Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(This is part two, of the next Jim Reade – Toby Shaw adventure. Part one is here. Jim and Toby have been set to assist three agents of foreign powers who have come to Bexar, looking for something hidden away in a long-closed house, by a long-dead General with a slippery reputation. The third part is almost finished, and will be posted in a few days.)

“As you and Captain Hays may already have guessed, my real and my feigned purpose both have to do with the late General Wilkinson’s house,” Albert Biddle explained, as soon as they had strolled beyond the edge of the crowd and the reach of Bernard Vibart-Jones’ mellifluous voice.
“Something is hidden within; documents or artifacts of considerable value?” Jim ventured and Biddle nodded. “Do you have any idea what we – you – are looking for? Something large, or small – papers don’t take up much space. If the house is like the other old Spanish houses of Bexar, there will not be much in the way of furniture.”
“Documents and letters,” Biddle affirmed. “The old man was a distant relative of mine by marriage. He died at a good old age, which perfectly astounded those who knew him best. Never won a battle or lost a court-martial, died rich, and in bed. It’s been suspected for years that he was blackmailing … certain people and a government or two, with whom he associated over the years, by holding on to proof of embarrassing peccadillos.”
“Certain people?” Jim’s eyebrows lifted. “Such as?” When Biddle replied with a short list of names – men of an older generation, all well-famed and of good repute – Jim whistled in astonishment. “Yes… I can see the worth of ensuring his silence.”
“It’s not just the men,” Biddle said unhappily. “It’s the good name of the nation, too.”
“Likely more than one nation,” Jim observed – Ah, that had surprised Biddle, at least momentarily, but then Biddle nodded.
“Credible,” he murmured thoughtfully. “The old general spread his nets very wide indeed; how many nations, then? Or would you be indiscrete in telling me?”
“No,” Jim answered, deciding to put all his cards on the table. “There are two other men making inquiries; an Englishman and a Spaniard. Captain Hays has given me wide discretion in this matter … for reasons of diplomacy, my government desires that all three of you find whatever it is that you are looking for in the Casa Wilkinson, do whatever you wish with it, and leave Bexar quietly and without causing an international ruction. That being understood, I will help you as best I can. Deal?”
“Deal,” Biddle answered. “I must admit that you Texians get down to brass tacks faster than practically any other Southren gentlemen I have ever dealt with. It’s quite refreshing.”
“It saves time. I still don’t quite grasp – why all the interest now?”
“Because everyone else is interested,” Biddle answered; he looked thoughtfully at Jim. “I did procure the keys to the Casa, for a brief inspection upon my arrival. The caretaker took them back almost at once, and has not permitted me access since; a most unpromising prospect for a search – almost no furniture at all, only bare walls and floors.”
“A caretaker?” Jim took a moment to accept that intelligence. “I hardly think any care of the place has been taken at all. Who is this assiduous caretaker – I was not given that information,” he added hastily.
“A great lump of a muleteer named Gomez, who lives in the house next to it. It seems that his aged grandmother was once the housekeeper there. Gomez has taken himself off to parts unknown, likely taking the only key with him.”
“I have sent a scout to look at the lay of the land,” Jim answered. “He speaks Spanish well – he rooms with a local family when we are in Bexar. From the stories, it seems that someone else has been able to get inside and search. I’d like to know how they did it, if not with a key.” Jim snapped his fingers, struck with a sudden insight. “The Spaniard, Don Esteban Saldivar; Captain Hays told me that he is also a recent visitor curiously interested in the Casa, to the point of taking rooms with the Gomez family. If there is a common wall, I would bet that he has found a way through – and that Gomez has gone away in order to keep you out while Don Esteban searches at leisure. These places are made of unbaked mud brick covered in plaster. It would be a simple matter simply to tunnel through …” Jim found himself walking faster in his excitement. He and Biddle had now gone the length of the Plaza, past the brooding dome of San Fernando, and back towards where Soledad Street led into the plaza.
“Let us walk towards the Casa – and see what my trusty scout has found.”

Without haste, they strolled into the narrow canyon of Soledad Street, the walls of mud-brick and plastered cedar-log jacal-huts rising at either hand, as the sky darkened overhead. This was the old part of town, where most houses had been built as sturdy as fortresses, nearly windowless on the side looking onto the street – and those which did have windows were as heavily barred as if they a prison. Only now and again did the amber of a candle or lamp lit within them cast a glow into the street. Music from an out-of-tune piano floated in the evening air from one direction, from another the sound of a melancholy guitar. The darting shadows of swifts flashed briefly across the sky.
“It is very different from Hartford,” Albert Biddle mused. “Almost a foreign country – is a foreign country, indeed.”
“But home to me,” Jim answered. With a start, he realized that it was true; Bexar was the place that he always returned to over the last handful of years, between the wide-ranging assignments given to him by his captain; here were the colors brighter, the food tastier, the water clearer, the sun in the sky brighter and the stars in the night sky sparkling ever more brilliantly. They walked on a little way, picking their footing carefully through the ruts and puddles, and piles of horse-dung in the uncertain and erratic light. Even being in town foxed Jim’s night-vision abominably, and he was about to suggest to Biddle that it was too dark to really see the lay of the land around the crumbling Casa Wilkerson, when he was galvanized by a scream – a woman’s shrill and panicked scream from somewhere ahead. Heedless of puddles, horse-apples and other hazards, Jim ran towards the source, with Biddle following closely.
In the light-limned oblong of an opened door, a woman stood, crying out in Spanish; a body huddled at her feet just outside the door.
“What has happened?” Biddle demanded, as the woman continued – it sounded now as if her horror and distress had merged into indignant complaint.
“The poor fellow has been beaten,” Jim answered, “and left at her door – my god!” The light from within the house fell across the prostrate figure of Toby, groaning and covered with mud and blood. “It’s Mr. Shaw – the scout that I sent… I can only guess that he found something.” Jim knelt next to his friend and helped him to sit up. “Brother – what did you find? Who did this to you?”
“I didn’t see,” Toby answered indistinctly. He spat blood from his mouth. “Two men, I think. I thought I saw something in the shadows – I looked toward it, and someone hit me from behind.” He winced, squinting as if the light from the doorway hurt his eyes. “Then they took turns hitting me. James, I do not think that any bones were broken – I think they took it amiss that I was here…”
“Then that someone had better get damned used to it,” Jim answered. “Help me with him, Biddle – carefully! I’m gonna take it personal, now. I wonder …” He thought perhaps he should keep his supposition to himself, but Biddle shook his head and affirmed, “Couldn’t have been Vibart-Jones, he’s still on stage. And Senor Don Saldivar was still on the other side of the square when we walked into this street.”
“Either one of them may have hired their own ruffians to do the dirty work,” Jim answered, and unshipped his hesitant command of Spanish, “Senora, podemos entrar y tienden heridas de este hombre?”
“Si, si!” the woman answered, standing a little aside from the doorway, as the two of them guided Toby’s uncertain steps through it and into a small and cozy room, lit with a single lantern hung from a metal bracket over the cooking fireplace – the old-fashioned kind most often seen in the oldest houses in Bexar. In the warmest corner of the room, an elderly person lay propped upon a rough cot, so tiny and shriveled, so wrapped in layers of robes and blankets that it was difficult to tell with certainty if the person was a man or woman. The person’s eyes were milky and unfocused, without color at all, and a querulous voice called from the midst of the bundle. The woman of the house answered, in a voice which sounded at once soothing, but with an underlay of irritation. The elderly person sank back into their blankets, as if reassured, a shriveled turtle retreating to the cozy shelter of its shell.
“Senora Gomez,” Toby gasped, as Jim and Biddle hoisted him within the room and let him down before the fireplace. “I am glad for the hospitality…estoy agradecido por su hospitalidad…” he added.
“Agua caliente, por favor,” Jim demanded, before adding to his assistant. “We must wash those deep wounds immediately, lest they become putrid…”
Jim bent to this task, while Biddle and the woman of the house watched with interest – even moving to brew a tea of dried herbs over the fireplace.
“Willow-bark and sage,” Toby explained, although it obviously pained him to talk. Presently the elderly person ventured a querulous remark and Toby drew in his breath with a hiss, before responding in courteous Spanish.
“It is Dona Adeliza,” he explained to Jim and Albert Biddle. “The Old One; she wants to know what is going on. I have told her. She is amused – for she remembers the old General very well. He was a … disruptor of peace and quiet when alive, so of course he would do the same when dead. A restless and unquiet spirit – she says that we should ask the priest to come from San Fernando and do a blessing in each room of his old house. But she thinks it should best be torn down, or made into a stable.”
Senora Gomez interjected a comment – which sounded like a chiding – and the old lady answered, as feisty as a very old sparrow.
Biddle chuckled, “Old as she must be and blind to boot, she doesn’t sound like she has ever missed much. Ask her – about Don Esteban Saldivar and why a rich Spaniard would take rooms here … go on. Ask her – maybe she has some knowledge of this matter.”
That question elicited a perfect fountain of indignant Spanish from Senora Gomez, as well as a witchy-sounding cackle of laughter from the old lady. “Todo lo que tenían que hacer era preguntarme!” she exclaimed. – All they had to do was ask me! – Dona Adeliza continued in much the same vein, of which Jim divined a few scraps of words, enough for a rough estimation of what the old lady was saying; “You silly fools! All they had to do was ask – silly men – the General, he had caused to build within the house a secret place for his most precious things. And I know where it is! I have known all this time!”
At their backs, the door to the outside suddenly swung open, admitting a gust of chill night air into the room and making the candle flicker wildly.

Three Gentlemen Adventurers – 1

“It feels good to have General Sam back in the governor’s chair,” Jack Hays remarked, in a rare moment of political frankness, as he and Jim took their leisure at one of the many cantinas along the main plaza in the heart of old San Antonio de Bexar. In the cool of the evening, there were tables and benches under the shade of trees outside, where men could sit and drink, and observe the passing world, as the western sky went from a cloud-streaked orange and purple to velvet-darkness, spangled with stars. “He might be a cagy, close-mouthed old ruffian, but I always thought that I could trust him, ‘cause he knew what he was doing. With Lamar, I was always a little worried that he was making it up as he went along.”

“Gen’ral Sam is all for annexation,” Jim mused. “But Lamar always thought we could go it alone. If those Yankees didn’t want us, then why not go it alone? I favored him on that account.”

“Leave it to the General,” Jack Hays advised. His eyes went across the darkening plaza, still filled with people, lit by lanterns and the warm candle-light shining out from windows and doors, and by old-fashioned torches in iron holders. Several Indian women sat on a blanket opposite, an array of finely-worked baskets laid out for display. Toby hunkered on his heels, talking to them; they were laughing at what he was saying, although an older and grey-haired woman looked upon him with some severity. “The ladies’ delight of the Delaware nation,” Jack added with wry affection. “I shall regret it very much when he – or you marry, although I would wish you well in that. There are things that I can only send a single young fellow to do.”

“Speaking of which,” Jim hinted broadly and Jack grinned. “No long journey involved in this one. This matter is centered right here in Bexar.” “Do tell,” Jim settled back into his chair, prepared to be – if not amused, at least intrigued. Jack continued, “You’ve been in and out of Bexar plenty of times; did you ever notice the old Casa Wilkinson? It’s down Soledad beyond the Veramendi Palace.”

“Tall stone wall, topped with broken bottle glass, a garden behind and barred windows that look like they haven’t been opened since I was in small-clothes?” Jim ventured.

Jack nodded. “That would be the one – it’s was closed up when the old General died. His heirs have squabbled over the property for twenty years since. None of them wanted to come out to the back of nowhere – but by god, they didn’t want anyone else to have it. I’ve always wondered why Wilkinson ventured out here, anyway. He was getting up there in age, by then. Guess he figured that he had double-crossed so many people in his lifetime he’d best have a nice out-of-the way burrow to lay low in.”

“That General Wilkinson?” Jim asked, astonished. “Who fought under Washington against Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne and then tried to set Gates and Washington against each other? Took against Mad Anthony Wayne after the Cross-Timbers fight… informed on Aaron Burr after being in league with him? My own father always said that Wilkinson was as slippery as a greased snake, and so crooked that he couldn’t walk down the street without meeting himself on the other side coming the opposite way.”

“That same General Wilkinson, yes,” Jack agreed, with a glint of good humor in his eye. “Who was altogether too friendly with the Spanish governor of New Orleans; it’s whispered that he likely was in the pay of the Spanish at the time. Maybe the British as well, just for good measure. He wanted a land grant in Texas for himself – went to Mexico City to get it, and died there, twenty years ago and a bit. But he had this house here – lived in it for a time. His man of business bought it for him, back in the earlies.”

“So, why is this matter and man a concern at this moment – since he has been dead nearly as long as either of us have been alive, and Texas no longer a Spanish possession?” Jim asked. Yes, he had to hand it to Jack – he did come up with some interesting conundrums. Or missions, as he liked to call them.

“There’s something about that house,” Jack answered. “Or maybe in the house … suddenly, upon the estate finally being settled for good and all, a lot of interesting – and interested – foreigners are coming to Bexar – all with innocent expressions on their faces and asking urgent questions regarding – about the freehold, the cost of purchasing it for owners unknown, the condition of the house and outbuildings. Likely we’ll see some of them tonight, and I’ll point them out to you. You know, if you sat here long enough, you’d see everyone that you know in the world pass by … and by jingo, there goes the first of them.” Jack jerked his chin in the direction of burly, blunt-featured man walking purposefully towards a temporary stage lit by many lanterns erected against the wall of the Council House, attended by three or four men and as many women, all seeming to vie for his attention. The quiet gravity of his haberdashery was rather spoiled by a flamboyant waist-coat and brilliantly colored neck-cloth.

“English, by the look of his suit,” Jim ventured and Jack nodded. “Name is Bernard Vibart-Jones. His ostensible purpose in coming here is to give dramatic and comic recitations, which he has been doing to standing crowds for the last week or so. I’ll have to admit – he’s very good at that. He’ll have the hair standing up on the back of your neck and the next minute, rolling on the floor laughing. He’s a hail-fellow-well-met, and very popular, seemingly. Spends evenings after his performances in the taps and taverns, buying drinks for all and encouraging people to tell him their stories. He is … rather cagy about how long his engagement here will last, though.” Jack’s gaze sharpened, upon noting another young man, very young and dressed in the sober clothes of a clerk or even an apprentice lawyer. He had been sitting at a table set outside the door of another drinking establishment, farther along the plaza; alone and toying in a desultory manner with a neglected tankard. Without any impression of fuss or hurry, he tossed some coins on the tabletop, and sauntered off towards the crowd gathering at the open-air stage. Obviously he intended to be among the amused or hair-raised audience. “What do you think, Jim?”

“Yankee … not rich, not poor either. One of those milk-water professions,” Jim added, serenely unaffected by the awareness that he had himself been one of those milk-water clerks not so long past. “Hasn’t been here long enough – or agreeable enough to settle in. No weapons on him that I can see. Come here to do business his employer’s bidding, not set a course of his own.”

“Very good, Jim,” Jack allowed a brief and amused expression to reveal itself. “Albert Biddle, of Hartford, Connecticut. He is a clerk – or apprentice lawyer in a firm established in that fair city. He at least has the virtue of being straight-forward in his reason for coming here. The person for whom he acts – officially nameless – wants to purchase the Casa Wilkinson for eccentric reasons of their own. Master Biddle is merely their errand-boy … or so is the pretense.”

“And?” Jim asked, for Jack appeared to be ironical in that regard.

“He’s just too un-subservient for an errand-boy,” Jack answered, as Albert Biddle wended a purposeful way towards the Council House. “I am in luck tonight – and so are you, for there goes the third of our mysterious trio of foreigners with an interest in the Casa Wilkinson – also looking for entertainment this lovely evening.”

“Looks like a Mex.” Jim observed as soon as he picked out the man whom Jack meant; this one a casual loafer among those promenading along the edges of the Plaza on this evening. The Mexican women who tended their kettles of red-bean, beef and chili-pepper stew all called to him invitingly, but he shook his head and walked on. This man was even more elegantly-clad than the Englishman, although all in faultlessly-tailored black, and he carried a cane. His features gave the lie to the elegance of his attire, and Jim thought that in rougher clothing and less careful barbering, this last man wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Ranger company. “A rough customer, I’d say – looking beyond the haberdashery.”

“Spanish. An all-wool and yard-wide proper Spanish grandee,” Jack answered with a glint of amusement. “Don Esteban Saldivar, Caballero de Tarragona. I have no idea what part of Spain that is in. But he presented his papers and some very imposing letters of reference … and he also has an interest in the Casa Wilkinson. He has even taken a set of rooms in the residencia which backs onto a portion of the Casa. By curious coincidence, there are whispers in that quarter of town that the Casa is now haunted. Mysterious lights seen flickering behind shuttered windows, noises and the sounds of footsteps, so on and so forth.”

“How long has that been going on?” Jim bit back his own amusement. There were so many stories circulating in the Mexican quarter of Bexar about ghosts, visions and odd creatures seen from the corner of an eye. Not even the Anglos could be entirely skeptical.

“There were always stories about the Casa,” Jack answered. “But they have taken on a new urgency in the last fortnight or so. I’m tasking you with finding out what our three gentlemen are looking for.”

“And taking it from them?” Jim didn’t like the sound of that at all. Jack smiled.

“Maybe. Whatever the old General hid there is at least thirty years old. The chances of it proving embarrassing to a living soul here in Texas are likely pretty small … at the very least, make certain they don’t run across each others’ trap-lines and cause trouble for General Sam with their governments. Use your own good judgment, you and Toby. Just get these three gentlemen out of here without messing up General Sam’s campaign for annexation.”

“I think I’ll begin by sending Toby to scout the Casa, while the three gentlemen are otherwise occupied,” Jim decided at once and Jack nodded in agreement. “And then see if I can scrape some acquaintance with them, one by one.”

“You’d best hurry,” Jack added with a grin. “Vibart-Jones starts his performance in ten minutes.” A quick consultation with Toby, who quickly rose at Jim’s approach, and they each set off in on their separate scouts; Toby to the maze of alleys and tall windowless walls which had accreted on and around Soledad as a particular sea-snail gathered ornaments to its shell, and Jim to the stage and the crowd gathering in similar but human fashion to the stage set against the blank wall of the Council House. Jim marveled – and not for the first time – how varied was any ordinary crowd of citizens of Bexar; rough-clad Texians like himself, elbow to elbow with soberly-dressed Yankee merchants, flamboyant Bejarenos in black trimmed with silver buttons and lace, with vivid silk sashes around their waists, their ladies in brilliantly-colored silk skirts and chemise bodices which showed off their shoulders and arms, Indians of every tribe and degree of undress, and buckskin-clad hunters spitting tobacco juice onto the dusty ground. A pale cloud of cigarillo and pipe smoke hovered over the gathering, for many of the ladies smoked as well … a crowd in any other place must be a dull and pallid gathering by comparison. Edging with casual care among the others, Jim stood elbow to elbow with Albert Biddle as the evening performance opened.

Vibart-Jones was introduced with much fulsome praise and assurance that he had performed before the varied crowned heads of Europe by an older man in a rakish suit and a lamentable waistcoat, at such length that the part of the crowd most fluent in English began to shift and mutter, while the impatient to cat-call and jeer. “I expect him to be the performing marvel of the age, if the least part of this is true. Allow me to introduce myself – James Reade, Esquire – of this town.” Jim ventured to Biddle, who rose at the bait and introduced himself, much to Jim’s gratification

“He treads the boards very fairly – and I have certainly seen worse where I come from. Albert Biddle – also Esquire. I believe, good sir, we practice the same vocation.”

“Thought you sounded like an easterner,” Jim hoped he wasn’t overdoing it. “So you have seen the bard of the Plaza del Armas before?”

“Last night,” Biddle admitted, with a touch of wry humor, “For the oldest city in Texas there is not all that much to do … and it’s too cold to swim in the river, which is what I am told is a primary diversion on summer evenings here.”

“So what brings you here?” Jim hoped that he was not overdoing the appearance of casual innocence, but on observing a sudden glint of sharp intelligence in Mr. Biddle’s eye, be feared that he had. To save the moment, the compere gave way to the chief performer of the evening; Bernard Vibart-Jones stepped to the front of the stage, where a series of oil lanterns cast back their focused reflections on him. The actor bowed graciously to a patter of applause and cheers. In a pleasant light baritone, he complimented the audience and the folk of Bexar on the very warm welcome that he had received, and Mr. Biddle lowered his voice. “Mr. Reade, I believe we also practice the very same avocation – that of finding the answers to puzzles or missing items, to the benefit of the nations to which we owe allegiance.”

Damn the man – he was more than a simple clerk. Jim found his composure and his voice. “What gave me away?” he asked, and Biddle grinned. “Your answer just now. I only ventured a guess – but then I saw you in very earnest conversation with Captain Hays not ten minutes ago – and if he is not your republic’s spymaster, he makes an excellent pretense. I have seen the performance before – Mr. Reade, let us walk around the square together. I will tell you what I know – and of what Captain Hays has no doubt guessed in the matter of Wilkinson and his long-forgotten property here.”

(to be continued … of course.)

21. June 2013 · Comments Off on Jack Hays’ Big Fight · Categories: Old West · Tags:

Jack HaysJack Hays holds an outsized place in the history of the Texas Rangers, who began as a sort of heavily-armed and mounted Neighborhood Watch, metamorphosed into frontier protection force, and only much, much later into a law-enforcement body. But he was one of the earliest Ranger commanders; a  surveyor by profession, born in Tennessee and raised in Mississippi, who would live to a ripe old age as a politician and lawman in California. Quiet, modest, self-effacing, Jack Hays became the very beau ideal of a captain of Rangers. He came to Texas at the very end of the fight for independence from Mexico in 1836, and worked as a surveyor and alternately as a soldier volunteer. He had been among the Texans in the Plum Creek fight, but made his name in the decade afterwards, astounding people who knew only his reputation upon meeting him for the first time. He was slight, short and refined in appearance and manner, and looked about fourteen years old. But he was also a gifted leader of irregular fighters and possessed an iron constitution. His fearlessness and daring became a byword among his fellow Rangers and  his Tonkawa Indian allies and scouts. Chief Placido of the Tonkawa exclaimed admiringly, “Me and Red Wing not afraid to go to hell together. Captain Jack heap brave; not afraid to go to hell by himself.” The Texas historian T.H. Fehrenbach noted, “He mauled Indians from the Nueces to the Llano, and never with more than fifty men.”


He gained fame everlasting in a peculiarly concrete way, with the Big Fight. This encounter was actually just one of many brush-fire fights between Hays’ Rangers and the Comanche during the existence of the Republic of Texas early in the 1840s. There were so very many skirmishes and fights between his San Antonio ranger company (which operated with the funding and participation of many early Anglo residents) and those Comanche raiders who came down from the Llano to make free with any horses, captives and portable loot they could carry away. It is my own opinion that such encounters happened so often that they tended to run together in the minds of those rangers fortunate enough to survive them. I also suspect that Jack Hayes was too busy in the field, either fighting Indians or pursuing his profession as a surveyor, and too personally modest to write detailed after-action reports in a manner which would content historians.

In the summer of 1844, settlers in the gentle rolling country north of San Antonio were particularly jumpy. Captain Hays led out a patrol of fourteen of his volunteers on a long patrol into the wilderness between the Pedernales and Llano Rivers, looking to find traces and trails of raiders coming down from the open plains north of the Hill Country. Of his comrades on that long patrol, one stood out for having already had a most eventful life in Texas. Samuel Walker was about the same age as Jack Hays, and also rather unassuming in manner and boyish-appearing, he was not a Southerner, but a Yankee from Maryland, and a veteran of the Seminole War in Florida. He had also participated in the ill-judged attack on Mier, survived the Black Bean Draw and a stint of durance vile in Mexico’s Perote Prison, from whence he had escaped before (presumably slightly out of breath) joining Jack Hays’ Ranger Company. More »

(For your enjoyment – a selected chapter from the soon-to-be-released sequel to Daughter of Texas. Advance orders for autographed copies are being taken now, through my website catalog page.)

Chapter 19 – The Last of the Lone Star

 In the morning, Margaret rose at the usual hour, when the sky had just begun to pale in the east, and it was yet too early for the rooster to begin setting up a ruckus in the chicken pen. She had a house full of guests, even though most of them had not spent the night. One of the last things that Hetty had done before retiring for the night was to have Mose move the dining table back into the room where it normally resided, and return all the household chairs to their usual places. Margaret viewed the now-empty hall with a sigh, for the temporary glory that it had housed on the previous day – now, to see to breakfast for those guests who had remained. That breakfast should be every bit as good as the supper on Christmas night – for Margaret would not allow any diminution of her hospitality. She tied on her kitchen apron and walked into the kitchen, where she halted just inside the door, arrested by the expressions on the faces of the three within. Hetty bristled with unspoken irritation, even as she paused in rolling out the dough for the first batch of breakfast biscuits, Mose – who stood by the stove with an empty metal hot-water canister in each of his huge hands – had a nervous and apprehensive expression on his dark and usually uncommunicative face. Carl sat at the end of the kitchen table, interrupted in the act of wolfing down a plate of bacon, sausage and hash made from the leftovers of last night’s feast. He looked nearly as nervous as Mose, and his expression – especially as Margaret appeared in the doorway – appeared to be as guilty as a small child caught in the midst of some awful mischief, mischief for which he was certain to be punished.

Margaret took in each countenance in a lighting-flash, apprehended that something had happened in her household, and demanded, “What is the matter, then?”

Mose answered, in his thick and barely articulate mumble, “I took de hot watter to de gennelmun rooms, mam  . . .  an’ de Gen’ral, he still ‘sleep, mam  . . .  but he don’ chop down de bedpos’, mam.”

“What?” Margaret demanded, and Mose only looked more stolid. “He chop down de bedpos’, mam. Gen’ral Sam,” as Carl said, with an air of someone trying to placate an unappeasable fury, “He took an ax to the bedposts, M’grete. He  . . .  got a little merry last night, I guess – after you had gone to bed. Some of the others . . .  well, there was bottles bein’ passed. I didn’t think he would take to your best bedstead, though.”

Hetty looked from Margaret’s face to that of her brother, and the hapless Mose, and murmured, “Mother Mary save him, she’s got her Maeve face on, for certain.”

“There wasn’t anything I could do, M’grete,” Carl temporized, even as Mose returned to filling the canisters from the hot water reservoir at the side of the vast cook stove. ”He’s the General. I did not think you would object to the men getting a little merry on Christmas. You had wine with dinner, after all, M’grete.”

“I do not object to the drinking of alcohol under my roof,” Margaret answered, in a voice tight with suppressed fury. “I object when men drink of it to excess. And I object most strenuously to barbarous conduct, after they have drunk to excess. Little Brother, Mose. You may bring up the hot water later – for a now, each of you fetch a bucket of cold  . . .  from the spring-house, please.  . . .  Then all of you come with me.”

“I just put the biscuits in…” Hetty began to protest, but Margaret cut her off with a few curt words, as Mose and Carl obeyed. “This will not take a moment.”

The heels of Margaret shoes made a brisk tattoo on the floor, echoing in the hall as she swept imperiously up the staircase, in her fury outdistancing all of her acolytes. At the top of the stairs, the door to the best guest room stood slightly ajar: Mose had not closed it entirely on his departure. Margaret waited for the two men to climb the stairs, Hetty puffing in their wake. She took a deep breath, Mose’s words having prepared her for the worst. Well, now she knew why she had dreamed of someone chopping wood during the night. She opened the door all the way; oh, no. The room smelt faintly of stale drink, underlaid with odor of sweat and male toiletries. The slave man’s words and her own imagination had not prepared her for what she now saw. General Sam lay snoring in the middle of the bed, on top of the counterpane with his boots and coat cast carelessly aside on the floor amid splinters and roughly-hacked chunks of cherry-wood. All four of the tall and gracefully carved bedposts were roughly hewn down, almost level with the head and footboard. Margaret felt sickened by the intensity of her anger: her best bed, purchased at such a cost, from the earnings of hers and Hetty’s labor – a beautifully-wrought and cherished thing, deliberately mutilated. Behind her, Hetty gasped, horrified alike. They had both taken such pride in the new furniture, in the look of their best guest room. Now, Margaret was certain she would never look at it again, in quite the same way, now that it had been so desecrated.

“Carlchen,” she said, and her voice shook. “And Mose. I want you to waken the General with the cold water. And once he is awake, assist him in resuming his clothing. Assemble his luggage, too. Carlchen, you will see him conveyed to Mrs. Eberly’s without delay.” Carl hesitated, and Mose looked between them, and to the ruined bed with General Sam snoring in deep sleep.

“B’foa breakfast?” Mose ventured, and Margaret snapped.

“Yes. The water, Carlchen – it is how one rouses drunks, is it not?” Shrugging, Carl carried his bucket to one side of the bed, Mose to the other. They hoisted the buckets to chest-level, poised to pour them out onto the sleeping General Sam, while Margaret watched, hawk-eyed. “Now!”  More »