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 ...