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(All right – here it is, the first chapter of the next book but one – the Gold Rush adventure that I have always wanted to write. This one takes place in between Book One and Book Two of the Adelsverein Trilogy.  Enjoy – I’ll be posting occasional chapters here. )

Chapter 1 – Two Boys

             Spring came to the lowlands around San Antonio de Bexar as it always did – with the springs of clear water flowing clear and ice-cold, with meadows of flowers splashed in swaths of yellow, pink and the deep rich blue of buffalo clover as if a reckless artist had chosen to go mad with the paint. Young Friedrich Steinmetz, whom most everyone called Fredi, had come with his brother-in-law’s herd of cattle and three hired buckaroos to sell in the market-plaza in Bexar. Carl Becker’s ranch spanned a stretch of the hills that defined the valley of the upper Guadalupe, where he had built a tall stone house and brought Fredi’s older sister to it some eight years before. The hill country – ranges of limestone hills quilted with oak trees, formed the wall between the grassy and well-watered lowlands, long-settled by white men and Mexicans, and the Comanche-haunted plains of the Llano country. For more than half his life, it had been home to Fredi and his twin brother Johann. They were alike in form, being wiry of build, hazel-eyed and with light-brown hair, but different in character.  Fredi was the scapegrace, impulsive and bold. Johann was the clever one; this very spring he was to sail away and study medicine in the Old Country, that country where the twins had been born sixteen and a half years before.

“I want to go and see Johann off when the cattle are sold,” Fredi said, that night when they were less than a day’s journey to Bexar. The sun had already faded to a deep apricot blush in the western sky, and the stars to glimmer pale in the sky overhead. The herd was pastured in a meadow on the bank of Salado Creek, running deep and cold at this time of year. The cattle drank from it eagerly, after a warm afternoon of being chivvied across a dry stretch. Fredi’s brother-in-law Carl Becker helped himself to another piece of journey-bread, and answered through a mouthful. “You’re gonna have to travel on your own, then. I can’t stay long enough from the place to see you to Indianola and back an’ I sure as hell can’t pay your way on the stage.”

“That’s what I planned on,” Fredi answered. “An’ … if I run out of money, I’ll work my way back.”

“That’s the ticket,” Carl Becker grinned. He was a big young man, Saxon-fair and soft-spoken, some fifteen years older than Fredi. They spoke together in German, that language which Carl had from his family, who had been settled in America some three generations longer than the Steinmetzes. “But you better get yourself back as soon as you can – I don’t want to explain to Magda and Vati that I’ve let you loose on the world, all on your own.”

“If Johann is old enough to go study medicine in Germany,” Fredi answered. “Then I don’t see how anyone would mind me making my way in the world. You told me that you enlisted in a Ranger company when you were the age I am in now.”

“That was different,” Carl answered, but didn’t offer any explanation as to why that would be. “And if something happens to you, your sister will skin me alive.”

“She’s all taken up with the baby,” Fredi answered, carelessly. “But I won’t see Johann for years and years, Carl – we’re brothers! I want to see him one more time … we can hurrah in Indianola for all the times we won’t be there with each other.” He fixed Carl with pleading eyes. “I promise I’ll come straight back to the ranch.”

“Promises like that are nut-shells, made to be broken,” Carl answered, with a touch of wry cynicism. “You and Johann are as thick as thieves and I always like to think that he keeps you out of trouble … Go and see him away – but if you do get into a ruckus on your own, I promise I will come down and skin you myself. Especially if I have to bail you out of the cabildo.”

“Excellent!” Fredi exclaimed, joyfully relieved. “As soon as you sell the cattle, then – I’ll take the road towards the coast. Johann and Mr. Coreth were to take passage on the steamer to New Orleans in three weeks. I’ll be back well before mid-summer. You can count on me!”

“I can count on you to be a handful – and that’s what worries me,” Carl answered.

The cattle sold readily; long-horned piebald creatures for the most, only a little less wild than the deer that roamed the hills. Three mornings later, Fredi rose early and went to the stable around in back of the rambling old-fashioned adobe brick mansion on Soledad Street. The chimes from San Fernando Cathedral faintly sounded the hour for daily mass, but crickets and frogs in the rushes at the river-edge sounded yet louder. In the quiet of dawn, Fredi saddled his own horse, a tough little paint-pony from the borderlands, where his and Carl’s host owned several leagues of land straddling the Rio Grande. It was time to get started; Fredi was aware of a sense of breathless anticipation, the same as he had felt on that day when his family set out from Albeck, near Ulm in Bavaria. That was almost ten years ago, when Fredi and Johann were barely seven years of age. Now two-thirds of their lives had been lived in Texas.

“I’d not want to go back to Germany,” Fredi remarked to his pony. “I can’t even remember much – and some of that I do, I don’t even want to think about. You’d never get me to cross an ocean again, not if you gave me the whole of Gillespie County.” This was something that he and Johann had argued about – practically the only thing over which they disagreed

“You sound as if you have made up your mind,” Carl remarked from the stable doorway and Fredi started a little.

“I have,” he replied. “And I wasn’t just going to sneak away. It’s just that … I guess I want to see the elephant, like in the story. Vati says it’s like in one of his books, about folk longing to to make a pilgrimage. But he says that it’s not where you’re going that matters – it’s just the journey. Johann … he’s always been the one with all the brains and book-learning. He wants to be a doctor, and everyone thinks that is the greatest thing. I don’t know what I want to do,” Fredi added, in a burst of candor. “Except be as rich as a First – maybe I should go to California and look for gold. When you were my age, Carl – what did you want to do?”

“Live to grow old,” answered Carl, with a dry and completely un-humorous chuckle. “But I take your meaning, lad; I didn’t want much else, back then – and my sister often told me that my lack of ambition was terribly exasperating.”

“Well, I can work cattle, tame horses, drive a wagon, and dig ditches,” Fredi answered. “Likely I won’t starve. I can read and write, as well. Maybe something will come up in Indianola.”

“Maybe it will,” Carl said. “Give Johann my best wishes, when you see him.”

“I will,” Fredi’s heart rose within him; it seemed like his brother-in-law was giving him permission.

The sun was just barely up in the eastern sky, sending erratic fingers of light across Main Plaza, when Fredi rode out of Soledad Street. All around the edge of the Plaza, the day was beginning for the market vendors, for the Mexican women bringing heavy kettles of spicy meat and bean stew from their homes, to sell to the hungry of all races as the day wore on. Fredi gazed upon it all, with a sigh of happiness. All of the world lay before him. The last thing Carl had done for him was to draw out a map on a piece of paper, showing the road towards Victoria, and thence to Indianola on the coast, on the shores of Matagorda Bay. He had written out the landmarks along the way, and now the folded paper was tucked into Fredi’s the pocket of his round jacket, jacket buttoned to his chin against the morning chill. Carl had also given him a little roll of paper notes, which Fredi had accepted reluctantly – this was a quarter of the profits from the sale of the cattle, and Fredi knew very well that Carl and his sister Magda had plans for every penny.

“It’s your share, for the work you have done,” Carl said finally and Fredi acquiesced.

The road south called to him. It was time.

 

The first few days of it went very well; Fredi was well-familiar with the out of doors, of rolling up in a blanket or two, and sleeping on a bed of last years’ leaves, or begging hospitality at a farmstead in exchange for splitting firewood. He had begun to think that this adventure into the world was going very well … but a very few miles from the town of Victoria, his pony began to limp. Fredi dismounted immediately, fearing the worst, and discovered that it was only a thrown shoe. This was good, since it was only that and not a worse injury to the pony, but the unfortunate aspect of the matter was that the shoe itself was nowhere to be found. Fredi led his pony back along the pair of beaten tracks which constituted the road for half a mile or so, before concluding that the shoe was gone. He would have to find a blacksmith in Victoria to forge a new shoe.

There were two blacksmiths in Victoria, and a wheelwright as well, but the sun was already setting, and evening shadows were already creeping out from the tall trees around the blacksmith’s forge.

“Can’t do ‘er until morning, Dutch,” said the first smith, a burly fellow whose leather apron was smudged and scorched with the marks of his profession. He was already closing up his enterprise for the day. “Leave your horse in my corral, though – I’ll do it first thing in the morning, after breakfast. Go ahead and pay me now. “He contorted his soot-blackened countenance into an expression which Fredi realized must be a wink. “Guarantee – you’re first in line, o’ course.”

“Then I can resume traveling, first thing,” Fredi answered, with relief. He brought out his roll of notes, paid from it the sum required, and returned it to his pocket. The smith looked at him, replying,

“Aye, if you are looking for a place to spend the night, there’s a woman takes in travelers for a night or so, just down the street. Two bits for supper and a bed for the night. You may have to sleep on the verandah, though.”

“I don’t mind,” Fredi answered with relief. “I’m hungry and tired – anything will suit me.”

“Good attitude to have, Dutch,” the smith said. Fredi shouldered saddlebags and blanket, still wondering why everyone was calling him ‘Dutch’.

The streets of Victoria were crowded with wagons, horsemen and now and again the occasional foraging pig. Fredi sniffed in appreciation at the good smells of bread, and roasting meats which wafted from those houses along the way towards the one which the smith had directed him towards. It looked as if there were a great many other travelers staying at the boarding house, to judge from the wagons lined up along the road, and team animals corralled nearby.

The woman of the house agreed, unenthusiastically, to set another plate at the table for him. She had a harassed and unhappy expression on her face, a greasy meat fork in one hand, and brown smears of an unidentifiable substance on her apron. Fredi moved a little aside – she also smelled most revoltingly of stale sweat and wood-smoke – and wished that he had chanced his luck almost anyplace else.

“Yew kin spread yer blanket in the parlor, if ye don’t mind them as are leaving early,” she said; Fredi barely grasped what she said. He was not used to English spoken with such a barbarous accent. “And for five cents extry, hot breakfast in the mawnin’.” She looked at him with a mildly curious expression. “Yer one of these furrin fellows, ain’t cha? Yew talk funny.”

“I was born in Deutchland – in Bavaria,” Fredi answered, at least as baffled by the question as much as he was by her speech. “But I have been working for my sister’s husband – he has a ranch in the Hills.”

“A Dutchman – so I thought,” the woman answered, as Fredi took out his roll of money, and some small coins. He counted them carefully and put two bits and a nickel in her hand, thinking that a hot meal would be good, but that the woman probably didn’t set near as good a table as his sister Magda did.

No, she didn’t. When the household and guests set down at table that evening, Fredi looked upon the dishes set out; a dish of pork chops (overdone to being as leathery as his belt), a bowl of cooked potatoes ( underdone and still unpleasantly crisp in the center) drizzled in rendered fat from the pork and what might have been chopped grass, some boiled turnips and carrots, also drizzled in fat, but cooked to tastelessness (a mercy, all else considered) and a plate of cornbread, which against the odds had the welcome quality of being hot, tasty and crisp on the edges. There was also a glutinous jar of preserved sweet something to go with it, but Fredi let the preserves go from him without comment – although he did wish that he had the nerve to say out loud what he thought of in his head; which was that this board did not groan, but merely whimpered faintly in alarm – an English witticism of which he was rather proud of having thought.  A glance at the other boarders, most eating as heartily as if they were starving convinced him of the wisdom of discretion. But two of them had resigned expressions on their own faces as they ate of the meagre bounty with distinct un-enthusiasm. Fredi divined from the general conversation around the table that they were true Yankees, all the way from New York. It interested him, as it seemed they were brothers and traveling on horseback in Texas for interest and pleasure – not for business, as was the motivation of the others. He heard their name as Homestead – the older named Frederick, the same as his own name, only in English

“You should go to Neu Braunfels … Friedrichsburg, even,” he assured the two Homesteads with all the earnestness at his command. “We are all German folk there – and I do not know of any woman among us who does not set a good table… at least as good as this,” he added, as he caught a suddenly-suspicious glance from his hostess, bringing another dish of leather-tough chops to the table.

“We live for promises,” murmured the younger Homestead brother. Fredi thought that he had better hold his tongue. His sister had often chastised him for being offensively brash – and in this place, he knew no one and no one knew him. But the older brother remarked, thoughtfully,

“I did not know there were so many Germans settled in Texas, until someone gave me a copy of the San Antonio Zeitung – all in German, it was. Could have knocked me over with a feather.”

“Oh, yah – there are many here who came with the Verein,” Fredi was happy to have drawn their interest. “There are many German businesses in San Antonio – and in Indianola, too. My father is a friend of Professor Lindheimer – do you know of him? He has discovered many new plants here in Texas?”

“He has?” Frederick Homestead asked, with very real interest lighting his face, and thereafter the rest of the evening passed congenially as far as Fredi was concerned. He sat outside after supper, the Homestead brothers smoking their pipes, in idle conversation with each other and Fredi, regarding curious plants of Texas, what kind of industries had drawn the German settlers and the road towards Austin which would afford the most leisurely tour of the countryside.  Exhausted by the days’ journey, Fredi wished most desperately to roll himself in his blankets and get some sleep, but the other guests seemed more willing to stay and talk – and drink from a surreptitiously-passed bottle until almost midnight. He found a corner of the verandah, and fell into restless sleep, with his head pillowed on his rolled-up jacket. In the middle of the night, he thought he dreamed that someone was shaking his shoulder,

“Geh weg, Johann, ich bin schläfrig,” he mumbled in protest. Go away. Johann – I’m sleepy. The person that he thought was Johann fumbled at the coat, at his shoulder again, and then withdrew.

Of course, it couldn’t possibly have been Johann, he realized in the morning, when he struggled out of the blanket, and began to put on his coat against the morning chill. With a sense of mounting dismay, he realized that his money had vanished – the small roll of bills was gone, all of his jacket pockets were empty. Empty of paper money, that is; there were some small coins remaining, so he knew that he had not dreamed that Carl gave it to him. He had been robbed in the night, likely by one of the other guests. There was little he could do, Fredi realized with a certain sense of sinking disappointment in the unfairness of the world. This was not a place where he was known, no one would have reason to take his word, and of course he could point no fingers. Looking around the parlor where the boarders sat at breakfast, he could see clearly that there were many fewer for breakfast than there had been for supper the night before. Likely the thief had already departed.  The friendly Homestead brothers were already gone. Carl would also be disappointed in him, Fredi was certain. He could not hold onto his money for a week, without being robbed.

‘At least – I have already paid the blacksmith,’ he told himself; the one cheerful thought among this wreckage of plans. He fished out the small coinage in the pocket, and decided that as he was hungry, he would spend a substantial portion of what remained to him on breakfast. Not a good breakfast, as the boardinghouse kitchen offered – but at least a breakfast. Hope triumphing over brief experience, he went and paid his five cents to the lady of the house – and settled onto an empty chair at the table. Breakfast as served was slightly less appetizing than supper; fried salt pork, more bread made from corn-meal, and dark-black and bitter coffee, sweetened with molasses and no cream to be seen. The same gummy jar of unidentifiable preserves went around the table – also a dish of somewhat rancid butter. Fredi helped himself to the first, passed on the second without comment, and announced to the table at large,

“I’ve no more money than what I’ve spent for this meal, and I’m looking for paid work.”

“Oh?” ventured one of the other guests. “Turns out I need someone to drive a wagon for me, as far as Indianola.”

“Indianola is where I am going,” Fredi answered. “How much?”  He had noted him the night before; a slight, dark-haired young man, who talked like an educated Yankee and had the courtly manners of a Southren gentleman – a teamster. His wagons stood outside the boarding house, and Fredi was pretty certain that his cattle – tamed eastern cattle with small, curving horns and obedient manners – were among those pastured in the corral. But the Yankee teamster had been one of those especially merry with the bottle going around; soft-spoken and polite when sober but loud, obnoxious even – after the bottle had passed him several times.

“Three dollars and board along the way,” the teamster answered. “And promise of further employment after Indianola. That suit you?”

“Fine,” Fredi answered, and reached his hand across the stained and crumb-scattered tablecloth. “Friedrich Steinmetz, at your service, sir.”

“No sir about it.  Alfred James Slade – Jack, to all and sundry.” They shook hands solemnly. Fredi looked with distaste on the remains of breakfast – a distaste fleetingly mirrored in the expression of his new employer.

“I’m not hungry any more,” said Jack Slade. “So – let’s get on the road, Fred. Time’s a’wasting.”

“It is,” Fredi agreed, bolting the last slice of corn bread on his plate.  “But I must get my horse from the blacksmith, first.”

“Five minutes, Fred.” Jack consulted a silver pocket-watch that he pulled from his waistcoat pocket. “Time waits for no man.”

 

Fredi joyfully hitched his limping cow-pony to the back of the wagon by a lead-rope. His father was right – something always came up, he thought. And the slovenly boarding-housekeeper averred that Jack Slade was an upright and honest man, although Fredi wondered if he should put any trust in the word of a woman who cooked so badly and yet kept an open table. Jack himself told Fredi that he had been a soldier away out in Santa Fe during the war with Mexico and hauled freight on the overland trails. Fredi’s respect for him rose immensely – more for having traveled that far into the west, than for having been a soldier.

“I came this way once before,” he said to Jack one evening. “But there wasn’t a regular road then – or even a city. We stayed in a cave in the sand cliffs for a couple of weeks.”

“You won’t know the place now,” Jack chuckled. He lit his pipe with a twig. “There’s a ruddy long wharf for the steamships to tie up at, more houses and mercantile establishments than you can shake a stick at – and a lighthouse at the point of Pass Cavallo that folk can see the light of for almost twenty miles. There’s even a regular toll-bridge over Powderhorn Bayou.” He puffed at his pipe thoughtfully for some minutes. At the edge of the circle of light cast by the campfire, the draft oxen and Fredi’s pony cropped new grass with a faint crunching sound which hinted at the relish with which they grazed. “So, what are you going to do, once you’ve seen your brother off? Go off home, or look for another job?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” Fredi answered, although he had thought of practically nothing else. How could he face up to Carl and his sister, after having lost the money they had given to him?  “But you know what I would like to do, Jack – I’d like to go to California and prospect for gold, but I’d have to work my way there.”

“If I get the right sort of Army contract, I’d hire you on as a teamster,” Jack mused, laying back on his elbow and looking at the stars coming out overhead. “It might get you almost there – Salt Lake City, maybe.”

“I’d rather not walk all the way,” Fredi said. “I’m a regular buckaroo, now – I’ve got my pride.”

The coastal plane was as flat as the ocean itself, Fredi thought, the next day – a waving sea of grass or tall cane, with cloud-shadows ripping across it as the clouds themselves were driven by the wind in the blue sky overhead. The road bent around the edge of Powderhorn Bayou, and there was the bridge; more of a long causeway, of planks laid over cypress pilings driven deep into the bed of the lake. Ahead of them – beyond the far end of the bridge – a smudge of smoke hung in the air.

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