Private Brian McMourn couldn't sleep. It was more than just the tropical heat gushing in from the Gulf of Mexico. The smell of his own sweat soaked uniform and body didn't help. The howling of prowling wolves were a nuisance but the musket beside him and the army around him assured safety. It wasn't even the clouds of mosquitos obscuring the moon and stars as they hummed across the sky. The little monsters had already sucked enough of his blood to flood a butcher's shop!
It was the war that kept Brian awake. The war everyone waited for. The war that started only a week ago, when the Mexican Army crossed the Rio Grande and ambushed a patrol of American dragoons. The war that erupted the previous morning with the rumble of cannons on the southern horizon. Mexican artillery had begun to pummel the U.S. Army at Fort Texas; America and Mexico were at war.
Brian ran his fingers through his dense black hair as his thoughts wandered. Why had he let those recruiters talk him into enlisting that dreary morning along the banks of the Hudson River? He knew the answer, like he did every time he asked himself. It was either join up and provide for the family, or beg for scraps on the streets of New York.
The recruiters needed only promise steady feed, seven dollars a month, and citizenship for himself and the family. Brian was a month or two south of proper age, but the recruiters didn't bother to ask. Father only let pride be shown as his son signed the enlistment papers. Mother and his little sister Kathy wept miserably. Mother's father had died a redcoat at Bunker Hill and Napoleon had taken her older brother at Waterloo. Brian soothed them both with kisses and swore an oath not to die. A hollow promise. The November air had thundered with crowds cheering the new President, James K. Polk, and clamoring for war with Mexico; a wish now granted.
Cannons boomed in the distance as the Mexican Army pounded Fort Texas mercilessly, not even allowing the garrison a night's rest. Brian knew how they felt. Anticipation barraged his consciousness, denying him sleep. He'd heard heroic tales of battle throughout his childhood, but also horror stories of death and mutilation on the battlefield. But even the most gruesome death seemed mercy compared to this infernal waiting. Brian prayed in vain that the sun would rise just to get it over with.
He'd always been impatient. Mother often chided him for stamping his foot irritably in waiting. "The Lord loves you, Brain," she'd say. "But don't expect him to paddle the stream of time faster just for you!" He clutched the rosary in his pocket and whispered the Lord's Prayer before exhaustion claimed him.
Morning came in the blink of an eye. Brian's sleep had been mercifully dreamless, he'd dreaded nightmares of brutal death by a Mexican lance. Thankful for his restful oblivion, Brian went looking for breakfast.
Corporal Oliver Tyndale, Brian's squad leader and petulant bully, mostly ignored Brian as he paced about the huddled troops of F Company. "Paddy," and "Papist," were the kindest words Brian could ever expect from the fat Corporal. Thankfully the self-righteous protestant pastor's son was too busy stuffing his face to bombard his favorite prey with insults. Perhaps he was as nervous as all the others. Brian quietly said grace over his cornbread and bacon then savored every bite of the meal. For all he knew it was his last.
Sergeant Richards stomped up. Richards was the model soldier; brave, strong, and loyal. He pushed his men and kept the reins tight, but also took care of them. Richards had made certain Brain was properly equipped for the march from New Orleans and personally saw to his training.
Richards explained the situation to the platoon. General Zachary Taylor's orders were to break camp and line up in formation. The army would march south in column until they found the Mexican Army. "As for what we do when we find the Mexicans . . . well use your imaginations!" Richards finished with a smile. The soldiers gulped down the last of breakfast and went about their business.
Once the wagons were loaded, Brian and the rest of the 4th Infantry lined up. Brian and the others checked their muskets, better safe than sorry. Lieutenant Grant approached the platoon, and looked the men over. He smiled and nodded at Brian, who had never once been late or out of order.
Grant wasn't like most officers, who fancied themselves above all hardship and toil. The lieutenant never hesitated to get down and dirty with the men, in work or training. He often marched with the men for great distances. Being without a company of his own, Grant always marched with Brian's platoon. F Company's commander, Captain Page, appreciated the help.
Soon the familiar order echoed down the line. "FORWARD, MARCH!" Taylor's army stomped south down the road. Next stop Fort Texas and the war.
They marched for hours. Noon came and went without even a pause for lunch. The tall trees and chaparral along the road walled the formation in. The army was caged, nowhere to go but forward.
Mosquitoes hovered loudly overhead. The buzzing clouds did little to shield the men from the hammering sun. Howling off to the side reminded them mosquitoes weren't the only bloodthirsty creatures stalking the column. An occasional vulture passed over, giving an instant of shade. Brian wondered if nature's beasts could see the future.
The afternoon dragged on. The looming sun assured Brian it was hours till dusk. Eventually the trees and thick brush gave way to open prairie. At first Brian thought it liberating, then realized it was the perfect spot for wide formations of infantry and cavalry. Voices echoed down the line as Colonel Twiggs ordered his brigade to a halt.
The order to form a battle line passed down to the 4th. The soldiers obeyed, stepping off the road and into shoulder high grass. The sharp-tipped grass reminded Brian of Mexico's infamous lancers. Lances were ancient but brutally effective. "If it's not broke, don't fix it," Sergeant Richards had said to Tyndale weeks ago when the fat corporal mocked the medieval weaponry.
Brian's breath caught in his throat as he looked out across the prairie. A few miles out, just in front of the tree line, was the Mexican Army. His eyes widened at the overwhelming force ahead. Taylor's 2,000 men were out-numbered, at least, two to one!
Brian gazed in shocked wonder at the enemy troops. Most of the infantry wore dark blue and yellow, but some wrapped themselves in every color of the rainbow. A vibrant contrast to U.S. Army's light blue. The lancers, however, were uniformly red and green. Their shiny-tipped spears stood twice as tall as a man. Brian gripped the stock of his musket and felt for the bayonet at his side. It was about to happen.
"FORWARD, MARCH!" the shout repeated down the line and the 4th infantry advanced. The spear-like grass folded over easily under their boots. The earth rumbled as Mexican artillery erupted, barely visible in the tree line ahead. A shiver rippled through the advancing army.
To Brian's disbelief, the cannon balls slumped to the ground hundreds of yards short! Clouds of dirt sprang up in their wake as they bounced and rolled the rest of the way to their targets. Bewildered soldiers stepped aside as the metal balls rolled harmlessly through their ranks. The line paused as the soldiers grimaced and giggled in amusement at their enemy's pathetic hostility. "They're four-pounders," Lt. Grant called out. "We're well out of range, the fools don't know what they're doing. Keep moving!"
Again and again the men side-stepped to let the bronze bowling balls roll past their intended pins. On they marched as the rolling barrage intensified. Brian figured someone was furious his plan wasn't working and thought wasting ammunition would fix things. "Perhaps they're trying to trip us," he laughed.
Col. Twiggs halted the brigade half a mile from the enemy. Moments later the heavy artillery opened up to the left of the 4th, in the center of the American lines. The eighteen-pounders thundered with the wrath of America, peppering the Mexicans with canister and grapeshot. Clusters of iron balls ripped through dozens of enemy troops. "Giant shotguns they are!" Brian gasped in awe of the carnage.
Bronze balls continued rolling by, but faster. Still time to move but it was getting difficult. Grant and Richards kept their eyes peeled and motioned the men aside. Tyndale needed to be dragged out of the way one time. The corporal gulped hard in Richards' grasp. Brian thought he heard a great fart amid the thundering howitzers.
Mexican muskets blazed to life. Brian knew those guns anywhere, Brown Bess muskets; the former weapon of the British Empire. Even across the Atlantic and halfway across the continent, Britain managed to spit at him. Orders to return fire echoed and American muskets answered. As he reloaded, Brian saw Grant shake his head through the smoke. Brian understood; muskets were for close range, both armies were too far out. Both side's shots flew safely overhead.
The order to advance rolled down the line and the 4th Infantry marched ever closer to the foe. The line halted within fifty yards of the enemy. Captain Page bellowed the orders, "TAKE AIM! FIRE!" Mexican troops fell by the dozen in an explosion of musketry. The fallen were quickly replaced and the enemy replied with their own hail of hot lead. Men fell screaming around Brian as he reloaded. He tried not to hear their agonized cries, suddenly thankful for the ringing in his ears and the rumble of artillery. Richards and Grant kept the men focused as they stepped up to replace the fallen.
After another volley, Brian noticed Tyndale struggling to reload. His sweaty, shaky hands could barely hold the weapon. Brian froze in horror as the corporal's head vanished, his body slumped to the ground. A cannon ball! They were in range! Another went down in a burst of momentum beside him. Grant rushed to the fallen man's aid. Brian nearly dropped his musket at the sight of Captain Page gurgling helpless, and jawless, on the grass.
Brian's stomach heaved as he willed himself to finish reloading. He forced his breakfast back down his throat as he took aim. Grant roared with fury "FIRE AT WILL!" his eyes ablaze with vengeance. Brian obeyed, glad to be on his side.
Musket smoke belched so thick Brian could barely see the enemy. His nose built up immunity to the chocking stench of gunpowder. All he could do was load and shoot. Brian lost all sense of time as the fog of war screened the sun. Several times he felt balls whistle past his ears. Load and shoot.
At times Brian felt the Earth rumble. Too rapid to be the competing canons. Horses? American Dragoons? Mexican Lancers? Brian had no time to ask and the smoke was too thick to see more than vague outlines. If Lancers were charging, he'd know soon enough. Load and shoot.
Flames danced through the smokescreen. "BRUSHFIRE!" Grant barked. "GET BACK!" Brian's eyes widened as he remembered his cartridge pouch. If the flames licked close enough he'd be blown in half! The 4th stumbled back several paces. The dry grass went up like kindling. All gunfire ceased. Fire and smoke blinded even the artillery. Everyone waited.
Soon the doctors and their assistants came to collect the wounded. The bloodied, moaning figures were carried on stretchers to the rear, where the medical tents were set up. Brian felt himself over for injury and was relieved beyond belief to find none. He didn't dare look away from the brushfire, for fear he'd find his friends lying dead or wounded.
A wave of emotion enveloped Brian as the heat of the flames consumed the last of his wits. Relief, sorrow, guilt, joy, hatred; he didn't know what he felt. He searched his memory for a bible verse. First came the wind, but God was not in the wind. Then the rain, but God was not in the rain. Then the thunder, then the fire. Then the silence.
Silence took the day as the flames flickered out and the crackling ceased. The sun had nearly set when the smoke cleared. The Mexican Army was gone, the grassy field littered with their dead and dying. No commands were given. The entire army crumbled to the ground with the last flash of sunlight. Soldier lay exhausted beside soldier. Separation of rank was forgotten.
Looking up at the stars, Brian struggled to sleep again. The clouds of mosquitos had cleared. No wolves howled in the dark. The only sounds were moans and groans of wounded Mexicans across the way. No one dared go to their aid for fear of a trap.
The Lord's Prayer echoed in a soft Spanish voice. Brian didn't speak the language but had heard it in every church south of Corpus Christi. The wounded Mexican's wavering voice was soon joined by others. Brian produced his rosary and entered the prayer in English. He blinked in surprise as his fellow Americans joined him, he'd forgotten Protestants say it too. Peaceful silence swept the field as American and Mexican voices chimed "amen."