Authors: Jason Manning
Gone to Texas
Copyright © 2015, Jason Manning
"LET THE DUEL BEGIN."
Incensed by Christopher Grove's insolence, Adam Vickers sprang forward like a horse released from a starting gate, slashing with the saber, a mighty stroke. The point grazed Christopher below the ribs, ripping his shirt and slicing his flesh and stinging like a thousand angry fire ants.
"No rules!" a spectator reminded the combatants, encouraging Vickers to hurl a handful of sand into Christopher's face. Momentarily blinded, Christopher staggered backward as Vickers pounced like a jungle cat, his blade biting deeply into the flesh of Christopher's sword arm. Blood gushed through Christopher's clawing fingers. Vickers pressed him, slashing with the saber again like a man possessed.
For the first time in his life Christopher stared Death in the face. Adam Vickers was going to cut him into bloody pieces. . . .
GONE TO TEXAS
The dinner hour, commencing at one o'clock in the afternoon every single day of the year, was the only time between dawn and dusk that a West Point cadet had to spend on his own pursuits. While most of his fellow cadets returned to their quarters, or gathered in small groups on the commons to indulge in idle conversation, Christopher Groves liked to walk. The serene beauty of the site of the United States Military Academy never failed to soothe his sometimes troubled soul.
Thirty-seven miles north of New York, the Academy was perched on the west bank of the Hudson River, at a place where the river bends, on a high level plain at the point of which was located the crumbling vestiges of old Fort Clinton. George Washington had described the Hudson as the "Key to the Continent" during the Revolution. It was here that a gigantic chain—like something, a romantic remarked, that had been used to bound Prometheus or some other mighty hero of Greek mythology—was stretched across the river to prevent the British from sailing upriver and cutting the rebellious colonies into two, more easily conquered, parts. Remnants of that massive chain were on display at the Academy.
West Point's fortifications were designed by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Pole who had volunteered his services to the cause of the American patriots. His engineering skill had proved to be of immeasurable service to that
cause, his work at West Point making that stronghold virtually impregnable.
Leaving the mess hall, Christopher walked briskly along a path which led him past the post office and laboratory, then under the guns of the siege battery and to the river where the long dock jutted like a fat upside-down L into the river. The trail narrowed as it wound in serpentine fashion across steep wooded slopes to the point, above which loomed the old fort now falling into a disgraceful state of disrepair. It was nearly summer. The cool shade of the trees was a pleasure.
Gazing out at the wide blue-green expanse of the Hudson, nestled between forested heights, Christopher noticed several white-sailed skiffs on the water. He thought of his father. It never failed—he always did when he saw a sailing ship, be it skiff or schooner. Jonathan Groves had first made a name for himself as a valiant young naval officer in the war against the Barbary pirates almost thirty years ago.
Jonathan had gone on to achieve a measure of fame as the man responsible for the capture of the traitor Aaron Burr. The thought of Burr brought another traitor to Christopher's mind. Benedict Arnold. Feeling he had not received his just due from the Continental Congress as one of the heroes of the revolution, Arnold had tried to betray his fellow patriots by conspiring to hand West Point over to the British in return for twenty thousand pounds sterling and a commission in King George's redcoat army. Luckily for the patriot cause, the scheme had been exposed before any damage was done.
Jonathan's involvement in the capture of Burr, who had sought to separate the western lands from the republic and establish his own private domain—or so they said; there was no solid evidence, and Burr had been acquitted of all charges by none other than John Marshall, chief justice of the United States—had catapulted the young cadet's father into national prominence.
Jonathan had gone on to serve in the state legislature of Kentucky and then in the Congress, resigning from the latter institution to fight Indians in the bloody Northwest during the War of 1812. He had been at New Orleans with Old Hickory, and again with Jackson in the campaign against the Creeks, finally dying on the field of battle, which had long been his desire, in the Seminole Campaign.
Jonathan Groves' rise to national hero was the reason Christopher was here at West Point. Two presidents had known and relied on his father. Thomas Jefferson had given him the mission to stop Burr. Andrew Jackson, currently residing in the White House as the republic's seventh chief magistrate, had considered Jonathan one of his best lieutenants. Sam Houston, who until recently had been governor of Tennessee, had called him friend.
A frown creased Christopher's brow. Having just turned twenty-three, he was of medium height and slender build. Broad across the shoulders and slender at the hips, he cut a fine figure in his uniform—regulation gray tunic and white trousers and, of course, every cadet's pride and joy, the bell-crowned black leather cap with the polished leather visor and the yellow scales and eagle which could be fastened under the chin. By anyone's standards he was a handsome young man. His chin was square and strong, with more than a hint of stubbornness. His mouth, a testament of determination, could flash in an easy white grin. His nose was aquiline, his brow high. And his eyes, a startling sea green in color, were keen and intelligent. Despite his deceptively slender build he was endowed with an agile strength. Physically he was resilient—a cadet had to be to endure the constant drill which was a feature of the Academy. His constitution was cast iron, which was lucky, as the worst thing about West Point was the food. A cadet's diet was atrociously poor. Yet Christopher thrived. Food was of no importance to him except as fuel for the body. His
mind was a sponge that soaked up the heavy doses of French and mathematics which inundated the cadets in the Point's sand-floored "academies."
Now in his second year, Christopher was a popular member of the Corps of Cadets. Though reserved, sometimes to the point of reticence, he was amiable and reliable and eminently fair-minded. Apart from that, he was at the top of his class in horsemanship—which was little wonder considering his upbringing at Elm Tree, where some of Kentucky's most prized thoroughbreds were raised—and near the top in swordsmanship and academics. He was an accomplished dancer, and the apple of many a young belle's eye, and seldom did he have difficulty finding a dance partner for the "hops" which were all-too-infrequently arranged to break the monotony of drill and study, study and drill that distinguished life at West Point. Dancing ranked with fencing and horsemanship as an accomplishment necessary for a gentleman, and as one who excelled in all three pursuits, Christopher had already made a name for himself.
And yet he often wondered if he was not here under false pretenses. These self-doubts plagued him whenever his thoughts turned to his father. The entire nation held Jonathan Groves in high regard, but the people of the United States did not know the whole truth. In his private life Jonathan had been anything but heroic. His notorious and long-standing affair with Emily Cooper was common knowledge—and a source of unending humiliation for his son. But few knew of his penchant for strong drink, developed in his later years, when he was off on one campaign or another, fighting the British or the Indians and trying desperately to get himself killed. A suicidal alcoholic and philanderer—that was the father Christopher knew, though not at all well, since he had seldom come home to Elm Tree and his wife and son. Those few who were aware of these dark secrets—men like Jackson and Houston, to name two—kept it to
themselves, out of respect, Christopher supposed, for a fallen comrade-in-arms.
To say that Christopher hated his father would be too strong a statement, yet Christopher had never been able to forgive what had been done to his beloved and long-suffering mother. Since the age of five, Christopher—and his mother, Rebecca—had seen precious little of Jonathan Groves. But it was on the strength of the hero's name that Christopher had been accepted into the Military Academy. Ironically, nearly everyone here had a higher opinion of his father than he.
Nearly everyone. Christopher knew of one exception. Adam Vickers hated the very name of Jonathan Groves, and by virtue of blood kinship, Christopher as well. Considering the circumstances, Christopher could scarcely blame him. But Vickers' hate put Christopher in an uncomfortable position of having to defend the indefensible—his father's honor.
Christopher walked on with long brisk strides, hands clasped behind his back. There was no time to dally. At precisely two o'clock there was formation, and no one wanted to be awarded the demerits which being even one minute late for that daily ritual would bring.
Breaking out of the trees, he turned south along the path below the ramparts at the rim of the plateau. Straight ahead was the Battery Knox, named after the republic's first secretary of war, and beyond that the stables and riding hall, near the road which led down to the south dock. The sun beat warmly on his face, and a breeze swept up from the river carrying the fragrance of spring flowers which bloomed in profusion on the slope near the water's edge. Due west of the riding hall stood the cadet barracks, and, having timed his daily walk down to the minute, Christopher was confident he would arrive just in time to join his company for formation. He was never late.
Few were his demerits after two years. Only three cadets had a better record, and demerits were devilishly easy to acquire. There were a great many "thou shalt nots" at the Military Academy. Cadets were not permitted to drink, smoke, or play cards—nonetheless, Christopher had never seen so much tobacco use in his life, and gambling was widespread. The countryside was infested with civilians who made a good living in a brisk black market which supplied the cadets with forbidden merchandise.
A cadet was not allowed to keep in his room any novel, play, or poem. If he was going to read it had to be something akin to Farrar's translation of the
Treatise on Plane and Spherical Trigonometry
, and not some piece of sensational prose like James Fenimore Cooper's works, or Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels. A cadet could not leave the Academy grounds without a pass signed by the superintendent, and it was said that getting a death certificate was easier. Still, many were lured into attempting an unauthorized nocturnal excursion to North's, where good food and strong spirits could be had.
Demerits were also received for loitering, being late for class or drill, bathing in the river, answering for another at roll call, or standing at guard duty in another's stead. Pranks and fistfights were also forbidden, which is not the same thing as saying that they did not occur on a regular basis—it was inevitable when two hundred proud, high-spirited young men were thrown together into an extremely competitive and stressful environment. Those unfortunate enough to be caught in flagrant dereliction of these commandments were often punished, but seldom court-martialed and dismissed.
The worst crime a cadet could commit—one which inevitably resulted in dismissal—was to engage in the
. If a cadet so much as heard of a rendezvous with
pistols or blades to settle an affair of honor, he was duty-bound to report it.
Dueling was a concept that left a bad taste in Christopher's mouth. A duel between his father and a man named Stephen Cooper had led to the disintegration of his family, for on that day his mother had miscarried, so worried was she for her husband's safety. Christopher sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a younger brother or sister. But he would never know, for his father had ignored his wife's pleas and gone through with the affair of honor, leaving her so distraught that she lost her unborn child and blamed him for it later. Jonathan had slain Cooper, and by doing so had become the object of Emily Cooper's—nee Vickers—undying obsession. Though his parents had never divorced, Christopher was painfully aware of the fact that his father had spent a great deal more time in his last years with Emily Cooper than with his mother.