~^~ Texian Hero ~^~
Despite the wide open windows and doors, the large room was still and quiet, except for the labored breathing of the man that lay dying in the centrally located bed. He was propped and supported with multiple pillows, and only a single white sheet covered him.
July’s heat was oppressively heavy, and everything done to ease his misery had no effect, although the man wasn’t as wet with perspiration as one would have expected.
He was too far gone for that.
The red flush that covered his skin couldn’t disguise the dull greyness of approaching death.
There was a sudden catch in the old man’s breathing. Several moments passed before he was able to draw air back into his lungs. The breath rattled and crackled deep within his chest, and his debilitated body was wracked with spasms.
He attempted to raise a hand to cover his mouth, but it fell listlessly back to the bed.
At last, the ineffectual coughing ended, and the man opened his eyes, spotting a tall shadowed form by the door.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Major Jasper Whitlock, sir.” The unexpected visitor took a step closer and removed his hat, revealing neatly parted and combed chin-length blond hair. “I’ve been wantin’ to make your acquaintance, Mr. Houston. I regret I was not able to come sooner, but my commanding officer wouldn’t grant me leave until recently.”
“Major Whitlock?” The man’s brows wrinkled together in confusion. “Why didn’t my wife announce you?” he asked in a tremulous voice, with no hint of the authority or strength it once held. His eyes moved jerkily, searching the dim room. When he didn’t spy his wife, he became concerned, and his sluggish heartbeat tripped and sped. “Where is my wife?”
“She is … otherwise engaged, sir.” Jasper dropped his hat on a small table that held a glass oil lamp, a black leather-bound Bible, and a pair of round-lens spectacles. He removed his gauntlets and set them beside it. “I’ve looked forward to meetin’ you for a long time, Mr. Houston.” He took a measured step closer to the ailing man and reached for the gleaming brass bell on the small bedside table.
“Why … why did you take my bell, Major Whitlock?” A feeling of dread began to fill Mr. Houston when Jasper placed it out of reach on top of the Bible. “How am I to ring for my servants—”
“You won’t be needing it.” Jasper sat on the edge of the stiff, tufted mattress and reached to place his hand over the fretful man’s. “Please calm yourself.”
“Your hand is so cold.” Mr. Houston flinched at the unnatural chill of the Major’s touch, but couldn’t resist relaxing at the feeling of tranquility that settled like a soft quilt over him. Something about the handsome young man was both unnerving and reassuring, and his worries about his wife seemed to just float away. He’d not felt so untroubled since his illness had begun.
“Do not tax yourself.” Jasper smiled faintly and watched in satisfaction as the man’s eyes slid shut, and he wheezed out a sigh. “My daddy greatly admired you, Mr. Houston, though he didn’t approve of you living in sin and having a child with a second wife while still married to the first.” Jasper chuckled lowly. “I reckon the Cherokee weddin’ ceremony doesn’t count for much in the white man’s world. He did approve of the pretty young thing you took as your third wife.”
Jasper shifted slightly and his fingers curled around the old man’s hand. “Because of my daddy, I revered you as well, and wanted to know more about you. In between campaigns, I took to reading everything I could about you. I wanted to learn all about my daddy’s hero.”
“Campaigns?” Mr. Houston enquired with a halting breath. His eyes opened only a slit to study the youth at his side.
“You’re a Confederate officer. What regiment are you with? Who is your commander?”
“You may have heard of the recent Battle of Galveston.” The politely friendly smile on Jasper’s face twisted into a scornful grin. “My current commander is of no importance right now,” he answered in a low tone. “As I was saying, Mr. Houston, I admired you as well. But as I read more, I found it ironic that you had the intestinal fortitude to beat a disagreeable congressman with a hickory stick right in the middle of Washington, but when it came time to pay the levied fine, you up and fled to Mexico. You must have enjoyed it there—wanting to annex a large part of that territory. Then I noticed your beliefs seem to change with the shifting winds, Mr. Houston. You later fought to win Texas’ independence from Mexico.”
Jasper’s hold tightened over the brittle hand, and he leaned closer. His voice grew more urgent. “You ran again while those courageous men were massacred at the Alamo by the Mexican army. Hundreds of Texian militia men surrendered to General Santa Anna, and he slaughtered them. All while you tucked tail and ran east—away from the conflict. Was it a strategic retreat, or were you takin’ your yellow belly as far from the frontlines as you could get, like when you ran south of our borders?”
Though Mr. Houston’s eyes remained closed, he attempted to pull his hand from the constricting grip. “I … I needed more men. I was moving east to gather more and—”
“Afraid of being shot again?” Jasper interrupted. “Did you finally choose to go back because it was the right thing to do, or was it because you heard popular opinion was turnin’ against you and the men were about to desert? Luckily, you beat back the Mexican soldiers at San Jacinto, and all was forgiven. But not forgotten.”
At the man’s pained cry, Jasper released his hand but kept in contact with the parchment-like skin.
He inhaled deliberately, straining to maintain his hard-won composure. “You were born in Virginia—a Southerner. When your daddy died, your momma moved you to Tennessee—another southern state—where you grew up a slave owner. You became quite an influential man there, even becoming Governor, but it wasn’t enough for you. When you saw your influence waning, like those carpet baggers from the North, you skedaddled down to Texas to see what power you could gain there.”
Mr. Houston’s brow furrowed more deeply, and his diseased lungs rattled loudly. He made another feeble attempt to pull his hand from under the young man’s. “No. No,” he protested.
“You refused to be under the thumb of the Mexican el presidente, but you didn’t have a problem lyin’ down and rollin’ over for the North.”
Mr. Houston shook his head in denial, and another fit of coughing took his breath away. Jasper waited patiently for the man to be able to speak again.
“The North holds most of the power, Mr. Whitlock. They have the people and manufacturing that we don’t. The wise and learned Mr. Lincoln wishes for us to remain in the United States, as part of an ever-growing and robust country.”
“Do not refer to yourself as if you were born and bred here, sir. You may have been Governor, but you are not a true Texian. Texas could have been her own powerful country—a front-runner of the South—and our men could have held their own, but you stabbed them right in their hearts when you refused to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America. You were rightfully removed from office.” Jasper loomed nearer. “The North can’t bear the thought of how dependent they are on the South to feed and clothe them. Trade relations could have been negotiated, but that wasn’t good enough for the Yanks. They say they want to free the slaves while they crush us under their boot heels and make slaves of the good, hard workin’ people of Texas. Even as an interloper, without your support, the men fightin’ this war have lost hope.”
Mr. Houston struggled to reply. “Mr. Whitlock, without modern railways like there are in the North, there will be no trade. Would we continue to attempt commerce with only mule-drawn wagons?” Wheezing mightily, he floundered again as he fought to force air into his lungs. “The Federal government of the entire United States has the ability to bring progress to the state you love so well, young man. This pointless war you’re fighting needs to stop. Lives and resources are being squandered needlessly. The great state of Texas and her people will only benefit from ceasing this foolhardy action and rejoining the United States.”
Jasper slowly rose away from the exhausted man, his trembling fingers trailing over Sam Houston’s hand and heated torso. As he held the old statesman’s fever-glazed eyes with his own dark gaze, he smoothed his grey wool jacket and tugged at his cuffs. He swallowed reflexively and squared his shoulders.
“It is all a moot point, Mr. Houston. I have said my piece, though I am aware it won’t make a lick of difference.” He brushed his hair back from his face. “I proudly wore the colors of the Confederate Cavalry, and fought for the freedom of Texas until my dyin’ breath, but I have passed beyond those concerns. The humans … the men of the South and the North will do as they will regardless of my opinions. Or yours.”
Mr. Houston’s eyes widened with a renewed surge of fear. “Dying … passed beyond?” He gulped and gripped the sheet that covered him. “Are … are you a spirit … a ghost?”
“No, sir, I am not. I am as real as you are. Nevertheless, you could say I am an instrument of fate.” Faster than the blink of an eye, Jasper’s hand was around the frail man’s neck, and he bent so close, their noses were nearly touching. “Is killing you now a kindness?” In the next instant, his mouth was at Mr. Houston’s ear. “Or should I leave you to your misery and allow you to drown in your own body’s fluids?” he hissed. “Even as you lay here dyin’, you’re still tryin’ to sway the thoughts of those around you and warp them to your capricious will. Well, no more, Mr. Houston. Your ever-changin’ whims won’t be influencin’ this state any longer. My very last action as a former officer of the Confederacy, and a native-born son of the state of Texas, is to end you.”
With teeth sharper than any straight razor, Jasper sliced through the paper-thin skin beneath the sagging jowl of the old politician. He grimaced at the taste as he pulled the anemic blood into his mouth and drank it down.
Even in his weakened condition, Sam Houston attempted to deflect the attack, but to no avail. The mysterious major easily held him down and clamped a cold, hard hand over his mouth. His battering fists made no impression.
When the man’s movements ceased and the last rasp of air was expelled, Jasper released the hold on his throat and examined the small wound. He pressed the edges together and allowed the infirmity of age to cover the evidence.
Jasper twitched the mussed sheet into place, laid Mr. Houston’s hands at his sides, and stepped back.
The man appeared to be merely resting.
Without a sound, Jasper returned the bell to the bedside table, donned his hat, and slipped on his gauntlets. One last look around the room showed everything was just as it was when he entered. He adjusted his hat, setting it firmly on his head, and made his way to the door.
He could hear the quickening heartbeats of the unconscious Mrs. Houston and their several servants in other rooms of the house, and knew they would awaken soon. He stepped through the door, noting the lengthening shadows of the end of another day.
His task complete, it was time to return to his commander, Maria.
~^~ the end ~^~