It is the mid 1830s and a growing flow of American pioneers into Mexican Texas has sown the seeds of revolution. In the midst of the turmoil are the Lewis brothers - Andrew, Michael, and James - scions of Mordecai Lewis, who crossed the Sabine River into Texas a decade past.
Now the news along the Texas frontier is of a young general, a self-styled "Napoleon of the West," named Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who wants to stamp out any gringo talk of independence from Mexico and oust the American interlopers from Texas.
Standing in opposition to Santa Anna is the former governor of Tennessee and veteran of Andrew Jackson's Indian battles, Sam Houston, who is gathering a volunteer army to meet the Mexican forces.
Against the heroic, bloody backdrop of the Texas War of Independence--the battles of Gonzalez, San Antonio de Bexar, Goliad, the Alamo and San Jacinto--the Lewis men and their families join such rebels as Jim Bowie, James Fannin, Ben Milam, Juan Seguin, James Butler Bonham, William Barret Travis, and David Crockett, in wresting Texas from Mexican rule.
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Elmer Kelton is a native Texan, author of over forty novels. He has earned countless honors including a record seven Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, Inc., an organization that has voted Kelton the greatest Western Writer of all time. He lives in San Angelo, Texas.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
His boots sinking deeply into the freshly turned earth, Andrew Lewis reached the end of the row and hollered, “Whoa,” at the big blue ox. The muscular old work animal sometimes required a fair amount of coaxing to start pulling the wooden plow, but the slightest hint would bring him to a stop. Balancing the plow handle against his leg, Andrew took off his floppy, sweat-stained hat and rubbed the sleeve of a homespun cotton shirt across his forehead. Spring had brought the heat early, he thought. He had never completely become used to the fact that spring came earlier here in Texas than it did back in Tennessee.
He looked around for the black dog that had spent much of the morning trotting alongside the plow, watching for mice or rabbits that occasionally popped up, startled. He thought the dog might be off seeking mischief, a trait at which it was discouragingly talented, but he saw it dozing in the shade of a rail fence that kept cattle out of the field. Were the dog not an eager protector of the children, Andrew would long since have tried to give it to some passing stranger.
As he had done regularly for most of a month, he let his gaze run expectantly over the trail that came westward from the town of San Felipe de Austin. Damn it, he chided himself, it’s still a way too early to be looking for them. They’re probably not halfway here yet from the old state.
His back ached from the hard labor of planting. He stretched, placing both hands above his waist and pushing, trying to straighten out the kink that seemed to have found itself a permanent home. Late rains had delayed his starting, and it was high time the corn seed was in the ground. Plant it too early and it was likely to freeze. Plant it too late and it might be caught by a long summer dry spell. Farming had never been an easy life anywhere, but it seemed sometimes that Texas weather had a special grudge against the plowman.
He turned slowly, looking across the expanse of land he claimed for his own. At twenty-eight, he already owned more hectares here in Mexican Texas than the acres he might reasonably have expected to put together in a long lifetime back in Tennessee. The government in Mexico had been generous to its American settlers and he felt grateful. He had done well, especially in the four years since he had married Petra Moreno. She had given him a reason to work, to build, to grow.
He looked across the field toward his log cabin, where smoke curled from the tall stone chimney. It promised him a good dinner later, when the sun rose to midday and his shadow lay close to his feet. He had lived in that cabin alone his first several years here. He had added a second section after his marriage to Petra. He saw her now, a distant, slender silhouette, standing in the open dog-run that divided the two sections of the cabin. She probably wondered if something was wrong that he had stopped the ox and the plow.
He had better start moving soon or she would come striding down to the field to be sure he was not sick or hurt. He waved to let her know he was all right. He did not like the idea of her leaving the two young ones at the cabin alone for even that long. Texas was benevolent in many ways, but it harbored special hazards for children: rattlesnakes, coral snakes, scorpions, and centipedes. There were bears and mountain lions as well, but they seldom ventured too close anymore. The ever-growing numbers of new immigrants into Stephen F. Austin’s American colony had pushed those sorts of predators back farther and farther to the west. The ax and the plow were doing to them what the rifle alone probably never could.
“Come on, Blue,” he said. “We’ve lazed long enough.”
He had no more than raised up the heavy-handled plow than the dog barked, and he eased it down again. Two riders approached from the direction of his older brother Michael’s farm. Andrew smiled at the sight of eight-year-old Mordecai Lewis, carrying a rifle across his saddle longer than the boy was tall. Little Mordecai was making a start toward becoming the spitting image of his lanky father, who sat on the other horse.
Andrew called, “Where you-all goin’ with all that artillery? You already got your corn plantin’ done?”
He knew they could not have, for it had rained on Michael’s place as much as on Andrew’s.
The gaunt Michael pointed his chin westward, toward the heavy forests that lay along the river and beyond, where no one had yet settled. That land was being saved for other Lewis kin. “We’re gettin’ almighty tired of eatin’ hog. We’re fixin’ to see if we can scare up some venison.”
Mordecai put in eagerly, “Or maybe even bear.”
It was like Michael to leave the planting unfinished and go traipsing off into the woods, forgetting everything but the hunt. Andrew was glad Michael was taking little Mordecai, for the boy would give him reason to come home in a timely manner. Alone, Michael sometimes would stay out for days, even weeks, roaming, searching for God knew what, listening to calling voices that Andrew had never heard. Chances were that little Mordecai would turn out just like him. He ought to be in school, but no schooling was to be had out here so far from San Felipe except that which his mother gave him from her small collection of books and his father gave him in the field and the woods.
Somehow the work seemed to get done in spite of Michael’s restlessness. Nobody had ever gone hungry in Michael Lewis’s cabin. But Michael would never be as much a farmer as Andrew, and Andrew would never be the natural woodsman that Michael was.
The black dog sniffed around the horses’ heels until Michael’s horse lifted a foot to kick at it. The dog retreated hastily to the rail fence and barked from a safe distance.
Andrew asked, “How’s Marie and the young’uns?”
“They’re fine. Marie said she might come over this evenin’ and set a spell with Petra. Ain’t likely that me and Mordecai will be back before dark.”
“Petra’ll be tickled to have her,” Andrew said. Marie was French and Spanish, out of the old Louisiana town of Natchitoches. She usually fetched along samples of her cooking when she came visiting. It differed in some ways from Petra’s East Texas Mexican. And both women had learned a lot of American dishes. Between the two of them there was always something good to eat.
He said, “If you can take the time, I’ll walk up to the cabin with you and drink a little of Petra’s coffee.”
Michael shook his head, as Andrew had expected he would. When he was headed for the woods, Michael had little interest in anything else. “I expect we’ll be gettin’ on. Mornin’s half spent already.” He looked eastward. “You ain’t seen any sign of them, have you?”
Though he had done the same thing just a few minutes ago, Andrew said, “No use wastin’ your time lookin’. We can’t even know for sure that they’ve left Tennessee yet.”
“They’ve left,” Michael said confidently. “They’re kin of ours, so they’d’ve been itchin’ to leave as soon as the snow melted. They’re apt to come rollin’ in just about any day now.”
“Maybe. But they might run into trouble along the way.”
“Ain’t no trouble ever stopped a Lewis when his mind was set. And mine’s set on a little huntin’.” He turned to his son. “You ready, Mordecai?”
The boy nodded enthusiastically. He carried his late grandfather’s given name and already had much of his grandfather’s look. There was an old family story that when the first Mordecai Lewis had been six months old he had crawled out of his crib and taken hold of a rifle. It was certain that from the time he became big enough to carry one, a rifle was never far from his reach. Mordecai, the father of Andrew and Michael, had been the first Lewis to come west into Texas, back before 1816. It had been Spanish then, and Americans were unwelcome. Fatally unwelcome. Mordecai died in Texas, a Spanish officer’s bullet in his brain.
Much had happened in Texas in the fourteen years since; it was a different country now. Mexico had shaken off the Spanish imperial yoke, winning its independence on the battlefield, much as the United States had won its freedom from England. In an effort to settle Texas and put a buffer between itself and hostile Indian tribes, Mexico had welcomed Stephen F. Austin and other impresarios who brought American colonists into the thinly-populated land. She had granted them freedoms she did not allow even her own people down in the interior of Mexico. She had been generous with her lands to those who would live on them and make them fruitful.
It had been a mercurial, often-changing government, however. From the beginning, there had been those in the Mexican hierarchy who counseled for caution. There had been those who declared Americans to be an acquisitive and grasping people, unworthy of trust. They said that when Americans became too numerous, they were likely to want more and more land, until at last they took it all. Stephen Austin had often felt compelled to travel the long, hard road to Mexico City to plead the colonists’ case, to pledge their loyalty, and to vouch for their gratitude.
There had been worrisome stirrings. Back in 1825, Andrew and Michael had helped Austin and Mexican troops put down a short-lived, overblown rebellion by certain land seekers at Nacogdoches, who had declared themselves the independent republic of Fredonia. Many would have considered it laughable in its pretensions and its futility, but lawmakers in Mexico City had not laughed. Those who distrusted Americans had pointed to it as an ominous forerunner of things to come.
Life had remained peaceful here on the Colorado River west of San Felipe, headquarters of Austin’s colony. Seldom did Andrew think about the Fredonian rebellion anymore. His mind and his efforts were directed toward developing his farm, enlarging his fields, increasing his little bunch of meat hogs running free in the woods, and expanding his modest herd of cattle. Lately he had been thinking about other Lewises, his kin, on their way here from Tennessee. They would find Texas different from the settled land of their birth. It was big and mostly undeveloped, a wilderness except for scattered clusters of settlements. They would probably think his Mexican wife Petra talked funny, as did Michael’s wife Marie. But they would come to love both women when they got to know them. They would come to love this land as Andrew and Michael had learned to love it. Once they knew Texas, they would never want to leave.
After a time he heard Petra clanging a piece of iron against a broken section of wagon tire hanging in the dog-run. It was her signal for him to come to the cabin for dinner. The black dog jumped to its feet and made a start toward the house, then stopped and looked back expectantly. Andrew glanced up at the noon sun for confirmation, then unhooked the plow and left it standing in the row while he walked the blue ox down to the river for a good watering. When the animal drank its fill, Andrew took him to a pen to feed upon last summer’s grass hay until it was time to go back to the field. The dog paced impatiently back and forth until Andrew said, “Go on.” The dog left him and trotted toward the cabin, willfully scattering the multicolored chickens that Petra treasured above all except family and cabin.
Petra waited in the dog-run and uptilted her chin for Andrew to kiss her. More than four years of marriage had not diminished that welcome ritual. She looked at him with eyes big and black and happy. “You are hungry?”
“I could eat the south end of a mule.”
She laughed. “Today we eat pork instead.” She had learned a fair amount of English, though she sometimes used the wrong word, put it in the wrong place, or mispronounced it. His Spanish fell short of perfect, so he could not fault her English. What mattered was that they understood each other in either language. Everybody else would just have to make the best of it.
He kissed her again, because he felt like it, and gave her a fierce squeeze. She laughed and said in Spanish, which came easier, “This is not the time. This is the middle of day.”
“I’ll feel the same way come night.”
“Then wait for the night. The children are hungry.”
Their oldest, three-going-on-four, played in the dog-run with a pup Michael had brought him. The boy was named Ben, after Andrew and Michael’s Uncle Benjamin back in Tennessee. In the kitchen was the youngest, a girl, Rose to Andrew, Rosa to Petra. She sat in the high chair Andrew had first built for Ben and munched on a piece of flat bread, freshly baked on the hearth. Her eyes lighted at sight of her father, and she gave him a wet kiss, well flavored with the bread. Andrew felt fortunate that both children were healthy; that this isolated life could be hard on the little ones was painfully evidenced by a small grave above Michael and Marie’s cabin.
Petra said, “I saw Michael and Mordecai. Why did they not come to the house?”
Andrew explained their mission. Petra smiled at the news that Marie would be coming over in the evening. Though the two women lived hardly two miles apart, they had not seen one another in a week or more. Each had her own work to do, work enough to last from daylight until well after dark. Life in frontier Texas granted women even less leisure than the men.
The field labor had made Andrew hungrier than he realized. He ate a considerable helping of pork and finished the meal by using some of the flat bread to swab up cane molasses he had traded from a farmer down near San Felipe.
The black dog sat in the doorway, forbidden to enter the cabin, though the pup was allowed. The dog had perfected a silent but plaintive form of begging. It usually worked better with Petra than with Andrew, who knew the dog had already made a good meal from a cottontail rabbit it had caught in the field.
The dog started barking and left its post at the door. Andrew glanced questioningly at Petra. It was too early for Michael to have returned, but travelers on the dim road between San Felipe and San Antonio de Bexar often stopped at Andrew and Petra’s cabin. Andrew pushed back from the table and walked out on the dog-run, ready to invite a visitor to come in to the table.
He stopped short, the invitation stuck in his throat. An old animosity flared. He tried to suppress it and be civil to the two black-bearded men who sat on horseback in front of the cabin. He forced a semblance of a greeting. “Howdy, Finis. Howdy, Luke.”
One-armed Finis Blackwood seemed fatter every time Andrew saw him. It was no surprise, because his greatest exertion was in rushing to the dinner table. He said, “Good day to you, Andrew. See you been busy plowin’.”
Luke echoed, “Been plowin’.” Luke, broad and muscular, had always been a little slow in his thinking. Mostly he did whatever his older brother told him to, and took as gospel anything Finis said. For whatever he had been shorted in brains, Luke made up in meanness. Finis sicced him onto his enemies the way he would sic a dog. There had been a time Andrew would have met them with a rifle, but that was futile. When the Blackwoods looked for trouble, they never came in the open, as now. They sneaked in from behind when nobody was looking. That had been their style when they and the Lewises had grown up as reluctant neighbors back in Tennessee. It was still their way.
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Book Description Forge Books, 2007. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0765315262
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