The Gates of the Alamo
In the early spring of 1835 an American botanist named Edmund McGowan travelled southeast from Béxar on the La Bahía road, following the course of the San Antonio River as it made its unhurried way through the oak mottes and prairies of Mexican Texas. He rode a big-headed mustang mare named Cabezon and led an elegant henny mule loaded down with his scant baggage. Professor, a quizzical-looking mongrel, scouted ahead of the little caravan, sniffing out the road when it grew obscure and threatened to disappear from sight.
Edmund McGowan was forty-four years of age that spring, very much the confident, solitary man he aspired to be. He was of medium height but heavy-boned, his hands blunted and scarred by decades of hostile weather and various misadventures involving thorns and briars, snakebite, and the claws of a jaguarundi cat. His features were pleasingly bland, but there was a keenness and luminosity in his eyes. He possessed all his teeth but one, and most of his hair as well, though his side-whiskers had lately broken out in polecat streaks of gray. He wore a once-fine hat of brown felt, a frock coat, and pantaloons that he protected from the brush with leather botas that covered his legs from his knees to his brogans. His saddle, bit, and round wooden stirrups were Spanish, and like a vaquero he carried a loop of rope on the cantle. It was his ambition to use the rope to lasso a turkey.
Though the weather was mild, winter still lingered across the landscape. The great live oaks, always in leaf, formed intermittent glades along the road, but the limbs of the hardwoods lining the river were bare, and few wildflowers had yet emerged from the brittle grass. No matter. Edmund had packed a modest amount of drying paper, his press, magnifying glass, a dozen vascula, and a few essential books like Drummond's Musci Americani and Nuttall's Genera, but this was not a trip for botanizing. He was on his way to pay a visit to his employer, the government of Mexico, or at any rate the entity that was currently being promoted as the government. No doubt by the time he arrived in the City of Mexico, another junta would have arisen and taken its place. As far as he knew, his commission -- to provide an ongoing botanical survey of the subprovince of Texas -- was still in effect, though in the last year his payment vouchers had not been honored in Béxar when he presented them at the comandante's office on the Plaza de Armas.
He had no great hopes for this mission to the City of Mexico; indeed, he feared that his continued employment had less to do with a keen governmental interest in undescribed flora than with bureaucratic oversight. After the completion of the Boundary Survey of 1828, he had expected his services to be courteously terminated, and yet year after year, as Mexico suffered from an endless pageant of civil insurrection and foreign intrigue, his quaint little job on its far frontier had remained secure. But he had come to depend on those 2,400 pesos a year. Without them, he would soon be reduced to selling seeds to Kew Gardens, or to hawking ferns to the London gentry like some common Botany Ben. He considered himself to be a scientist, not a scavenger and purveyor of ornamental plants. His little house in La Villita overflowed with books and notes, with dried specimens and drawings and Wardian boxes filled with carefully nurtured living plants -- all of the materials that were waiting to be compacted into his Flora Texana. He saw the Flora as a great, solid book as thick and incontrovertible as the Bible, a book that would justify a life of cruel endurance. ("What labor is more severe," he had been gratified to read in Linnaeus, "what science more wearisome, than botany?") But now, because no doubt of some fastidious clerk in a government palace, his work was in jeopardy. The only hope he had of restoring his commission was to present himself and make his case to whichever bureaucrat might listen.
Excerpted from The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan Copyright© 2000 by Stephen Harrigan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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