Thursday, May 11, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 2 Part 3
Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
King News by Moses Koenigsberg
A Don Quixote of the West (conclusion)link to previous installment link to next installment
Thanks to the incredible resilience of youth, there was high excitement in the boy that jogged along beside Eusebio Barrera that evening on the highway of historic adventure. All the equipment of cavalrymen in marching order, save a carbine and a saber, had been provided. A shelter tent, a poncho, a canteen, a blanket, underwear, socks, chaps, brogans and a .38-calibre Smith & Wesson revolver were included in the kit. They were handed to a lad who said he was eighteen and looked it, but who had passed his twelfth birthday only two months before. The heavy shoes didn’t fit me. They were thrust into the knapsack pending any enforcement of inspection regulations. We wore tunics and trousers of blue jeans.
Eusebio was the treasurer of the two-man expedition. He carried one haversack for both of us and filled it liberally from a grocery store at which we stopped at the southern edge of San Antonio.
My mount was a mustang of considerable spirit but easy gait. It would have passed as an average cow-pony on any western ranch. Its sorrel hide betrayed no hint of the murderous envy the broncho was to engender. Eusebio rode a larger and sturdier horse.
There had been hunting trips and pecan-picking jaunts on which I had camped out for a couple of days at a time. But the third night out of San Antonio on the road with Eusebio Barrera marked my longest absence thus far from the parental roof. He seemed to sense the possibility of nostalgia. If his companion betrayed the slightest inclination toward revery or meditation, he launched into song or rollicking raillery or flights of poetic recitation.
His solicitude may have been wasted. Every hour was bringing us nearer to the great battlefield manifestation—the moment when his comrade would step forth into the role of a full-fledged war correspondent. The countless facets of that vision shone with too much luster to admit retrospective shadows. During the day Eusebio had no misgivings. There was too much gaiety of speech and liveliness of occupation to invite introspection. But at night, under the stars, when the plaintive yowl of the panther beside the brooding mystery of the chaparral flung a prickle along the spine, Eusebio worried about his companion. The fact, too thinly disguised to escape detection, served as a stimulant. It put the boy on his mettle. Eusebio could not be sure whether it was his inspiriting influence or the young fellow’s native cussedness that suppressed any show of nostalgic qualms.
On the fourth day we reached Cotulla. We had covered eighty-five miles. Eusebio had been directed to find a pecan grove on the Nueces River three miles west of Cotulla.
A gurgling exclamation drew my eyes to Barrera’s face. It wore a smile of exquisite pleasure. “They are on the alert,” he said. “Scouts are out. We are being watched.” A moment later three horsemen galloped up. They wore blue-jean outfits similar to ours. They carried carbines. Eusebio saluted. His companion’s imitation was a bit grandiose. “Juarez” was the countersign. We spoke it in unison. The foremost of the three riders rode alongside Barrera and embraced him.
There was a babbling of Spanish, a wheeling of horses and then we were galloping westward.
A jolt came when we cantered up to the edge of the pecan grove. Eusebio had depicted a large army in leash. Here were not more than fifty men. And the only military color in sight was in the gaudy trappings of one man—a captain, evidently the commanding officer. His epaulets would have shamed a minstrel-band leader. There was nothing to reflect military discipline. There was not even an alignment of the tents.
There was little time to digest the discouragements of this picture before the two recruits were called before the commanding officer. He received us in the only wall tent in the encampment. The captain snorted a reluctant salute. Then he turned to Eusebio.
There was an immediate change in his demeanor. He drew Barrera aside and talked with him in undertones. Occasionally he glanced at me with undisguised disapproval. I caught mention of years and parentage. The captain shook his head in emphatic negation.
But it was all arranged!” Barrera insisted, showing a letter. The officer was impressed. A curt nod ordered my withdrawal. In the hour that followed there was abundant reason for uncomfortable speculation.
A score of men lolled around the captain’s quarters in small groups. The American boy sprawled on the grass in painful pretense of nonchalance. Every eye was on him. He was awaiting the judgment of the summary court and the onlookers were plainly hoping for the worst. Perhaps Barrera had been too optimistic.
At last Eusebio came out. His face was very grave. He beckoned and I followed him away from the circle of curious loungers.
“There has been a mix-up,” he whispered as we walked together. “This is not the officer to whom I was advised to report. All my arrangements were made with Colonel Martinez, a very close friend of the general. He has been detained at the headquarters near Encinal. We shall go there tomorrow. This Captain Hernandez does not want to accept American recruits who have not had active military service.”
Barrera was not talking with his accustomed readiness and fluency. He was picking his words slowly. He was hiding something. There was an apparent strain on his nerves and it was growing momentarily.
“Will you talk more freely, Eusebio,” I asked, “if we get our horses and ride toward the river?” A look of utter despair twisted his face.
“I did not want to tell you,” he moaned. “I hoped you might not have to know. But I can’t lie to you. We are forbidden to go outside the camp limits. You are a prisoner in my charge. The Captain first notified me that I was under arrest. Then, as a courtesy to Colonel Martinez, he put me on parole with the duty of guarding you. All this, I believe, is political. The Captain wants to distinguish himself for vigilance. When his action has reached the attention of the General he will be satisfied. At least, that is my hope.”
“But why did he put you under arrest?”
Eusebio threw up his palms in surrender.
“I’ll have to tell you everything,” he went on. “Captain Hernandez said I must have deceived Colonel Martinez to get the letter I showed him. He said the Colonel must have thought the American boy I was bringing had been a free agent long before I proposed his enlistment. He said the Colonel could not have known that you had run away from home to come with me.”
“But what is so important to him about my running away from home?” I persisted.
“He thinks your father will report your disappearance and that it will set the Texas Rangers on our trail.”
There was a gleam of encouragement here. We would convince Colonel Martinez that Captain Hernandez had dug up a mare’s nest—that he was in grievous error about any hazard from any action my father might take.
“But the Captain does not stop there,” Eusebio resumed. “He accuses me of the military crime of betraying important information, such as a countersign and the location of an armed camp.”
And Barrera sank down on a pile of saddles at the corral gate. Even his profound dejection failed to squelch his companion’s sanguine spirit. Colonel Martinez was still a tower of hope. There were too many evidences of his fondness for Eusebio to permit a fear that he would forsake the young patriot. But a chilling thought intervened.
“Suppose Colonel Martinez is not at Encinal tomorrow. What will happen if the General has detailed him elsewhere?” I asked.
“Captain Hernandez said that in any event the case will be presented to a court-martial of the rank of field officers within forty-eight hours after reaching our next encampment.”
That was a sockdolager. With my sympathy for Eusebio it might be well to mix some concern for myself. No; they dare not handle me roughly. If they were worried about what the Texas Rangers would do on account of an unharmed boy, they’d surely be afraid to aggravate the situation by harming him.
Reveille aroused a grim and silent Eusebio. It was at roll-call that the gravity of our plight became undeniable. Up to that moment I had witnessed no formal action. The impression lingered that we were in a jam the nature of which had been confined to a confidential chat between two friends. The informality ended with a peremptory wave of Captain Hernandez’s arm. We were ordered out of line. Eusebio Barrera and his recruit had been detached from the Army of Liberation.
Ten minutes later, the squadron was breaking into squads of eight, each in charge of a sergeant. Eusebio and I were counted in as Numbers 2 and 7 of the same unit. It was a delicate way of serving notice of our status of restraint. A soldier would always be on either side of each of us. We were to reach Encinal by sunset. The distance of twenty-eight miles entailed no real hardship if too many detours to avoid attention were not required.
That ride was the severest trial of self-control to which the brash neophyte of journalism had yet been subjected. None of the men spoke to me. Occasionally Eusebio flashed a comforting smile; but it had been agreed that we should not converse in the hearing of the others. The best safeguard against a breakdown lay in concentration on Colonel Martinez.
A word burst upon this reflection like the crackling of a whip— “gringo,” the lingual distillation of Mexican contempt for an American. I looked at the speaker. He was ahead, on my left, speaking to the man on his right. His half-turned face permitted our eyes to meet. He poured into his glance the venom of a bitter hostility. That was when I first noticed Felipe Rodriguez. He looked about twenty-two, of a nervous temperament, with a sardonic cast of features. There was no reason at that moment to appraise the importance of his unfriendliness.
When the sun reached its zenith, a halt was called for food. Turning to look for Eusebio, I confronted Felipe Rodriguez. Beside him stood the sergeant, Gonzales, who it developed was his uncle.
“When we remount,” said Sergeant Gonzales to me, “you will change horses with Felipe.”
“Why?” I asked impulsively.
“It is my order,” came the brusque response.
Eusebio stepped up. “What is this?” he demanded.
“Why should this snotty-nosed gringo have the best horse in the company?” broke in Felipe. “I want it and I’m going to have it.”
“Why don’t you get the Captain’s horse?” Eusebio retorted. “You have as much right. As for your quarrel with my friend— he’ll answer you.”
“There is no quarrel here,” the sergeant rasped. “I have ordered these two to exchange mounts.”
“But hold on!” Barrera spoke earnestly. “This horse my friend rides is not the property of the army. It is not under your orders. Until my friend is sworn in, his mount and his outfit belong to the patron who supplied them. They are private property. You have no authority over them.”
The validity of the argument was not so important as its novelty. It stumped Sergeant Gonzales. He was still sputtering when Eusebio remembered his letter. He showed it to the sergeant. Fortunately, Gonzales could read. Astonishment piled on frustration.
“The Colonel’s request is an order,” he mumbled, saluting Barrera.
But Felipe was not so easily overcome. If the sergeant didn’t enforce his demand, he’d take his own measures.
“I’ll fight the gringo for the horse!” he screamed. “If he wants to be a soldier, let him act like a soldier. Is he afraid to fight?”
The absurdity of the proposal flustrated me. Protest on my lips was hushed by a motion from Eusebio. He held my eye for an instant and then asked Felipe, “How do you want to fight?”
“Any way—with knives or fists or anything the gringo chooses.” Felipe was on the verge of hysteria.
“Very well, then, if the sergeant approves.” Eusebio spoke with dignity. “You may fight with your fists. At least, that will settle the quarrel between you. About the horse—the Colonel must decide.”
The wisdom of Eusebio’s action needed no discussion. Any other course would have forfeited whatever chance that remained for comradeship in the Army of Liberation.
“Don’t try to hurt him,” Eusebid whispered. “Get him down and hold him down.”
Felipe was fully four inches taller but he was no heavier. And he lacked the advantage of two years of constant training in muscular development. He landed several blows before the clinch that brought him to earth. Eusebio’s instructions were being followed. It had not been difficult. My left eye might close up for a while under an azure decoration, but that would be a mark of soldierly behavior.
Felipe’s hands were firmly gripped by the opponent who knelt astride his torso. He tugged and squirmed for a minute or two and then gave himself up to an orgy of hissed invective. It was a mixture of arabesque imagination and sheer filth. At cursing, Felipe was a master craftsman.
An arm encircled my throat from behind. I was being raised to my feet. Turning, I faced Sergeant Gonzales just as he released the grip on my neck. Assumably, this was the end of the fight. Felipe was still on the ground.
Eusebio’s hand stretched out to draw me away. I collapsed at his feet. Pincers of fire had paralyzed my left leg. Consciousness returned before Barrera could stoop to lift me. Blood was spurting from a wound half-way between the knee and the hip. Gonzales stood with gaping mouth in overwhelmed amazement. Felipe was running toward his horse, a blood-stained dirk in his hand.
So ended my first freelance adventure as a war correspondent.
With the tenderness of an affectionate brother, Eusebio bound a makeshift tourniquet above the wound. Gonzales and the other members of the squad turned from acid disdain into friendly helpfulness. The sergeant himself brought from a little farm near at hand a rickety cart on which, on an improvised litter of mesquite boughs, the wounded boy was hauled to Encinal. After all, a helpless muchacho who had presented himself for enrolment in the Army of Liberation was quite a different person from a gringo suspect.
Colonel Martinez fully justified Barrera’s faith. Felipe Rodriguez had shown the way to solve Eusebio’s problem. There was no longer any reason to consider his protege a source of hazard. Before the boy was able to move about, the army would be across the Rio Grande, beyond the pursuit of Texas Rangers.
The soi-disant war correspondent was billeted in the adobe home of a Mexican patriot under special instructions from Colonel Martinez. There Eusebio bade me a tender adios. An officer of distinguished appearance stood in the doorway for a moment with an orderly and the owner of the humble dwelling. The party had barely made its way out of the place before my host was back in lively excitement.
“That was the General himself,” he whispered. “He came to make sure. It is a great honor.”
The leg wound, under the care of a physician assigned by Colonel Martinez, healed rapidly. Felipe’s savagery had lessened the effectiveness of his thrust. The penetration would have been deeper had he not been so eager to twist the blade inside the cut. No permanent disability was inflicted. Ten days after my parting with Eusebio, the doctor dismissed his patient. It was a sober-minded boy that boarded the train for San Antonio with ten silver dollars and a dose of sententious advice from the doctor.
“The tongue,” he said, “reveals the wisdom of men and the folly of children. You should be especially careful in speech. The same loose talk that will bring ridicule to you may embarrass your friends.”
The purport of this cryptic advice seemed clear. It was a warning to shield Eusebio. It was a comforting adjuration. It meant the means of requiting, even though in a painfully slight degree, some of the unforgettable devotion of my beloved chum.
On June 22, 1890, General Francisco Ruiz Sandoval, with a following of Mexican insurgents, marched up the west bank of the Rio Grande from Laredo. The strength of his forces was conjectural. Estimates ranged from 500 to 5,000. Twenty miles north of Laredo they came into contact with government troops— a regiment of the famous Mexican Rurales. By nightfall, the Army of Liberation was scattered in complete rout. General Sandoval and 142 of his adherents were captured. On the same day, I returned to San Antonio. Nearly a year elapsed before I learned that Eusebio had escaped.
Letters to my parents from Encinal had allayed any fear for the safety of their absent son. They had also confirmed the paternal resolution to “let the boy make his own bed.” Tenders of journalistic enthusiasm to the San Antonio dailies were uniformly declined. Each answer included an intimation of prematurity.
“First grow a beard,” advised one rather unsympathetic city editor.
Evidently time interposed a gap that must be bridged or hurdled before I could enter professional journalism. This obstacle would have vanished had the venture in war correspondence succeeded. But bitterness over that failure would not sprout a beard.
Funds were necessary to cover the gap that only ripening years would close. Parental aid would debar my goal. But a job with living wages would keep open the gates to newspaperdom.
It was a highly auspicious providence that led me to the law offices of Shook & Vander Hoeven. I was hired immediately. For service as an office-boy and clerk, sleeping quarters were furnished in a rear room, with a regular meal ticket at a first-class family restaurant. To this were added $5 in cash weekly and a practical course of instruction in law. The liberality of that arrangement opened an index to the unusual personalities of my first employers.
John R. Shook was a rare character. Poetry and philosophy were his secret dissipations. Self-discipline wrestled with benevolence for his mastery. Thomas T. Vander Hoeven, half his age, was both his partner and his son-in-law. The junior member of the firm labored with the task of hiding his geniality behind his mask of dignity.
Routine with Shook & Vander Hoeven was a singular alternation of cold verity and glowing imagery. Duty was discharged with an ascetic fidelity to promptness and detail. The interludes of personal intercourse became all the more refreshing. It is doubtful whether a full college course would have yielded so rich a treasure of human values as the ten months I spent in that law office.
It was during a dissertation on the practice of law that Colonel Shook clinched another set of rivets fastening my ambitions to journalism. An entirely different purpose was in his mind. He had laid out for me a schedule of work, study and relaxation.
“Never fail to read at least one local newspaper every day,” he enjoined, “and go through every page thoroughly.”
My eagerness to pursue the subject led him into an extended disquisition. As he spoke, I jotted down memoranda of his statements. The action enhanced the warmth of his interest. He paced back and forth in the throes of an oration. In all the succeeding years I have sought in vain for some member of the Fourth Estate to match in eloquence and cogency that tribute to journalism.
“News,” he said, “is the procession of civilization. Without it progress would falter. We would relapse into barbarism.
“The local newspaper is a community convention. Selfish duty commands the attendance of every progressive citizen at this social, industrial and civic exposition. In the main hall—the large headings and extended narratives—appear the principals of the day—those who have stepped off the curbstone of privacy or been jostled into noticeable activity. There are auxiliary auditoriums and entertainment lobbies, the lesser items of group, class and neighborhood concerns. There are also special lecture-rooms and trading booths. And, unlike any other meeting or assembly, it is held in session for the spectator so that he may observe or study the proceedings at his convenience. He need not miss any of the speeches or performances. The show always awaits him.
“Our roads were puddles of impassable mud. They are being paved. Our chief thoroughfare was too narrow to let two ox-teams pass. It has been widened. The streets were so dark at night that we were afraid to venture out. Now they are brilliantly lighted. Parks are being laid out where only a short while ago rattlesnakes slithered among the cactus and weeds. Note the construction of a waterworks system. Observe the bridges that span the river, the streetcars that speed our shoppers and workers and all the other public improvements that quicken the usefulness of our municipal resources. Thrift and enterprise are marshaled into the establishment or expansion of public and private institutions. A metropolis grows out of the prairie. To what or to whom can we attribute these blessings of progress?
“The growth of a city is like a miracle encircling the miracle of life itself. It is outside the range of individual achievement or individual responsibility. It is like the growing of an infant, as mystic as it is manifest. It is a confluence of human forces feeding a reservoir of common purpose. Durable mains are necessary through which this vast basin may pour the power of its ever-renewing ambitions and hopes. Those arteries are the columns of your local newspaper. For them human ingenuity has evolved no alternative agencies.
“The newspaper is unique. It has no substitute. It is the organ of civic growth. It is the chief instrument of community service. And it is also the principal source of equipment for useful citizenship.
“Have I given you enough reasons for reading the local newspapers regularly and carefully?”
The vigor of my affirmation probably puzzled Colonel Shook. He didn’t know that the emotion he stirred was not for the reading but for the making of newspapers. Nor did he know that pursuit of his advice would hasten my abandonment of the study of law for the practice of journalism.
It was a paragraph in a local newspaper that apprised me of the $100 cash prize offered by Gen. George W. Russ for “the best original essay on San Antonio’s advantages.” There were three conditions for the contest. The composition must consist of not more than 1,200 words, it must be printed in a periodical publication and it must be distributed on the grounds of the forthcoming State Fair, the first ever held in San Antonio.
There was no hesitation about writing the essay; but a means must be found for publication within the terms prescribed. The Amateur would have met the requirements. Why not revive it for this purpose?
It was a literal burning of the midnight oil by which my opus was produced. Announcement that the prize had been awarded to me was, of course, the biggest event thus far in my life. But even the happiness of that triumph was to be exceeded the next day.
A messenger brought an invitation to call at the office of the San Antonio Times. That newspaper had but recently passed into the ownership of Sam Maverick. A member of the famous Texas family of that name, his activities embraced banking, ranching and real-estate development. He was resolved to make his newly acquired newspaper a ripsnorting metropolitan daily. He had imported editorial and circulation experts from larger cities to expedite his plans. W. A. Stinchcomb, fresh from a series of journalistic successes in Denver, Colorado, was installed as publisher and managing editor.
Little of this was known to me. It would have made no difference if I had been fully informed of these changes. There would have been no thought of again applying for a newspaper job until I was prepared literally to beard the editor in his den. And the hirsute equipment essential for such an invasion had not yet appeared.
Stinchcomb first assured himself that I was the winner of the $100 prize. Then he was delightfully direct.
“You’ve shown that you can write English,” he said, “and you know the city. That means that you ought to make a good reporter. We can offer you a job at $12 a week.”
Even though the world whirled through rainbows of delirious joy, there came a flash of business caution.
“I’m thirteen years old and I believe I should get $13 a week,” I blurted.
Stinchcomb laughed heartily. “That seems logical and fair,” he answered. “You’re hired.”
Chapter 3 Part 1 next week link to previous installment link to next installment
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