They were no less than a quarter hour's drive from their purpose: the home of DoÃ±a Alejandra Sierra and an upcoming evening of political skulduggery.
A full moon rose above the banana-tree-lined road leading from the main highway to the hacienda of Campos de Palmas. A team of four sway-backed mules pulled a once-elegant carriage up the winding incline that banked the coffee fields and the
where the beans were drying.
Inside the barouche bearing the arms of Don Valentin Sandoval of Merida, rode the elderly Yucatecan and his young compatriot, the Veracruzano coffee broker Erasmo de Guzman.
Enjoying an open-mouthed snooze, Don Valentin reposed against a satin side panel that had long lost its patina. Erasmo, too, was quiet. His legs were stretched as far as the confines allowed, his meaty arms crossed over his bull-like chest. A silver-studded sombrero rested low on his brow. He was lost in thought.
Usually his ruminations involved his Federalist cause, but after seeing Mercedes this morning, he was conscious of little beyond his beloved.
His beloved, fair-haired Mercedes.
For forever and a day he had loved her. Yet she was lost to him. Married to another. Gone. She would never be his again. Even now it hurt so much that Erasmo had to swallow back his choke of despair. But perhaps she had always been lost to him. His blood was tainted with that of an Indian grandmother.
Mercedes, daughter of French and Spanish nobility, would not mix the blue of her blood with the red of hisâeven if her mother would have allowed it. Unlike her sister, snobbery was second nature to Mercedes.
Yet she could be base. Erasmo grinned. She could be very base and devoid of morals. That was how he liked her best.
Many times in the distant past, she had spread her velvet-soft legs for him . . . had wrapped her bowed lips around his dark and throbbing member. Yes, she had been more than willing to share his bed. In the beginning she did it for curiosity's sake, he was certain. The lady had sought to find out if the ugly and hulking
made love differently from one of breeding and class. Erasmo had shown her it was very different.
There had been an inextinguishable fire between them which flared higher than class distinctions. And for a while, so long agoâmore than three years it had beenâErasmo had lived under the foolish illusion that she would become his wife.
Then Miguel had coerced him into joining the army. It had seemed a noble deed, bringing a bunch of ungrateful rebels into line, thus keeping the rights to Tejas soil. Erasmo had been proud in agreeing to serve under his friend's command.
Packed and prepared to depart for the far side of the Rio Bravo, he had pulled Mercedes close to tease. “Follow me to war. Become my
She slapped his unclad thigh. “I'm not a camp follower!”
“Then why did you ask such a thing of me?”
“Ah, my sweet Mercedes, it is because I can't live without you. Marry me, little crab,” he said. “Become my wife as soon as I return to Vera Cruz.”
She refused. Matter of fact, his marriage offer had infuriated her. How dare he? Why should she wait for him? If he wanted her hand, then he could give up his
loco en la cabeza
ideas of chasing off to Tejas! Erasmo hadn't been fooled by her ultimatum. Two things he had known for certain back then. First, he would not renege on his promise to fight. Second, Mercedes knew it. She had used her argument to take the emphasis off herself, for never would she accept his roughened hand.
They had parted.
Erasmo de Guzman, infantry sergeant under Don Colonel Miguel Sierra y de Leon, made the journey north to serve under the Eagle and Serpent flag. He lived the horrors of war, the degradation of defeat. And more. The Tejano rebelsâa more despicable lot never lived!âhad enslaved hundreds of Mexican soldiers. Including Sergeant Erasmo de Guzman.
For months he had been maltreated by his vindictive captor. The kindest thing a person could say about Polack John Johnston was his beer belly wasn't as big as his hatred for Mexicans. Polack John, much larger than the then-emaciated Erasmo, and having supposed right on his side as well as a cato'-nines, took a special delight in kicking his captive's ribs. When he wasn't striping the slave's back. Erasmo couldn't count the incidents, but he had no trouble recalling the words that went along with the beatings.
“You chile-eatin', cactus-suckin' dog, get them lazy bones workin'! And”âthe lash would fallâ“that's for the Alamo! Take this one for Goliad! And this one's cuz I cain't stand the look o' yer ugly Meskin face!”
And the Tejanos claimed the Mexicans hadn't fought fair.
That had hurt Erasmo more than forced labor or kickings or lashings. In the beginning, he believed in fair play and the equality for all men. In the beginning. Many nights under the moon that rose above the Brazos river, he had vowed to take his measure against the evil Johnston. He had, by the autumn of 1836, amended his intentions to include anyone of the Tejano persuasion.
By the time he and his fellow soldiers were freed by their “masters,” Erasmo was in no condition to care about anything beyond reaching the succor of Mercedes's arms.
His only source of delight as he started his trek had been seeing Polack John's death quiver. Erasmo had been robbed of vengeance by a rattlesnake.
His head hanging in dejection and his body in rags, Erasmo had returned on foot to Vera Cruz. Two years ago. He had held on to the hope that Mercedes, his little crab, would hold him to her breast while he shed his held-back tears.
She hadn't held him to her breast.
Thinking back on the day he learned she married another, Erasmo shuddered. In shock, he had taken a typically austere room at a
. Not a sip of water, not a morsel of food passed his lips for three days. He had done nothing but stare at the ceiling. On the fourth day he tried to face the reality of living without Mercedes.
He tried. Mother of God, how he tried! But it wasn't enough, the honor and integrity of standing beside his best friend's widow. Nor had he gained peace of mind from trying to force his government into treating all of its citizens fairly.
A man obsessed, Erasmo hadn't been able to stay away from Joaquin Navarro's wifeâeven though she either shunned him or treated him with contempt. Never had she allowed him so much as the tiniest of kisses.
He deserved the raw treatment, he knew. If he had stayed here rather than chasing after Miguel, she might still be his. Never by name, but at least in his arms. If only . . . If only she would give him a nod, Erasmo would turn his back on any and everything. If only . . .
The carriage bounced. The jolt and Don Valentin's blunt snort of somewhat intruded sleep yanked Erasmo to the present.
“You there, stop the coach.
Erasmo recognized the feminine voice. Mercedes! His head spinning, his face splitting into a grin, he parted the curtains to see that they were way short of Alejandra's home. What was Mercedes doing on the road to Campos de Palmas?
The carriage halted. Don Valentin moved, but only to settle down onto the cracked leather seat. Erasmo opened the creaking door and jumped to the ground. Moonlight afforded him clear sight of Mercedes Navarro.
His heart raced.
In a rustle of silk and above the tropical night sounds, she hurried forward. He gave thanks to the Virgin Mary that he had bathed and dressed in his fineryâa silver-studded bolero to match his sombrero, plus tight breeches to outline his formidable equipment.
“Erasmo, you mustn't show yourself!”
“Why?” He took her hand while breathing the lovely scent of lavender and beloved woman. “And what are you doing out here by yourself,
mi chiquita jaiba?”
he added protectively, affectionately.
She pulled her fingers from his hand. “I am not a crab,” she whispered, mindful of the driver's big ears. “And if I were, I am certainly not your crab.”
“What's going on here?”
Both Erasmo and Mercedes looked up at the window. Don Valentin leaned out of it. “What's going on here?” he repeated, yawning. “And who, seÃ±orita, are you?”
Mercedes turned to the barouche and extended a hand upward for the old grandee's kiss. “I am SeÃ±ora Navarro of Hacienda del Noche. You, I presume, are Don Valentin of Merida.”
He kissed the offered fingers, then cupped his ear with his other hand. “What was that you said?”
She repeated her introduction and shouted, “Pray, have your man turn this carriage around. Our former president, SeÃ±or Santa Anna of Manga de Clava, has chosen this evening to honor my esteemed sister with his presence.”
“How did that happen?” The octogenarian reared his head up, striking it on the window frame. “Ouch!”
At the same moment Erasmo slammed his fist into the mitt of his other hand.
“Â¡Madre de Dios!
She told Montgomery that we Federalists would be there. Yet he puts her in jeopardy . . . I will cut his heart out!”
Cautious not to allow the older man to hear either her tone or words, she scolded, “Erasmo, shut your mouthâfor once. You involved my sister in your intrigue, and it's come to no good. Which is just like you: politics, politics, politics! Anyway, she sent me to tell you, âLeave at once.' Help the driver turn this conveyance around. And go.”
He was at a crossroad. He could go after the bastard who had done Alejandra false. Orâto hell with Federalism!âhe could press his case with Mercedes. There was no question in his mind, not really. This was the opportunity he had been praying for.
His voice a sexual growl, he asked, “What will you give me if I do?”
“A kick in the groin if you don't,” she came back, and relinquished his arm to return to her spot below the window. Stretching on tiptoes, she shouted, “Will you, Don Valentin, please have your carriage turned around?”
“That goes without saying, seÃ±ora,” Don Valentin returned. “But I see nary a horse nor even a burro. And I see the coffee depulper is in use.” He pointed toward a torch-lit area a quarter mile away, where, faint from this distance, hoppers were droning monotonously and a score of voices were lifted in song. “Those rascals have surely fortified themselves with alcohol, so we must escort you to safety.”
“I will walk. I choose to walk. Say no more.”
“SeÃ±ora Navarro, we cannot allow you to return by yourself. That would be ungallant.” The grandee tapped his cane on the carriage ceiling. “Santos,” he yelled in a croak, as if the young man couldn't hear him anyway, “get down from that perch and help the grand lady in here.”
Erasmo seized opportunity. He clamped his fingers around Mercedes's wrist, daring her to protest. “Don Valentin, it would be best if we didn't take the chance of Santa Anna seeing your coach,” he said. “You two have been at odds in the past, you know. And you're right about SeÃ±ora Navarro. She shouldn't walk alone. We are old friends, aren't we,
the term of endearment was mouthed for her ears only “âand I should be honored to escort her back to the dinner party.”
“We wouldn't want Santa Anna seeing you either,” she pointed out between clenched teeth.
“I won't take a step beyond the stable. I'll mount a fine mare and be riding with all my might . . .” He scratched his thumb across the soft, sweet flesh of Mercedes's palm. “. . . before you can say âRemember old times in the woods.”'
He heard her breath catch. He detected a small tremble where he grasped her wrist. Or was that his own shiver? “Are you happy with your doctor man? Does he give you what you want in life? Do you ever wish for what we shared?”
He glanced at her face. The moonlight couldn't afford him clear vision of her cornflower-blue eyes . . . yet he sensed the passion building in them. His voice a murmur, he asked, “My darling Mercedes, will you allow me to take you?”
She turned away. Her shoulders were straight, then they slumped. Again, she whipped around. Her words were addressed to the ancient Yucatecan.
When she finished, Don Valentin nodded.
that is the sensible thing to do.”
Erasmo de Guzman, twenty-six years old, and three years without cherishing his adored Mercedes's lush body, had endured her wrath, both edges of her tongue, and her fits of aggravation. That was in the past. Tonightâmay fate rain on her high-born husband! âshe would once more fold her aristocratic legs around the scarred back of a peasant.
This was going to be one helluva night.
Reece had to protect himself against those plotting against him. Thus, he went against Alejandra's demand by bringing Antonio LÃ³pez de Santa Anna here for a purpose: to show he had nothing to hide . . . and that he was wise to their trick.
Reece expected trouble. He was no stranger to it.
At a rectangular table built to accommodate ten, but set for four, three diners were seated for dinner. Alejandra headed one end, Antonio sitting at the other. Reece's chair was to her right, centered between them.
Not for the first time since Alejandra had ushered the two men into this dining room, that empty chair gave Reece pause. If not for Antonio, there would be two such seats. Could it be . . . ? Had it been set for the Federalist Alejandra had mentioned the other night? If so, she was not in cohoots with the cur of Manga de Clavo.
Now that was a weak-minded thought.
Reece sorted the situation and came up with a solution he could be comfortable with: Alejandra had said Federalists would be here as a stall tactic and to follow through with the lieâone of several, to be sureâshe wanted the table to appear to him as if those “Federalists” were delayed. Or somesuch. As soon as the opportunity arose, he intended to find out what was what.