drunk with a whore in the cantina," Crockett growled. "We've met."
"Not that it makes much difference, Davy," Buddy Ebsen said as he untied his bedroll and spread it on the cot, "but Colonel Bowie's got pneumonia."
"You read that in tea leaves?" Crockett asked, pulling his blanket closer.
Buddy Ebsen nodded.
"Why wouldn't it make much difference?"
Buddy Ebsen shook his head and blew out the lantern.
Though he rarely disagreed with Crockett, he had not agreed with the decision to come here. He'd not liked it to begin with and liked it even less now.
The colonel's career in Congress had proved successful, if amusing to some of his more educated colleagues. Since then, however, he had become cantankerous, bitching constantly about his aches and pains, the evils of impending old age, and the simple chores involved with traveling and living on the land, things he had once done cheerfully and by second nature. He was drinking more and his temper was marked with an unusually short fuse.
Still, he had hardly complained at all on the journey from Tennessee, though they had endured harsh winter storms, encountering ice and heavy snowfall as far south as Oklahoma and northeast Texas. Crockett had been equal to the task, taking every opportunity to hunt and provide food. His swelling and aching joints--rheumatism, Buddy Ebsen had diagnosed--seemed to affect his marksmanship not at all. He was sleeping better. And once in central Texas, winter had subsided, giving way to temperatures that were down right balmy.
Crockett was a man who had to go through life with a purpose, Buddy Ebsen had decided, though he was still drinking too much, and Buddy Ebsen still didn't like it. He had stuck with him this long; he reckoned he would stick around for the duration.
He settled into his cot, and, listening to Crockett's hoarse breathing, willed his mind blank and drifted off to sleep.
Bowie rode his horse slowly and unsteadily past the sentries. Most were used to seeing him this way--at least since he and Travis had parted ways. He sang something soft and unintelligible as they creaked the gates open for him.
Crockett tossed some and mumbled, dozing only, knees swollen, muscles stiff.
Bowie watched for a while, feeling every spasm in the man's restless sleep, then intruded, "Would Colonel Crockett care for some tequila?"
Crockett cocked a lone eye toward Bowie. Buddy Ebsen continued his subdued snoring.
Bowie, like Crockett, wore buckskin. He was fond of liquor and whores. It was rumored that he'd run slaves in Louisiana with Jean Lafitte. "You can't prove it," he smiled at Crockett, turning the handle of his knife between his thumb and forefinger. He outlined for Crockett the finer points of their situation. They were out numbered them at least ten to one. There were to be reinforcements, but he spoke of them like Zeus, something mythical and unlikely to materialize.
"What about the blue flowers?" Crockett asked.
"Bluebonnets," Bowie corrected. "They're beautiful. In the spring there are millions of them, in some places stretching out of sight in all directions. You should see them, Davy."
"Yes," Crockett said, taking a drink of the tequila, feeling the ache in his joints subside.
The battalions of Mexican soldiers, color coordinated and marching in formation, honed Crockett's appreciation for their opposition. He knew the type of discipline, the training necessary to carry off such maneuvers. The beauty of the contrasting colors--predominate white with gold and red, blue with white and gold--weaving in and out on the battlefield, struck him as oddly moving. He drifted to Tennessee; he hadn't spent enough time there lately. His boyhood memories of hunting the rolling hills, the green valleys, seemed strikingly clear. The recent years in Washington were a gasp on the breeze. He hardly noticed the first cannon shot, knocking out a huge section of the wall several yards to his right.
"I believe," Travis said, "that we held our own today."
Crockett rubbed his oil rag along the barrel and forestock of Ol' Betsy, looked flat-lipped at Bowie. Bowie coughed and pulled the bottle of tequila from beneath Crockett's bunk.
Crockett sat with Bowie in the cool evening against the wall outside the old convent. The evening breeze had washed away most of the odor of organic waste. The invading air was crisp and biting from the open hill country. Bowie lit a hand-rolled cigarette and coughed out the smoke. "No
fatalities," he said, handing it to Crockett. "No fatalities," Crockett repeated, taking the smoke with one hand and rubbing his shoulder.
He took a deep drag and rested his head against the wall. It seemed years since he had time to think. And why was it now he thought of his first trail drive? His father had sold him to that drive when he was twelve, saying they needed the money and it was time the boy got out in the world. There were things he'd seen there he would never forget, but just as soon would: a great burly man, with the smell of death about him and hands like sandpaper, an appetite for things that the boy Crockett had never imagined. And he saw these things now everywhere--though he wished he did not--everywhere there were lonely men which was everywhere he went. They seemed always to interfere with his ability to make decisions.
The breeze was split by a shriek: "Men, we must attack! Bowie has taken Crockett and we must take Santa Anna. I must have that fucking uniform!"
It was Travis, bathed in the lunar glow of the clouds, running blindly behind the battlements, waving his sword above his head, giving orders to the stars, wearing nothing but his boots, sash and dueling pistol.
Bowie coughed raucously, spitting up what Crockett thought was blood. "Travis has a little problem with opium," he said, offhand. "Lafitte would have fucked him and slit his throat before he had a chance to sigh."
"Hearsay," Bowie interrupted, taking a drink of tequila, coughing, lighting another cigarette and placing a hand on Crockett's thigh.
Buddy Ebsen studied the stars and the ground, looking from one to the other and back again. His hand shot to his jaw, then dropped. He drew a line in the dirt with his toe.
The Mexican's seemed to fall like flies and still there was no tangible decrease in their numbers. Crockett saw his life in their swirling colors and fought as if hypnotized, feeling a tiny twinge for each one felled, never taking his eyes from their charging ranks as he loaded and reloaded Ol' Betsy, tasting blood in the clouds of spent gunpowder. He barked out offhand orders to his men, feeling later, as he lay reflective, as if he were ordering his own execution.
Bowie's charge was mainly the farmers, the men who came with whatever weapons and ammunition they had. They were fighting for their homes and families, and understood little of Travis' high minded political speeches. There were no principals, no philosophical ideals. It was all blood and guts to them. They were poorly organized, but respected Bowie, a man who had done what he could with what he had. If he had smuggled slaves and associated with pirates, why, that was all right, too. He had gotten by and managed to be a hero in the process. And he was here; whatever else that meant it made him good deep down and true to his pioneer roots.
Bowie rarely gave orders; he hobbled on a barrel-split rifle as long as he was able. The congestion in his lungs deepened and congealed. He frequently suffered dizzy spells at his post along the north wall, alternating chills and sweats. He fought alongside the farmers, admiring their fortitude, seeing in them what he knew of his father, who, oddly, he hadn't thought of in years. Theirs was a life he'd left behind, run out on, some might say, though he would never believe that. He fired his prototype Colt's Dragoon only into crowds of Mexican soldiers, or at the stray ladder-carrier who managed to break through the spray of shot and tried to position a ladder for scaling the wall. He never wasted a shot, realizing they were running low on ammunition.
By the time Travis assembled the men, Bowie was bedridden, brain-basting feverish.
Travis, by virtue of seniority of association with the Texas army, was commander of the garrison. His fighting unit was the Texas militiamen, who, as a group, had more training and military discipline than the rest. He organized them in ranks, one firing while the other reloaded, always on his command. If he was aware of the situation with the ammunition, he was blatantly ignoring it. He stared steel into the charging Mexican army, his fingers alternately tightening and loosening on the handle of his sword, relinquishing and reaffirming his grip, waiting only for his chance to use the weapon.
He had a constant erection.
The wind was whipping from the north, fingers of ice ripping open the low gray clouds and exposing the purple and orange fireball of dusk. The smell of waste and sweat had dissipated steadily in favor of saltpeter and potash. Crockett's bones creaked, and he wondered if he didn't prefer the dusty heat, as the reinforcements arrived. He made them out to be no more than thirty in number. They were dodging a Mexican patrol, being fired upon and returning fire. Those in the fort grabbed up their weapons and cut loose on the Mexicans. The patrol broke pursuit and began to parallel the mission wall.
Crockett found the sunset infinitely more important.
"It's been good, Colonel--Davy," Buddy Ebsen said, moving up on Crockett's shoulder. Crockett turned, slightly startled, and smiled. Buddy Ebsen was looking at the colors in the sky.
A stray mini-ball from a Mexican gun hit him in the jaw, nearly ripping it off, and proceeded through to knock out a portion of his skull and splinter the stem of his brain. His tongue flapped grotesquely through his mutilated jaw and he coughed blood on Crockett's shoulder.
Travis drew a line in the dirt with his sword and talked to the men about such things as bravery and
commitment and buying time for Sam Houston and Texas.
Most of them bought it, and those that didn't joined in anyway, lacking the balls to be cowards.
Crockett felt ashamed that he'd overlooked the shrewdness of Travis and he threw in as well.
Fools or heroes, he didn't suppose it made much difference.
"Goddamn Travis," Bowie rasped from his cot. "Son of a bitch. You'd kill half of Texas and make the
other half widows if it was up to you."
"The responsibilities of command are sometimes weighty...Jim."
For a moment Travis looked almost human. Bowie almost felt sorry for him. Then he smiled up at Travis, genuine pleasure showing on his face, and croaked: "You ain't lookin' so pretty these days, Will."
"A last drink, Colonel Crockett?" Bowie asked. "I don't suppose we'll be meeting again." The
candles on the small table at the head of Bowie's cot shook and flickered as he propped himself on
an elbow and pulled the bottle of tequila from beneath his blanket. Crockett's shadow sprawled huge
across the floor and walls and even the ceiling of the room.
"To freedom," Crockett said hoisting the bottle, "and Texas and men who are secure in their decisions. God knows I never was."
"Fuck them," Bowie said, taking the bottle. "To tequila and Mexican pussy, and that bastard Travis, who's bought us all a place in the history books."
Travis killed himself by falling on his sword. Not the simplest or least painful way to do it, but, Crockett supposed, when there was no one left to tell the story, it wouldn't appear to be suicide.
Captain Dickenson woke Crockett well before dawn. "I guess you're in charge now, Colonel," Dickenson said.
Crockett stood at his post, his face flushed and hot in the pre-dawn wind. Small patches of ice hung
black along the top of the wall as he looked down, seeing all that stood between them and the swarm
of Mexican soldiers. He could see them gathering in the blackness, imagined their colors, the awful
beauty in the sight of their charge. Thimblerig had taken Bowie's command; Dickenson was at Travis'
post. He'd told them to spare nothing in their defense, despite the shortage of ammunition. As the first
bursts of sunrise rolled along the bottoms of the clouds, he could see the dark stain of Buddy Ebsen's
blood on his jacket and the small particles of ice gathering there.
As sure as life was short this was his last sunrise.
The Mexican soldiers were more visible now; he could distinguish some colors as they filed into ranks, checked their weapons. Tennessee was a million miles away. And it all came flooding back, ten thousand days in those rolling hills and thick green woods, and all those he knew and loved, side by side and close and all beyond his reach. No way to get there from here. But he was glad he'd come here, glad like he'd never been. Though it wasn't quite spring, and he'd so wanted to see the bluebonnets in bloom.
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