Heard of the Yellow Rose of Texas?
Here she is. In the original.
Emily West teams up with Sam Houston to defeat The Mexican Dictator Santa Anna and establish the Republic of Texas.
THE YELLOW ROSE
A NOVEL OF THE TEXAS REVOLUTION
Bob Stewart & Carl R Brush
February 24, 1836
Morgan’s Point, Texas
“Girl. Let’s have another.”
Sam Houston called to me, waving his mug at the end of a buckskin-clad arm. Fringe danced under an armpit stained with sweat. It probably smelled worse than a dead polecat, but sure as cotton’s white, I wasn’t about to test that theory.
My name is Emily West, but in Morgan’s Point Hotel, they called me “girl.” A common enough name for a mulatto woman working in a saloon. Somehow my skin didn’t crawl when Sam Houston said it. He didn’t use the derogatory tone most of these louts did with us darker people. I could slough off the insults better than most, being a high yellow mix of white and black, a free woman under contract, not the slave that people figured me for. Still and all, that constant “boy” “girl” “boy” “girl” business felt like needles jabbing, jabbing, jabbing every time.
Houston, though, he sounded like he was just calling for service. That’s what got me interested in the first place. I nodded in his direction and made my way toward him, dodging and slapping away the customary pats and squeezes, some on my backside, some higher, some lower. The clients of Morgan’s Point Hotel Saloon were rougher than an outhouse corncob.
“That’s what I like. A woman who steps right to it when a man calls,” Houston said to his companions without taking his eyes off me.
“What say, General?” demanded the man sitting across the table from him.
“Turn your good ear so you can hear me, Deef,” Houston said. Then, playing to rest of the table, he yelled, “Oh, I forgot, Deef ain’t got a good ear.”
The men roared their delight, Deef right along with them.
Houston handed over his empty tankard, then picked up his jackknife and began whittling on a shapeless wooden block, the slivers joined the other shavings that covered his moccasins.
He wasn’t much to look at, this Sam Houston. Nose a bit too big, lips too thin, his hairline headed north, and bushy sideburns curving south along his chin. Kind of disappointing, since I’d heard so much about what a warrior he was, wounded hero of the Battle of New Orleans.
Gossip here was that President Andrew Jackson had sent this big drunk to pull this godforsaken Mexican hot box into the Union. Why they’d want it was beyond me. It didn’t seem worth the wind it’d take to blow every grain of sand of it into Galveston Bay, which seemed likely to happen any day. Houston just wanted to prove he could do it was my guess. Like any man. Seems like what made the most sense was just leave it to the Mexicans.
But nobody asked me.
Houston and his buddies were on their way to getting glassy-eyed, but hadn’t quite arrived there yet. I got Houston’s attention by making sure he got a peek inside my low-necked bodice when I bent over to pick up his mug. Then I turned around, gave my hips an extra sway, and tossed a smile and a wink back over my shoulder as I returned to the bar. I felt his lust. Good. Bigger tips meant bigger savings toward the inn Mother and I planned to buy when I got back to New York where I belonged.
The tankards filled, I renegotiated the gauntlet of eager hands, painting a smile on my face to hide my resentment at every pinch and squeeze, then plopped the brew in front of him. I directed a bit of a splash down his front in the process. Why, I don’t know. To remember me by, I suppose.
“What the hell?” He dropped his knife and carving and jumped to his feet and bellowed like a bull calling for a heifer.
“Sorry I got your dirty clothes clean,” I said, mopping at the suds foaming on his matted chest hair.
“Leave it,” he said, slapping my hands away.
I was surprised to discover I had to lift up my chin to look in his eyes. Most men I look at straight across, and a goodly number have to lift their eyes to meet mine. Houston wasn’t ten feet tall like the stories said, but he had me by a good three or four inches. Maybe I hadn’t given him enough credit at first glance.
Still and all, he didn’t look like someone you’d count on to turn a mismatched conglomeration of Anglos and Mexicans into an army fit to throw off the likes of General Santa Anna. Quite a gamble for Old Hickory to back him. Like betting on a long shot in a cock fight. But maybe the president did that, too.
Houston’s watery blue eyes scanned me. He tilted his head like a dog, curious and wary about a cat he’s happened on. He swayed a bit. Not unusual for our patrons this time of night, but more noticeable with his height.
“You’re a tall one,” he said.
“Is that what makes you a great leader?” I said. “Your knack for spotting what’s obvious?”
“Here girl, keep your mouth to yourself.” A monotone voice flared behind me, a rough hand grasped a fistful of my sleeve and pulled at me.
I was about to treat his hand to a taste of my fingernails, when Houston laughed and said, “No, Deef. Leave her be. She’s got gumption, and you know I like a good laugh.” He reached to dislodge his buddy’s hand but never took his eyes off me the whole time, nor did I take mine off his. I felt Deef release his grip and retreat. Big dog, little dog. I’d seen this act before.
“He hears better than he makes out, doesn’t he?” I said.
“You don’t talk like a Southern nigger,” Houston said.
“Nossuh,” I said, mimicking the accent of a Southern chattel. “I’s from New Yohk.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Colonel Morgan signed me on to look out for his warehouse and serve here in his saloon.”
“Signed you on? Contract then?”
“One year. And with six months to go, I wish it was over.”
“So you’re one of those free ones, are you?”
“Cross my heart.” I batted my eyelashes and patted the place under my blouse where I had my papers tucked away. “Lots more of us around than you might want to think.”
“Warehouse. Big job for a man like Jim Morgan to trust to a girl, free or not. So must be you can read and write and cypher.”
“Me?” I said, simpering and looking up at him with half-closed eyes, “a simple bar girl?”
Houston smiled. “Deef,” he said, sitting back down and grasping the handle of his mug, “we must treat this woman with respect. She’s probably more educated than you and me.”
“That’s a safe bet,” I said
He stuck out his hand. “Houston’s the name. Sam Houston.”
I didn’t take his hand immediately. “I don’t have to read, write or cypher to know who you are, General.”
He didn’t withdraw his hand. “It’s Sam to you Miss … ” He raised his eyebrows.
I finally deigned to clasp his hand. “West. Emily, General Houston.”
“Well, Emily West, would you draw me a bath and see to my buckskins?” He lifted a pair of saddlebags from the floor and slapped them on the table. “I have another outfit in here needs washing as well.”
“I’ll draw your bath, General,” I said. Then I whispered, “And that’s all.”
“What did you say, girl?” Deef said.
Houston shrugged. “Deef, here, didn’t catch that, but I heard you loud and clear.”
Deef started to answer but sat looking at me with murder in his eyes. Obviously, no one challenged his general.
Houston downed his beer, then leaped up and marched off toward the stairs that led to the upstairs rooms. I gathered the saddlebags and followed, Deef straggling behind me.
My mind was racing. I’d thought I had control of the situation with this overgrown, half-drunk, so-called general, and then suddenly I was left holding his dusty saddlebags and chasing him up the stairs.
My first lesson in how quickly Sam Houston could turn the tables in his favor.
WHAT’S HERE ALREADY
A PEEK BETWEEN THE COVERS
Michael Yellow Squirrel lay a prisoner below the decks of the Chinese sailing freighter, Heavenly Happiness. His hammock was six inches too short for his six-two frame. He inhaled the sewer stench of bilge water, felt rats skitter over his boots.
He turned over in his hammock, purposely twisted his right arm to revive the pain from whatever inside it had never quite healed. Even now, a year and a half after Andy Maxwell’s knife speared it, pinned it to the ground, and thwarted his vendetta against Andy and everything Maxwell, it hurt. Fine with him. Food for his rage. On the hull next to his hammock, he’d tallied exactly five hundred and forty-three days since the September 9, 1908 stabbing. His loathing for the man—the family—who put him in this stinking hold grew every time he gouged a new mark into the rotting plank.
He heard a hatch cover slide back. Lantern light seeped through the opening, yellow and feeble.
“On deck, Squirrel man,” growled the mate, a pox-faced little bully by the name of Skelton. “You, too, Blake, Marley, Simpson.”
He waited for the other three prisoners to climb the steep narrow ladder to the deck before he emerged into the fetid air blanketing Bangkok Harbor. Steaming humidity hid the stars. His journey had taken him from San Francisco through Honolulu, Manila, and god knows how many other rotten ports. Harbors where they’d anchored miles out to discourage escape, loaded and unloaded using lighters and junks and whaleboats. But here on the Chao Piraya River, the lights and shadows of teeming Bangkok appeared nearly close enough to touch.
On deck, the other men gathered around Skelton, who began delivering orders, a Navy Colt cradled at ready across his huge belly. Skelton would have kept the crew in chains if he could, but a man in manacles can’t scramble around the rigging. Yellow Squirrel knelt to lace his boot, reached into his boot top to retrieve the weapon he’d honed from a stolen spoon. He thumbed the razor edge, thinking of triumphant times to come. He glanced up, waited till the blustering mate looked away to point out some task or other to the waiting men. He quickly chose his angle, rose, leapt sideways, and jammed his blade between Skelton’s ribs. A raspy gurgling. He’d hit the lungs. He shoved the knife all the way into the mate’s guts, sprinted the few steps to the rail, vaulted over it, and dropped into the shadowy, tepid waters among the hundreds of canoes and junks that crowded the waterway. Started swimming.
It may have taken him a year and a half to get to Bangkok, but as a free man, it wouldn’t take anywhere near that long to get back to San Francisco. And when he did, his revenge on Andy and all the rest of the Maxwells would be all the sweeter for the delay.
THE MAXWELL VENDETTA
(PREQUEL TO THE SECOND VENDETTA)
JULY 13, 1908
Sure, Julian was drunk. It was Friday night, after all, a San Francisco longshoreman’s night to howl. But since when does downing a few too many merit a death sentence for anyone, let alone a nineteen year old? Nineteen. That’s all my younger brother was when he was murdered.
We’d agreed to meet at 9:00 p.m. at the Fandango Club, an ersatz Mexican dive on Jackson Street famed for Consuela and her Mexican hat dance. Tantalus never yearned for his legendary grapes more than we lusted after Conseula. Leggy, ululating, tresses flowing over and past her hips, stomping her high-heeled boots, stroking her bare body with a pair of glittery sombreros that promised more than they revealed.
I was on time, as usual. Julian was not, as usual. He missed our standing Friday-night rendezvous, about as often as he kept it. But tonight was special. I’d graduated from the University of California that very afternoon, was ready to celebrate, but by 11:00 p.m., neither Julian nor Consuela had appeared. The night looked like a bust. A lackluster Mariachi band played a mournful “Oh, Susannah.” From time to time one of us would yell for Consuela, but she never materialized. The Fandango smelled like most San Francisco waterfront bars—liquor and sweat hovering over a rotting marine odor emanating from floors and walls, whose planks had been often salvaged from some shipwrecked hull. I spent most of my hours here in a frolicsome humor, during which the reek never bothered me. Tonight it darkened my mood.
I sat on a stool, back to the bar, and took the first swig of my fourth mescal, watched a sultry lass in a black Merry Widow festooned with scarlet ribbons settle briefly on the lap of a deck hand sporting a watch cap and pea coat, then lead him behind a red curtain near the bandstand. Another lovely headed my way, her third approach, and I’d just about decided to make her my consolation companion when I heard a “toot, toooot” from the front door. Julian had arrived.
Suddenly the gloom evaporated. When Julian stepped into a room, everyone sought to bask in the sun of his company. Eyes turned toward his sandy hair and beaming smile as naturally as daisies to the sun. He worked his way through a gauntlet of handshakes like a politician while I ordered fresh drinks. He finally reached me and seized his glass.
“Mud in your eye, Big Brother,” he said. We tossed our shots down in a gulp. Julian closed his eyes, shook his head, and blubbered his lips like a horse.
“Again, Dan,” he called to the barkeep. “How’s tricks?”
“Can’t complain, Julian,” the bartender said as he poured. “You paying or is Big Brother, here, picking up the tab?”
“Hey, on the cuff.”
“No can do, Julian. Cash only till you clear up what’s overdue.”
“Hear that, Andy? The whole Maxwell empire at my fingertips, and they won’t even advance me a jigger of cheap booze.”
I flipped the bartender two silver dollars. “That ought to keep our glasses full for a while longer, eh, Dan?”
“Keep the cash coming, Big Brother, and I’ll keep pouring.”
I turned to Julian. “Glad you made it. Another five minutes, I’d have been in the back with Siren Jenny over there.” My prospective date had deserted me for a gent in a threadbare frock coated.
“Oooh,” he said, “You’re liable pick up some crawly critters from the girls in here.”
“I’d name them after you. Where have you been, anyway?”
“There’s many a slip twixt one bar and the next in these parts,” Julian said. “Especially on a Friday night.”
“And what slipped you up this time?”
“Andy,” he said, “not half an hour ago I had enough cash sitting in front of me to take us both around the world and back again. Just needed an easy-way six. What do I get? An easy way seven. All those pictures in my head of brown women and round coconuts? Poof. Dan, hit us again. We got to use up Andy’s money.”
My glass barely needed topping off, but Julian’s was empty.
“Julian, are you open to a suggestion?” I knew it was a stupid question the second I asked it, but when he got this far into his cups, I somehow couldn’t help acting like a parent. A year earlier, Julian had stormed off our Sierra ranch after an argument with Mother and declared his intention to adventure his way over the seven seas. So far, he’d gotten no closer to sailing out the Golden Gate than the wharves, dives, and fleshpots of the Barbary Coast.
“Andy, I know you’re gonna tell me I should work my way to Tahiti, but why would I do that? Trip of a lifetime and I’ll miss the benefits if I’m scrubbing decks or stuck in the hold.” He surveyed the teeming space before us and gestured toward a nearby poker game, one of several scattered among the tables.
“Do you have any idea how much money’s in play out there right now, Brother? Thousands. And this isn’t even a proper gambling hall. I need only one little jackpot. It’ll come. And soon. I can feel it.”
“Perhaps if you went back to the Circle M…” Still the parent. Still the fool.
“Those bar girls will be wearing nuns’ habits before I go crawling back there, Andy. You know that.”
I started to object, swallowed my words. “Yes, I do know that, Little Brother. Forgive me for sounding like Mother?” I lifted my glass.
“And me for playing the naughty child?” He lifted his glass in turn. We emptied our glasses and turned to Dan for a refill. A grizzled man in a checked shirt and red suspenders sidled between us.
“Evening, Julian,” he said.
“Howdy, Mitchell.” Julian focused his gaze on the row of bottles behind the bar.
“Time’s up, Julian,” he said.
“Bad manners, Mitchell,” I said. “You want to apologize now?” Julian waved, shook his head.
“I have until Monday,” he said. He was smiling.
“I don’t trust I’ll find you Monday.”
“Have a drink on me, Mitchell, and I’ll see you Monday noon, Pier Twenty-Three. Set him up, Dan.”
“Come on, Little Brother,” I said. “Let’s go. The Bella Vista or some place that smells better.”
“If you have money for the Bella Vista, you have money for me,” Mitchell said.
“Why, I have no money at all, Mitchell. Big Brother’s treating tonight.” Julian shoved away from the bar, yelled “toot, toooot,” and plunged back into the crowd like a seal into the waves. I followed in his wake, glanced over my shoulder to find Mitchell hurling a poisonous glare across his free whisky as we ducked through the door, up the stairs, and into the cold murk of July’s fog.
“How much do you owe that Mitchell?” I said. Julian teetered a little on the last step up to the boardwalk. I extended a steadying hand.
“Not so much. The man’s only trying to persuade himself he’s a hardcase.” He regained his balance and stepped to the curbside gaslight.
“I’m sorry to admit it, Julian, but the Bella Vista’s beyond my purse. I heard there’s a new can-can girl at The Cave down on Kearny—”
I never finished my thought because a huge shadow loomed from the fog and lurched into Julian with such force that he had to grab the light pole to keep his feet.
“Watch who you’re pushing around,” Julian said. The cone of thin light revealed a man who was big and—judging from the dusky skin and lank, shoulder-length hair—Indian.
“I’ll walk where I want to walk,” he said.
“Seems to me you haven’t learned how to walk at all,” Julian said.
Julian was more of an athlete and fighter than I ever was. But he was smaller-boned and shorter, full of drink and in no shape to beat down an opponent several inches taller and thirty or forty pounds heavier. Still, a terrier will attack a mastiff, and Julian shoved the bigger man, who moved not an inch but simply lifted Julian and threw him toward me. I grabbed my brother’s shoulders, put him behind me, and stepped between the combatants.
“Hold it. There’s no need—” A kick to my privates stopped me mid-sentence, mid-stride, and felled me like a rotten tree. We get tested. Sometimes we pass, sometimes we don’t. I failed that night, watched, hurting, helpless, gasping as the man I would soon know as Michael Yellow Squirrel pulled a knife, rammed it low and hard into Julian’s belly, then sliced upwards, the way a man guts a trout. Julian groaned, raised to his tiptoes, and seemed to float for a moment on the point of the blade.
“Die, you Maxwell son of a bitch,” Yellow Squirrel snarled. Then he pulled the knife free and watched Julian crumple silently to the boardwalk. I lifted myself to a knee as the Indian turned my way. Certain I was next, I readied myself to launch toward his knees, though what I would do if I managed to bring him down I still can’t say. Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. Whistles sounded and two policemen brandishing pistols and nightsticks bounded from the gloom.
“Drop it, redskin. No scalps tonight.” The Indian hesitated for a moment, then flicked his wrist and sent the knife thunking into the boardwalk, where it quivered beside Julian’s trembling foot. Then he raised his hands in surrender.
I scrambled toward my brother and realized that his movements were only reflexive. His shirt and flesh were ripped and soaked red, his eyes blank as unminted coins. I looked up and saw Yellow Squirrel smile as the policemen put him in handcuffs.
“You’re too damned late,” I yelled to the cops as I tried to push together the edges of the bloody crevice in Julian’s belly.
They insisted over and over that a twelve-year-old white girl had no business out lassoing grizzlies, tried to stop me like they always have, but I refused to accept the refusals. To be plain about it, I have strong objections to being left out of anything, and the more I’m denied, the stronger my objections. It’s just the way I am, and no one can help her own nature. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret, is the way old Horace, my favorite Roman poet, puts it.
I am proud to say, my daughter, even before your first wailing sight of the world, I could tell you were not only of my own flesh but of my own nature. It’s why I named you “Bonita” after myself even though that honor is supposedly reserved for men and their male children.
We have been many years apart, Mija. Perhaps those cabrones have told you about me. Perhaps you don’t even know I exist. Perhaps these words will never find you. But whatever you know or do not know, whether you ever read this or not, I want the truth to live somewhere besides in my heart and in that of the Almighty himself. And in my heart, it began that night of the grizzlies.
So there I was riding Pintado bareback, following Luis and Salvador and three other Vaqueros to Arroyo Calaveras where we dump what’s left of the Rancho Sausalito’s butchered cattle. The moon was nearly full, so I was careful to stay in the shadows of the oak trees and the chaparral. I didn’t intend to participate this first time—I’d persuade them to allow that later—but I hungered at least to experience the feel and the smell and the sound of it all.
A few miles out, Luis held up his hand, and everyone reined in and dismounted. I followed suit. I knew from listening to their stories what would happen next. They’d leave the horses and creep the last hundred yards or so to the bank of the wash. They’d count how many bears were feeding, where they were concentrated, and plot their attack. They’d isolate a single animal, throw three or four loops around him, and haul him back to the special corral where he’d be staked out to fight a bull on Saturday. After the fight, his paws became a tasty dish, his skin became a rug, or maybe chaps with claws draped over the instep of someone’s fancy boots.
I put a slight rise between myself and the men and sneaked toward the edge of the dry creek bed. I could hear the bears growling and snuffling and smell their rotten meat odor before I even saw them. I inched forward on my stomach, careful not to disturb whatever was going on in the gulch. Grizzlies are pretty much gone around here now but you didn’t grow up around San Francisco Bay in the 1830’s and 40’s without seeing them. Still, I’d never been this close before, not when they were out in the wild. The only other times were from great distances as they roamed free, or when the vaqueros dragged them in, clawing and biting at the lariats that bound them, or when they fought a bull during one of those bloody, roaring battles to the death.
I crept to the rim, peered over. I counted five. A pair of sows and their yearling cubs. The adults rooted around among the bones, searching for the tastiest of the plentiful remains. Even all the hands on all of Captain Richardson’s vast holdings couldn’t possibly eat all the meat from the cattle that were slaughtered each day to supply the eastern market’s demands for hides and tallow.
Two of the cubs fought a tug-of-war over a skull, growling and squealing like puppies. Finally, one of them ripped off the jawbone and romped away in triumph, headed straight toward me. The bears I’d seen before had been in snarling moods, and it never occurred to me they would play like this. The sight made me suddenly regret what would happen when the vaqueros moved in, made me think it would be better to turn around and go back than to stay and see them imprisoned.
That’s when Luis and his compañeros leaped like very shades of the devil from the shadows of an outcropping, spurring their mounts, howling like coyotes. Hooves shook the earth. Lariats whipped the air. It’s also when I discovered the ground I’d been stretched out on was an unstable overhang which crumbled beneath me and sent me tumbling into the arroyo.
I dropped a few feet on to a jutting rock, which knocked the breath out of me, then I continued to roll catawampus I don’t know how far until I finally fetched up against a soft, wiry-haired mound of live bear. The cub—no baby from up close—let out that yip and leapt sideways. We stared at one another for a long moment. I should have been terrified, I suppose, but I don’t recall feeling much of anything. My emotions were as paralyzed as my body. That stillness didn’t last long. The cub snapped out of his surprise, gave me a swat with his forepaw, then bounded off in the other direction. The swat probably wouldn’t have looked like much if you’d been watching from up top, but it knocked me six ways from Sunday and delivered the most intense pain I’ve ever endured. I must have found enough breath to yell or scream or make some kind of sound because the hoofbeats suddenly stopped. I heard Luis yelling.
“Quien es? Que pasó?”
“Bonita,” I cried. “Bonnie.”
The rumbling hoofbeats and yelling and growling resumed as the Vaqueros distracted the other grizzlies and held them at bay so Luis could tend to me. He knelt beside me, spoke in a tone that was both angry and concerned.
“What are you doing here, Bonita? Are you hurt?”
I had no good explanation for the first question, so I answered the second. “Estoy bien,” I said. But of course I was not in the least all right.