Only the second full-length novel from Bass (The Hermit’s Story, 2002), this takes an episode from Texas history that provides grit and suffering aplenty—while matters psychological remain generally unstirred.
In the 1830s, Texas has become an independent nation under the presidency of Sam Houston, but there’s still plenty of bad blood between the Mexicans and those new foreigners to the north. And so it is that after “a band of infidels, Mexican nationals,” cross the Rio Grande, attack San Antonio and flee, retaliation is called for. And when two military men, Captain Fisher and Captain Green, come through the town of LaGrange on the lookout for militiamen, even our 16-year-old narrator, surname of Alexander, and his friend James Shepherd join up. A band of 500 sets out, ostensibly to patrol the Rio Grande but in actuality—though known only to the commanders—to find revenge, an aim that leads to acts of wanton pillage, rapine and atrocity in Laredo and, such behavior being not yet sufficient, to the crossing of the river and invasion of Mexico as a harassing force. From there on, all goes downhill, as Jim Shepherd loses an arm, then his comradely goodness of character, then his life, and as the entire militia, defeated in battle in Ciudad Mier, is taken prisoner by the Mexicans. Near-starvation, exhaustion, attempts at escape (one of them through the mountains: a disaster)—all cut away at the number of survivors. Punishment at one point is the diezmo—the shooting of one in ten, decided by lot. Our narrator, though, somehow survives everything, including long and truly merciless imprisonment in the ungodly carved-from-a-mountain prison in Perote. After release, and after return home, “only a handful” remain of the 308 who crossed into Mexico. Now, at age 66 and telling the tale, the narrator wonders, “Why was I one of the tiny handful who survived the entire journey?”
Beyond that, little, really, is delved into, although the war, suffering and deprivation are vivid.