THE MORNING WAS SMOKE AND BLOOD.
The captain slogged across torn, broken earth that writhed around him. Arms and legs moved and twitched without purpose, driven only by pain. Faces, scorched by the firing of their own muskets, lifted pleadingly for help, mouths too dry to form words.
The day's colors had turned hideous. Blue jackets, white trousers, and black shakos lay in red pools, all suffused in a sulfurous miasma that hung over the field littered with severed limbs.
The last sounds of battle had ended several minutes ago with a final volley of screams, sporadic gun shots, and steel blades sinking into flesh, leaving only the laments of the wounded, the jubilant calls of winged scavengers whirling over the coming feast, and the buzz of blowflies drawn to the fresh breeding ground.
The assault on the rebel-held fort had begun before dawn. Four columns totaling more than a thousand men. General Cós to the northwest corner. Colonel Duqué to north wall. Colonel Romero to the east wall at the cattle pen. Colonel Morales to the south wall and the palisade between the chapel and the south gate.
The artillery barrage that had lasted throughout the siege had been lifted the night before the assault, luring the exhausted defenders to sleep. In the silence an hour before sunrise, the columns crept forward undetected. But as they approached the walls, the attackers broke into shouts and cheers, rousing the defenders who quickly rushed to their positions and opened fire on the massed enemy. Rifles picked off targets and cannon gouged bloody holes in the attackers' ranks, repulsing the first two onslaughts and inflicting heavy casualties.
Among the wounded was Duqué, shot from his horse. General Castrillón took command of the remnants of Duqué's troops and again threw them at the north wall while Morales shifted away from the marksmen at the palisade and concentrated on the fort's southwest corner.
On the third attempt, the breakthroughs came. Using ladders, crowbars, and axes, the attackers climbed over or broke through the north wall. Cós's men swept right and breached the west wall, Romero stormed gun positions at the cattle pen, and Morales gained entry at the south wall. Bolstered by reinforcements, the attackers poured into the fort. The outcome was decided.
However, the attackers' promise that they would show no mercy and take no prisoners gave the surviving defenders no choice but to fight or flee. A few went over the walls and ran into the fields around the fort but were cut down by cavalry. Some retreated to the long barracks, firing through windows and loopholes before being killed to the last man in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Others made a last stand behind makeshift barricades in front of the chapel, where they were blasted by their own cannon wielded by the attackers and finished with bayonets.
The captain, a member of Duqué's Toluca Battalion, spent the battle on horseback, reporting to Castrillón after Duqué fell and delivering messages between Cós and Romero as they tried to coordinate their attacks. For an hour, the captain rode back and forth across the battlefield while under fire. He felt bullets zipping around him but never had the opportunity to fire a shot nor draw his sword.
Now the captain walked beside his sweat-soaked, stumbling mount. He took off his white, wide-brimmed hat and wiped his smallpox-scarred face with a bandana. His breathing had slowed but his heart still raged and his left hand trembled slightly. Just one hand, a trivial quiver, and he thought it odd.
When the carnage ended, when the shooting and stabbing finally subsided and a bugler sounded recall, the captain found himself by the west wall. He dismounted and headed to the north wall where his battalion had begun the morning and was so savagely cut to pieces.
He paused by a dead Toluca private and looked at the holes in the corpse's face—gaping mouth, stilled nostrils, staring eyes, and the terrible crater where a Texian bullet had blown off the top of his head. A spray of blood and brains was spread on the ground beneath him, and the captain imagined himself lying there.
The captain tried to clear his head and fight off the shock of the battle's aftermath. There was much to do.
While many were dead—too many to count at a glance—the majority of casualties were alive, yet no one was attending to them. Soldiers who escaped injury could offer paltry help to their fellows as they carried no bandages, no canteens, nothing that could provide aid, and the captain could see no medical personnel anywhere, leaving the wounded to fester in their misery.
"Corporal!" the captain called to a man kneeling over a dead comrade. The corporal had removed his shako, which now lay in the dirt. "Where are the surgeons?"
The corporal just shook his head without looking up.
"Corporal!" the captain yelled, advancing on the grieving man. "Corporal," he said, lowering his voice. "Look at me." He put his hand on the corporal's shoulder. That broke the man's reverie. With a shaking hand, the corporal located his shako and put it on before rising to meet the officer.
"Do you know where the surgeons are? Have you seen the surgeons?"
"No, sir. I have…" he trailed off. "I haven't seen any…" and he looked around at the mass of wounded, anger and disgust welling up. "Captain, where are the surgeons?"
"Corporal, stay with me," the captain said, trying to steady the man. "We're going to get organized and help our people." Not soldiers, not the men, our people. That struck a chord with the corporal. "Here's what I need you to do. Gather some men who are not injured or at least not too badly wounded and can walk." He waited to see if the words were sinking in.
"Yes, sir." The glaze in the corporal's eyes appeared to be lifting.
"I want you to look for Sergeant Alvarado and Lieutenant Heredia. Do you understand?"
"Sergeant Alvarado and Lieutenant Heredia, yes, sir."
"Whoever you find first, tell them to go into town and find civilian doctors or nurses or anyone who has bandages and can use them. Bring them here immediately. I don't care if they have to drag a doctor here at the point of a bayonet. Understood?"
"Good man. I'm going back to the camp and find the army surgeons." Incompetent butchers though they are, he thought. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
The corporal, freshened by purpose, spun, picked up his musket, and jogged away. The captain noticed the man wore sandals instead of proper soldiers' brogans. The army didn't even have enough shoes to go around.
The captain took another look around for Toluca officers, saw none, and turned toward the camp. He had only taken a few steps when the corporal called out.
"Captain!" The corporal was standing thirty yards away beside a small knot of soldiers, one of whom was kneeling. "Lieutenant Heredia!"
The captain jogged toward the group, putting his hand on the sword and scabbard on his left hip to prevent it from swinging as he ran.
The closer the captain got to the group, the more his heart sank. He could see three men, and none was the lieutenant. But the kneeling soldier stood and moved back, revealing a fourth man lying on the ground.
"No…no, no, no, no…"
The soldiers parted and the captain moved past them, paused for a moment, and knelt beside the man on his back.
"Captain," Lieutenant Heredia said, offering a smile on his clean-shaven, handsome face. He always had such a pleasant countenance.
"José," the captain said, breaking formality. "How are you?" It was a stupid question. He could see very well how Lieutenant Heredia was. He was shot in the chest, but the young officer was calm as ever.
"We did well," Heredia said. "The men made a valiant charge." His sword was still in his hand, as it was when he urged his platoon toward the walls. As it was when he was cut down. "You were right. The Texians are excellent marksmen."
"Rest easy, José. Help is on the way," the captain said, and turned to the ashen-faced enlisted men gathered around. "Corporal, take one man and go to our camp. Find a surgeon and get him here for the lieutenant as quickly as you can. If anyone questions you, tell them the surgeon is for Lieutenant Heredia."
The corporal paused. This wasn't shock any longer; the corporal just didn't want to abandon Heredia, who was regarded an honest, fair man, respected by the officers and beloved by the men. But he needed help and that moved the corporal to action. The corporal pointed to a short private with unkempt hair and mustache, who a moment before had been kneeling at Heredia's side, and the two of them dashed off toward the camp.
"Does anyone have some water?" the captain asked. No one did, so one of the privates was dispatched to find some. A few more soldiers had gathered around the fallen officer.
"I told you," Lieutenant Heredia said. "I told you I would not see my family again."
"You're not dead, not yet," the captain said, and addressed the group. "Has anyone seen Captain Macotela?"
"Yes," Heredia said. "He's dying, too."
"I saw Captain Macotela fall," confirmed one of the newcomers, a man the captain recognized as a private named Vega. Vega had been wounded in the right thigh and was using his empty musket as a crutch. "I think he was shot like me, from back there." Vega shook his fist at their own lines.
The captain nodded. Reserve companies had tried to provide support fire to suppress the Texians on the walls. It was a foolish waste of ammunition as the walls and their defenders were well out of range of the army's Brown Bess and India Pattern muskets. Worse, the terrified, poorly trained reserves had fired blindly into the smoke and darkness, and consequently into their own assault troops.
"Has anyone seen any surgeons?" the captain asked, then noticed Vega's injured leg. It was bandaged.
"Yes, sir," Vega said. "I saw an officer—I think it was Captain Huerta—run there." He pointed to a hidden door in the north wall, which had been forced open during the battle. "Huerta was with three men. When they got near the wall, there was more shooting inside the fort. Huerta told the others to wait while he went inside. One of the men with Huerta saw me. He said he was a doctor, and he put something on my leg. He said, ‘This will hurt, but it will help,' and he bandaged my wound. Then Huerta returned and called to the doctor and led him into the fort."
"Who was this doctor?" the captain asked.
"He was civilian, I think. He was wearing a long, gray coat, not a uniform. I don't think he was Mexican. Huerta called him Dr. Thorn."
The captain glanced at the fort. "Did you see the doctor again?"
"No, sir," Vega said.
The captain straightened. "Vega, you and the others remain here with Lieutenant Heredia. I'm going into the fort to find this doctor. Keep an eye out for the corporal bringing help from the camp. I'll be back."
He leaned toward Heredia. "I'll be back, José. I promise. You stay still." Heredia nodded.
It was almost an hour before the captain returned. He was alone.
"No doctor, Captain?" Heredia said.
The captain shook his head. "There's been no surgeon from the camp?"
"No, sir," Vega said.
The corporal who had been dispatched to the camp returned a few minutes later, looking as dejected as the captain.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant Heredia," the corporal said. "We looked in the camp and in the town. Captain, there are no surgeons for the men."
The captain's jaw fell open. "It can't be." He shook his head.
"They didn't even set up a field hospital!" the corporal shouted.
"Cheap bastards," Vega said.
"They won't spend a peso for us," a private muttered.
The captain did not chastise his soldiers for their insubordination. Many of these men had been pressed into service and provided minimal training. They had risked their lives—and too many had lost their lives—assaulting a fortified defensive position. It was unconscionable that surgeons and medical supplies were not standing by. But the generals had been holding back supplies since the army began the march north from Mexico and this was no different.
The captain would have to wait to give vent to his anger. "We're going to get organized, right now," he announced. Behind him, a column of nauseating, black smoke rose from beyond the fort. The bodies of the dead Texians were being burned.
By now, more than a dozen men of the Toluca Battalion had gathered, and the captain fixed his piercing eyes into their haggard, gunpowder-blackened faces. "I know you are exhausted. You've done everything anyone could expect. You are the bravest men in this army, and I'm proud of every one of you. But our friends are hurt, maybe dying. We must not fail them." Nods all around. Men stood a little straighter. "Corporal, assign what's left of your squad to bring water from the river and food from the camp. The rest of you, gather anything you can find to make bandages. Sheets, shirts, anything. We will give whatever help we can to our wounded comrades. Go."
Before Vega could get away, the captain grabbed him by the cross belts on his chest and pulled him closer. "Private, what is your Christian name?"
"Uh, Rafael, sir."
"Rafael, I need you to do something for me," the captain said. "I want you to ask around. Find out what you can about that doctor…"
"Dr. Thorn. Where did he come from and, more importantly, where did he go? Keep this quiet, Rafael, between us. Tell no one else. Understood?"
"Help the others now, but stay off that leg as much as possible."
The remnants of the Toluca Battalion spent the rest of the day making the wounded as comfortable as circumstances allowed. But as the days passed, still no surgeons or medicine became available, and every day more of the wounded succumbed. As many men died in the next two weeks as were killed in the assault.
Heredia lasted longer than most. The young lieutenant accepted his fate bravely, but all who attended him knew he was in dreadful pain. Thirteen days after the battle, Heredia received the sacrament of the Eucharist and died surrounded by friends and comrades. Officers, including the captain, served as his pallbearers, and men wept openly at the funeral, which was held on Heredia's birthday.
Thirteen days of needless suffering and death left the captain with a fury he could barely contain and a hatred for the man he felt responsible.
And standing outside the ruins of a place in Texas called the Alamo, he swore revenge.
MEXICO CITY HAD WAITED ANXIOUSLY FOR the arrival of the Spanish Minister Plenipotentiary, the first ambassador from Spain since Mexico won its independence in 1821, ending three hundred years of rule that dated back to Cortés's conquest of the Aztec Empire. However, it was not Ángel Calderón de la Barca, the forty-nine-year-old, balding, Argentine-born nobleman and diplomat, who was turning heads in Mexican social and political circles.
It was his wife.
Frances Calderón de la Barca, the former Frances Inglis of Edinburgh, Scotland, by way of New Brighton, New York, was luminous. Captivating eyes, a small mouth with full lips, flawless Scottish complexion, and rosy cheeks were perfectly framed by dark hair, not a strand of which was out of place. But Fanny was far more than beautiful, and woe to the man who underestimated her. The thirty-four-year-old, born into upper class comfort but plunged into family upheaval when her father went bankrupt and died, possessed a disarming charm but wielded a sharp wit and weapons-grade sarcasm.
Married just a year before Ángel was assigned this posting, the couple had been touring Mexico, getting to know its people, places, and customs, and this evening was the latest in their prodigious travels, which Fanny was chronicling.
The Calderón de la Barcas were guests at parties, receptions, soirées, banquets, dinners, lunches, and breakfasts. They attended concerts, plays, festivals, fêtes, and feasts; masses, posadas, consecrations, and funerals; bull fights and cockfights and gambling houses. They visited cities, towns, and villages; markets, inns, and taverns; museums, academies, and galleries; cathedrals, chapels, convents, monasteries, and missions; rancheros, farms, haciendas, and huts; forests, valleys, mountains, sandhills, orchards, gardens, lakes, rivers, and the bridges that crossed them. They met politicians and priests, monks and nuns, counts and countesses, bishops and beggars, presidents and peasants.
All the while, Fanny was having the same dazzling effect on Mexico that she had on Ángel, which was making his job as envoy much easier.
And she was absolutely slaying this room.
The room in question was the grand ballroom of the Prussian embassy in Mexico City, and the occasion was a reception and dinner in the Spanish ambassador's honor.
"Are you sure we're still in Mexico?" Fanny asked as she glanced about the ballroom, which would have been at home in any European capital and was decorated from floor to ceiling.
They walked across a parquet wood floor with an enormous inlaid starburst pattern in the center under a huge chandelier dripping with hundreds of crystals and hung from a ceiling that was covered with rose vines rendered in delicate gold leaf, and past intricate Viennese urns adorning white columns precisely spaced around the room. The walls were packed with dozens and dozens of gilt-framed paintings, all portraits.
"How many of the people in those paintings do you think are still alive?" Fanny asked.
"None, I should think," Ángel said.
A chamber ensemble played in a corner, the tempo rarely changing as the musicians churned out baroque adagios by Gluck, Handel, Bach, and Telemann.
Dining tables were dressed with Meissen vases and figurines, and the kitchen disgorged Reinhold Schlegelmilch bowls and platters heaped with local meat, fish, and vegetables but prepared in traditional Prussian style with vinegar, bay leaves, horseradish, juniper berries, caraway seeds, and mustard. Lots of mustard.
The minister's staff had erased every trace of Mexico from the Prussian embassy and done everything in its power to make the evening look, sound, smell, and taste like Berlin.
Fanny's implacable face revealed no judgment. But Ángel knew.
"You hate it, don't you, my dear?" he said.
The hint of a smile Fanny wore at such functions never faltered, and she nodded as one of the minister's staff hurried past. "It's a damned Prussian carbuncle," she said.
Ángel stifled a laugh. "Yes, I don't think the minister accepts that he's in Mexico."
Fanny paused. "What's his name?"
"Baron Heinrich Ernst Wilhelm Freiherr von Canitz und Dallwitz."
Fanny raised an eyebrow at the moniker. "And I thought you stuck me with a long name. Which part is his last name?"
"I'm believe its Freiherr, but he prefers the title, Canitz und Dallwitz."
"What do I call him?"
"Baron should suffice."
"Thank you, my love."
Ángel noticed the admiring looks from the multi-national ministerial assembly and nodded politely to each in turn. He was attired in his formal best: a black jacket with high, gilded collar, black trousers, and black shoes. A gold sash swooped over his right shoulder to his left hip while half a dozen fist-sized medals hung over his left breast—of which no one took the slightest notice.
All anyone saw was Fanny, resplendent in a French iridescent blue off-the-shoulder evening dress that ably showed off her figure and displayed her pale white shoulders, neck, and upper chest without ever threatening to expose any more than intended.
Ángel bore no jealousy of the attention paid his wife nor of the rather lecherous looks from other men. Whenever he walked with Fanny on his arm, Ángel wore a slight grin that seemed to say, "Enjoy the view gentlemen, but she's going home with me."
The ballroom murmured with a confounding of languages from both sides of the Atlantic, though heavy on German from the embassy staff. But in a crowd of international envoys, most of whom spoke three, four, or five languages, being understood was rarely an issue. French remained the language of diplomats, but in these unofficial settings, it was simply a matter of adapting to whoever you were addressing.
"And here they come," Ángel said as the Prussian minister, flanked by his wife and trailing a staff member and his wife, approached. The Calderón de la Barcas reinforced the sincerity of their counterfeit smiles and braced for impact.
The baron, Fanny saw, was quite the dandy. He advanced in a flourish of ruffles: a white cravat wrapped around his neck descended in waves down his white Regency shirt, which grudgingly disappeared under a dark jacket only to explode into view again in a burst of lace at the wrists.
"Ah, my dear Minister Calderón de la Barca," the baron said with an exaggerated bow. "How are you? I hope your journey has been pleasant."
"Very pleasant, Baron Freiherr von Canitz und Dallwitz," Ángel responded with a slight bow. "Very kind of you to ask. This is my wife, Frances Calderón de la Barca."
"Enchanted, Madame," the baron said, bowing and kissing Fanny's hand. "Welcome to Mexico City."
With that, the baron's wife stepped forward and embraced Fanny, who cordially returned the gesture.
"My dear, you look radiant," the baron's wife said. The baron, struck dumb by Fanny, had failed to introduce his wife.
"You're too kind," Fanny said.
The wife of the baron's staff member now stepped forward for her cursory embrace. Her poor husband remained at the back, forgotten by the baron.
"I am rejoiced to meet you, my dear," she said.
"And I you," Fanny said mechanically.
Fanny truly loved her husband, enjoyed their travels, and didn't mind the avalanche of events to which his job required attendance, but she found this kind of mandatory small talk and etiquette particularly tiresome. And very European. If she saw these women the next morning, they undoubtedly would inquire how she passed the night. Sigh.
"How have you found Mexico City, Madame Calderón de la Barca?" the baron asked while plumping one of his wrist ruffles. "Not too taxing, I hope."
You condescending fop, she thought.
"A noble, elegant city, sir," she said. "The Viga is one of the most impressive promenades I've ever seen. Today we saw the site of the great market at Tlatelolco."
"Ah, yes," the baron said. "I believe a convent chapel stands on the hill there now."
"Yes," Fanny said, and Ángel was struck by how much disapproval someone could voice in such a small word. "Where Cortés besieged the city. Before slaughtering the Aztecs and razing most of the city."
The baron shifted uncomfortably.
"I cannot help but wonder how beautiful ancient Tenochtitlan was," Fanny pressed. "The valley must have been so picturesque and fertile with its lakes and fine trees. Before Spanish settlers cut down the forests."
"Yes, trees…" the baron began. "Well…" he stumbled, looking for a way to change the subject but wary of what to say next.
"As you've done here, Baron," Fanny said, gesturing to the room. "This is the very picture of European style. Except for a few servants, you'd hardly know we were in Mexico. But that's the idea, isn't it?"
The baron swallowed behind a feeble smile. "Yes…well…uh…"
A few steps away, a pair of diplomatic dinner veterans watched with admiration as the exquisite Madame Calderón de la Barca tormented the squirming baron.
"Have you met the Spanish ambassador, Luis?" the tall, lean-faced American said.
"Yes," said the Mexican with heavily lidded eyes and dramatic muttonchop sideburns. "And his wife. I'm afraid the baron isn't up to dealing with her." Luis set aside a half-drained glass of champagne. "I suppose we should rescue him."
The duo made their way to the side of the floundering Prussian who was noticeably relieved at their intervention.
"Ah!" the baron said a bit too loudly. "Minister and Madame Calderón de la Barca, may I introduce Luis Gonzaga Cuevas, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and Powhatan Ellis, the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States."
Stiff bows and stately greetings all around.
"Madame Calderón de la Barca," Ellis said, "I believe we have a mutual friend in the United States. William Prescott."
"Indeed!" Fanny beamed at the mention. "Mr. Prescott is a treasured friend. He introduced me to my husband." She gave Ángel's arm a gentle squeeze.
Ellis turned to the Spaniard. "Then you, sir, owe Mr. Prescott quite a debt." Ángel nodded in agreement.
"What affairs occupy you in Mexico, Mr. Ellis?" the baron asked, eliciting a sigh from Ellis and a chuckle from Cuevas.
"Chasing a wild goose, sir, a wild goose," Ellis said. "It seems an American, convicted of a crime in Mexico and doing hard labor in a mine in Guadalajara, concocted the story that he is Davy Crockett."
"Davy Crockett?" Ángel said. "The American frontiersman?"
"And former member of the United States House of Representatives."
"Did he not die in Texas?" Ángel said.
"At the Alamo in 1836," Ellis said. "Absolute nonsense that he could still be alive two years later. But this prisoner managed to get a letter to a Mr. William White, who delivered the letter to Crockett's son, John, who requested an investigation from the US government. I received orders from Secretary of State Forsyth to look into the matter."Cuevas chuckled again at the fool's errand foisted upon his friend.
"And?" Fanny said.
"I traveled to Guadalajara—a distance of some five hundred miles—and spoke to this prisoner. Bad luck for him. I served with David Crockett when he was a congressman and I was a senator. First, this brigand in the mine looked nothing like Crockett. The prisoner was several inches shorter and had a flat nose and blond hair. David was tall, with a long nose and brown hair.
"Further, Crockett preferred to be called David. The prisoner didn't know this. The prisoner was also rather foul mouthed, which Crockett was not. This imposter couldn't even tell me how many brothers and sisters he had, or his wife Elizabeth's maiden name."
"You knew Crockett well," Fanny said.
Ellis nodded. "He is remembered for his humor and charm, but I think of him as a man who fought for the rights of settlers to not have their lands taken from them. He was a decent, caring man. I do miss him."
"What of the fate of the impersonator?" the baron asked.
"I left him in his well-deserved privation. Unfortunately, the rumor of Crockett's possible survival has spread to Texas. I'm dispatching my report to Washington tomorrow, and I hope it will dispel these wild stories."
"Good that you put an end to such torture for his family," the baron said, taking a glass of champagne from a passing server. The other members of the group took glasses as well and toasted one another's health.
"Luis," Ellis said to his Mexican colleague who found the goose chase so amusing. "Why don't you tell everyone what you've been dealing with?"
Cuevas shot the American a sideways glare. He had hoped for a brief respite this evening from the conflict that had so completely occupied him of late.
"Trying to prevent a war," he said.
"A war?" Fanny said. She could scarcely believe she had found interesting conversation this evening.
"Oh, but do tell them what the war is about," Ellis said.
Cuevas took a sip of champagne, sighed, and lifted his head. "A pastry shop."
"A pastry shop," the baron nodded. Everyone in Mexico City's diplomatic circles had heard the story.
"A pastry shop," Cuevas confirmed. "It seems a French pastry chef, a Monsieur…"
"Remontel," the baron assisted.
"…Remontel claims his pastry shop in Mexico City was damaged by Mexican soldiers."
"Vandalized and looted, he alleges," the baron said.
"He demanded reparations of 60,000 pesos. The entire shop was worth less than 1,000 pesos, so my government denied the claim. Remontel appealed to the French king, and now France is demanding 600,000 pesos. If payment is not made, France threatens military action."
"Do you think they would actually go to such lengths?" Fanny said. "How much would it cost to conduct such an operation?"
"Sometimes these things become a matter of principle, my dear," the baron said, though Fanny suspected other motives at work.
"Regardless of expense or rationale, a French fleet under command of Admiral Baudin is setting up a blockade of Mexican ports on the Gulf Coast as we speak," Cuevas said. "No ship can sail in or out without risk of being fired upon."
"Are we able to send messages to the United States?" Fanny asked. "We've been able to do so via ship. Overland would take weeks."
"Perhaps months," Ellis said.
"I don't know," Cuevas said. "To be honest, I'm not sure what the Mexican navy can do against French Océan and Tonnant class warships."
"Those Océan ships possess more than one hundred guns," Ángel said.
"And Tonnant class have eighty," Ellis said. "Considerable firepower."
"You gentlemen know your ships," Fanny said.
"Part of the job, Madame," Ellis said, impressed with the lady and a bit jealous of the Spaniard. Fanny detected the sentiment and smiled at the American. He might be useful if things got out of hand.
"Any such confrontation would be bloody," Cuevas said. "I've been trying to negotiate with the French to settle the dispute and call off this foolishness before someone gets hurt."
"My sincerest best wishes to you, sir," the baron said and raised his glass. "To your success, Minister Cuevas."
With that, conversation turned more trivial, and the baron led the party to the reception's lone concession to the host nation: tables displaying local flowers, fruits, and delicacies. At the end of the second table, next to a platter of dulces, was a large sketchbook tied with a red ribbon.
"Madame Calderón de la Barca, with your permission I should like to show these works," the baron said, and Fanny nodded her approval. "The madame was kind enough to share these," the baron said to Cuevas and Ellis.
The baron untied the ribbon and carefully opened the sketchbook's cover. The large binder held several loose sheets of drawing paper. The baron spread the first few sketches for the group to view. An impressed silence fell over the audience.
"These are splendid," Cuevas finally said. "Are you the artist, Madame Calderón de la Barca?"
"Oh, no. I have no such skill. I have been writing about our experiences. These wonderful works were created by a traveling companion, Mrs. Ward. She is gifted with graphite pencil."
Cuevas eased a sketch from the stack. "This is Puente Nacional Bridge, is it not?"
"It is. And this," she said, reaching for another drawing, "is it not perfect in every detail?"
Fanny slid forward a depiction of the interior of an Indian hut. As she did, a sketch beneath was partially revealed. A portion of a portrait peered out. A long nose. An eye. An eye that struck Ellis as familiar.
Ellis studied the eye and nose.
It does rather resemble…
Ellis suppressed the urge to shove the other artwork aside.
Of course not, his mind told him. You're mistaken. Not possible.
Ellis casually stretched out a hand that he was surprised to see was shaking. He put a fingertip to the hut sketch and moved it ever so slightly aside. The face's other eye emerged and Ellis felt the blood drain from his head. His heart beat faster and his mouth went dry. His head spun and he fought off light-headedness that threatened to buckle his knees.
He exhaled and swallowed hard, and was sure everyone heard him, but the group's preoccupation with other drawings was unabated.
Now he could see a long sideburn and a hint of a grin that formed dimples at the corners of a full mouth. Dark hair—though the artist had suggested that the subject was graying—parted in the middle. Longer hair, Ellis thought, than when last seen.
When last seen? It's not possible.
But those eyes. Those eyes. Those damned sparkling eyes.
The baron droned on and Madame Calderón de la Barca responded with something about all of Mrs. Ward's sketches were something or other, but the conversation had faded into the muttering of the background noise. Blurry, as if the sound was being strangled in his ears. Ellis felt blood pumping loudly in his neck, and if at this moment someone called his name, he would not hear them.
Because Powhatan Ellis was looking at the face of a ghost. Undeniably, no matter how hard his mind denied it.
The ghost of the Gentleman from the Cane.
It's not possible!
Ellis composed himself and feigned interest in the conversation, flashing his best ambassadorial facade. But he could not move from this table. Would not be moved. Not yet.
His patience paid off when the baron directed Madame Calderón de la Barca's attention to a family across the room.
Ellis pretended to focus his attention to the platter of dulces and turned away from the baron holding court.
"Have you met the contessa?" Ellis heard the Prussian ask. "She is of the finest society..." and something about educating her daughters, as the dreary Baron guided Madame Calderón de la Barca and her husband off, Cuevas trailing with his hands clasped behind his back, to meet the contessa of the finest society. The baron's staff member and wife had long since been forgotten and drifted elsewhere in the ballroom.
Having manufactured a few moments unobserved, Ellis moved quickly. While his right hand picked up a dulce, he carefully took the edge of the ghost sketch with his left and slid it toward his greatcoat. Setting the sweetmeat onto a small plate—he might be committing theft but was not so discourteously ill-mannered as to touch and replace food on an open buffet!—he unbuttoned the greatcoat with his right hand and passed the sketch with his left into his coat, gently folding the sheet before stashing his loot in an inner pocket.
The American—rather pleased with himself and thinking he might have made a decent cutpurse had politics not worked out—picked up his plate of dulce and shuffled the remaining sketches to hide the gap left by Mrs. Ward's now-stolen art, and turned back to the ballroom.
And came face to face with a waiter carrying a tray of fruit and staring straight at him with a look that Ellis guiltily read as accusation.
Ellis's years in Congress and on the bench as a judge kicked in, and he met the waiter's gaze head on. He raised his chin, exuded his well-honed air of privilege and superiority, and returned fire with the piercing look employed to debase and cast down opponents on the floor of the United States Senate.
The waiter, thoroughly unimpressed and simply confused by the tall American's demeanor, merely shrugged, set the tray on the table, and continued on his rounds.
"Are you well, Powhatan?" It was Cuevas, who had noticed Ellis's absence and, relocating him, detected the sudden pallor in his face.
"Oh, yes, thank you, Luis. Fine, fine. A bit tired, I think."
"A thousand-mile round trip will do that."
"Yes, I'm sure that's it. Would you be so kind as to make my apologies to our host and the ambassador and his wife?" Ellis couldn't face Madame Calderón de la Barca now, feeling certain she would sense his crime immediately. "I think it best that I get some rest."
"Of course, my friend," Luis said. "I hope you're feeling better in the morning."
"I'm sure I shall. Thank you, Luis. Good evening."
Cuevas bowed and took his leave, and Ellis leisurely rushed from the ballroom. The American's mind swam. He missed the exit, circled back to the hall's main doors, and somehow found his waiting carriage. He wouldn't realize until the next day that he left behind his top hat and overcoat.
With a clatter of hooves, the carriage sped Ellis to the former American embassy, which closed in 1836 after Texas gained its independence but acted now as offices for Ellis and a small staff. He stumbled upstairs to his apartment, lit a candle, sat in his favorite wing-back, brown-leather armchair, and pulled the sketch from his coat.
He gazed at the drawing, rested his chin on his hand, and curled his fingers over his mouth. The room's only sound was the ticking of an Eli Terry mahogany clock on a bookshelf.
Then the thought struck him.
Where was this made!
He had no idea of the source of the evidence. The ambassador had walked out of the Prussian embassy without ascertaining where the sketch had been drawn and, consequently, where the ghost might be found.
Was I so liquored by the champagne or just too stunned to think clearly?
Praying for a reprieve, Ellis inspected the sketch from top to bottom, edge to edge. No indication of place or date. He flipped it over, expecting to find the revelatory legend on the back. Nothing. He went over it again, front and back. And again. Still nothing.
He slumped back into his armchair.
He thought of returning to the ballroom but the reception would almost certainly be finished by now. And if it was not, what would he say?
Excuse me, Madame Calderón de la Barca, could you tell me where Mrs. Ward found the subject of this sketch I just stole?
Ellis considered his options.
For the moment, the origin of the sketch could wait. The Spanish ambassador was some months into his two-year posting to Mexico, and he and his wife were busy touring the country. They could be found again. And even if Mrs. Ward wanted to leave on her own, she couldn't. With Admiral Baudin's fleet blockading Mexican ports, France had effectively locked the exit and Ellis was the only man in Mexico who had a key.
What he needed now was to determine if what he was seeing was even remotely possible. After all, Ellis told himself, he hadn't seen the man in years. It was almost certainly an epically wild goose chase.
Ellis dispelled the thought of forgetting the matter. He could laugh about it later. Confirmation was required. He needed someone else to examine the sketch. Someone familiar with the ghost who had been in his presence more recently than Ellis. Someone who could conduct a discreet investigation. Who could be trusted to keep the affair secret. And who would not relent until the issue was resolved.
This much was certain: If this was possible, the situation must be remedied. American ambitions made that clear.
Ellis set the sketch aside, crossed to his desk, and spent the next few hours contemplating possible courses. He settled on a plan and prepared carefully worded correspondences and orders, some under his signature and seal, others of a more deniable variety.
Before dawn, Ellis, still dressed in his evening attire, was ready to put his scheme into motion.
Because one way or another, the ghost had to be removed from the game.
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