Read Mexican Fire Online

Authors: Martha Hix

Mexican Fire (2 page)

BOOK: Mexican Fire
9.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Chapter Two
A couple of minutes after turning from the flaxen-haired stranger, Alejandra Sierra entered Café Plantain. Here, Veracruzanos enjoyed the finest locally grown coffees amidst the hubbub of coffee brokers conducting business.
Because of her long period of mourning, this was her first visit since word of Miguel's death had reached her two years ago. She noted the café's familiar whitewashed and stark walls, the mosaic tiles covering the floors, the din of voices, and the clanging of dishes. The aroma of coffee wafted throughout to cajole customers to cup after cup of the delicious brew.
Several men took time from their refreshments to offer Alejandra greetings and condolences. No one looked askance at her. Frequenting establishments alone was frowned at in some parts of the world, but not here. Especially not at her. Coffee was the mainstay of Campos de Palmas. Of course with the French blockade, business wasn't good, but she refused to think about that now.
An errant recollection did rush to mind.
You disappoint me.
It was as if the mysterious man were in the main salon of the Plantain, speaking to her with that resonant tone of his. Resonant and filled with . . . with what? True disappointment, she decided. She much preferred the easy tone he had used with the Totonac girl.
The child's words haunted her, too.
Your cheek is not smooth like my people's . . . It tickles my fingers
. . .
But it is a nice feeling.
What did it feel like to touch his cheek?
Making her way to a room reserved for private meetings, Alejandra scolded herself for such thoughts. Of course she had loved her husband, but dwelling on intimacies was not only unladylike, it was also uncharacteristic of her.
She entered the room and closed its door behind her. Two men rose from the table. She had expected simply to see the young
coffee broker. With his burly build and coarse features, Erasmo de Guzman couldn't have been termed handsome, not like that golden-haired pirate, but Erasmo's expressions and the way he carried himself showed intelligence and confidence.
It was no wonder Alejandra's sister had once found him attractive. Very attractive.
Not wishing to dwell on that recollection, Alejandra noted Erasmo wasn't looking her in the eye. Why not? Trying to figure out an answer, she observed the room's other male occupant. He was old, bent, and small.
This was definitely a day for strangers.
And whatever her friend and his companion wanted, she doubted it had anything to do with friendship or the business of coffee beans. Which had her uneasy for some reason.
“What do you want of me?” she asked quietly, sans the preamble or the social chatter of a typical Veracruzana.
The old man raised an arthritic hand to cup his ear before turning to Erasmo. “What did she say?”
“ 'Rasmo, who is this gentleman?”
“Don Valentin Sandoval of Merida.”
Merida. Capital of the Yucatan peninsula. Center of opposition to the present government. Don Valentin Sandoval. Sandoval—of course! Alejandra was surprised at not recognizing the name immediately, since Erasmo had mentioned it on several occasions. The Yucatecan grandee, a distinguished arch Federalist, was an outspoken critic of the Centralist government.
But what did the consumptive don and Erasmo want from her? Don't be
she scolded herself. This meeting must have something to do with the subject near and dear to Erasmo's heart. A cause he had instilled in Alejandra. Promoting a Federalist government.
For years Mexico had been divided into two camps, Centralist and Federalist. The former was in power, granting favors to those in the upper classes. Her faction, on the other hand, believed in liberty, equality, and fraternity for all. As well, they embraced the doctrine of states rights over a Centralist regime where all authority was vested in a few corrupt men in the capital. They took no regard of practicality and didn't understand—or care!—that what worked for Veracruz state wouldn't necessarily be right for Chihuahua or the Pacific Northwest or the Yucatan. And vice versa.
At present, nothing was right in the government. And with the French obstructing free trade—
“Alejandra? May I seat you, please?” At her nod, Erasmo helped her into a chair at the small round table. “We have much to discuss,
he murmured.
“We have much to discuss,” Don Valentin Sandoval interjected with no signs that he had heard Erasmo.
The closed door rattled as a waiter knocked before entering. High above his shoulder, he carried a linen-covered tray.
“Buenos dias,”
he said and set his burden on a table by the wall. He poured coffee from a battered pot into tall, stemmed glasses, then did the same with a pot of hot milk.
Whistling a tune that had overtones resembling “La Marseillaise”, the fresh-faced young man—he couldn't have been older than sixteen or seventeen—flourished a linen-covered plate from his tray.
He pulled up the covering. “May I interest you in chocolate eclairs?”
Alejandra blanched, as did her table mates. Despite the warm day, the air took a sudden chill.
“French pastries!” squawked the octogenarian. “Take them away!”
“But they are very tasty.”
“Felix, have you lost your mind?” Erasmo glared at the waiter. “We don't eat French food. Not with the Gauls cutting our supply lines and customs revenues.”
“Ah, Señor de Guzman, where is your sense of humor?” He replaced the offensive pastries on his tray. “Back in the kitchen we find much mirth in it. Ochoa the chef has even come up with words to a song. It goes like—”
“Felix! There is a lady present.” Erasmo pointed at the young man. “Watch what you say.”
Giving a nonchalant shrug, Felix said, “The words are not offensive to any Mexicana or Mexicano, I assure you. It goes like this, The day the
arrives here, is the day the
will be sunk.‘” He terminated the verse. “Granted, she is here smelling up our harbor, but that's not the point. This siege started over no more than a chocolate eclair, so why not mock the French with their foolish ‘pastry' claims?”
“Foolish pastry claims?” Alejandra repeated, unable to keep mum. “No one should count them as trivial. The French don't, be assured.”
“You're not much more than a
Felix.” Eyeing him, Erasmo took a sip of his coffee. “Are you fully aware of what precipitated the French aggression?”
“What did you say?” the don asked, leaning closer. Erasmo did not repeat his question, which sent the Yucatecan into a sulk.
Felix answered Erasmo's query. “I don't know a lot about the politics of what happened, but I do know it had something to do with some Frenchman's bakery in the capital getting sacked.”
Alejandra had been in England at the time of the incident, but she was well aware of the happenings. It all started ten years ago, and seven years into the chaos following Spain granting Mexican independence.
A squad of Mexican soldiers had descended on the
Caught up in what turned out to be a crude fiesta, they gobbled down their eclairs. The situation turned ugly when the proprietor presented the bill. The soldiers not only refused to pay, they destroyed the bake shop.
“It started with that,” she said as Don Valentin coughed into a linen handkerchief, “but the whole thing got more serious right away.”
Erasmo nodded. “His demands were a rallying cry to other ex-patriots living in our country. Thousands of them came forth, demanding money for insults.”
Felix had a pensive look to his face. “Well, I don't know about the others, but I think that baker deserved a settlement. That's what the Federalists are working for, you understand. Fair treatment for everyone.”
Erasmo and Alejandra exchanged covert yet knowing looks. Since he had introduced her to Don Valentin—this was the first time she had been in company with Federalists other than Erasmo—would he also mention to the waiter that she was likewise aligned? He didn't.
He responded to Felix's comment. “The other claims got out of hand. One after another after another, until there were thousands of claimants, they came forth and demanded money from the government. They complained of forced loans and lack of police protection. And of things such as looted property and false imprisonment.”
Leaning a hip against the side table, Felix crossed his arms. “If they were victimized like that other hombre, who could blame them?”
Alejandra smoothed the skirt of her black dress, and spoke up. “Most of their claims are of the nuisance variety . . . if not absolute falsehoods. As for those who have legitimate claims, they have suffered no more than any Mexican has. We've all been touched by revolution and strife. And a bankrupt treasury.” The last part was the result of war and Centralist corruption, but she wouldn't make mention of that.
Don Valentin waved a crabbed finger. “That's right, young man. We have no money to pay those Froggies. Even if we wanted to. Which we don't, of course.”
Felix nodded. “Let them eat—What was it their
la reina
Maria said? Oh. Let them eat cake.”
No one corrected the misquote.
Alejandra didn't hold such a blasé opinion as Felix. King Louis Philippe of France meant to collect the supposed debt now embracing the million
And he would go to any lengths to do it.
Thus, French frigates had been menacing the waters of Veracruz for several months, and lately Charles Baudin, the one-armed and fearsome rear admiral of Louis Philippe's navy, had arrived with more warships as well as with the king's third son.
Five years ago, upon her presentation to the French court, Alejandra had met the foppish young prince and knew him to be aggressive. What did he think to accomplish by being a part of the fighting fleet? She shuddered. If the Gauls were to prevail in battle, wouldn't it be convenient, their having an ambitious young prince ready to claim Chapultepec Palace?
She was only vaguely aware of Felix refilling the coffee glasses and of his exit from the room, so caught up was she in the thought of Mexico becoming an empire again. While she was strongly against the Centralist government, Alejandra was more adamantly opposed to any possible invasion by foreign forces intent on stealing Mexico for empire purposes.
She stirred her coffee, then took a meditative sip. Before Miguel died, she couldn't have cared less about politics. As a girl she had been as untamed as the jungles of Veracruz, as wild as the
rains that tormented her hometown of Jalapa. Much to her parents' dismay, Alejandra had ridden bareback and hell-bent, laughing at life and loving every minute of it. Time after time, Papa had thrown his arms wide to lament in his peculiar mixture of French and Spanish.
Mamacita, what will we do about
un garçon manqué?”
Mamacita had had a solution, and not just for the family tomboy. She shipped Alejandra and her equally bratty sister off to Europe for “smoothing out.” With Mercedes the lesson had backfired, for the elder Toussaint sister had become more wild and untamed. Alejandra had returned with reserve, ready to be united in an arranged marriage to the wealthy young heir to the Sierra name and fortune. As a bride Alejandra had wanted nothing more than her husband's devotion and a houseful of children. As a widow she wanted justice for her country.
She placed her glass on the table. Glancing from Don Valentin to Erasmo, she said, “I suppose this meeting has a purpose. What would it be?”
The two men eyed each other. In a gesture unlike his usual confidence, Erasmo swallowed nervously; his Adam's apple bobbed as he studied the wooden table. Don Valentin rubbed his wrinkled mouth. Their hesitation distressed Alejandra. She had the urge not to press the subject, to say
and be gone.
If you're going to live in a man's world, she told herself, be as bold as a man. “Speak up. One of you.”
The older of the two cleared his throat, then blurted, “You must help us rid Mexico of General Santa Anna.”
The mere mention of that despot's name twisted her stomach into knots. Santa Anna. General Antonio López de Santa Anna Perez de Lebron. Former president and dictator of Mexico. Some styled him the Napoleon of the West, a name generated by Santa Anna himself. No longer was he called that. Like his Corsican counterpart, Santa Anna had met his Waterloo.
For him that place had been San Jacinto, an obscure region in the southeastern Texas, or Tejas as the Mexicans knew it. There, in April 1836 and six weeks after the Alamo and Goliad fiascos to the west, General Sam Houston's small, ragtag army surprised and finally defeated the Mexican forces.
Before his downfall, nonetheless, Santa Anna had dug his Centralist claws into the flesh of many—including that of Alejandra's young husband. Miguel Sierra, infantry colonel on attack against the Alamo, may have been struck by rebel guns, but in her heart Alejandra believed he died from the tactical errors and bloodthirsty excesses of his own commander.
A man without honor or principles.
Santa Anna was that. After his shameful victory at the Alamo and the annihilations of the Goliad rebels, after his ignominious defeat at San Jacinto, in the aftermath of giving Tejas away to the Anglo filibusters, he undertook a strange odyssey, traveling far and wide in search of a country that would sanctify his actions in Tejas. His search was unsuccessful. Several months ago Santa Anna had returned under cover of night to the country he disgraced in more ways than Alejandra could count on her fingers and toes.
BOOK: Mexican Fire
9.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

By the Lake by John McGahern
El pueblo aéreo by Julio Verne
Black by T.l Smith
La biblia de los caidos by Fernando Trujillo
Of Sea and Cloud by Jon Keller
Harriet Beecher Stowe : Three Novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe