San Ángel, Mexico, August 24, 1847
Jane showed her pass to the guard at the adobe warehouse which had been commandeered by the American army to house their prisoners. She wore an ankle-length embroidered skirt, a low-cut white blouse, and a blue and yellow rebozo covering her head and shoulders. Her black hair and olive skin made it easy for her to be taken for a simple peasant woman, as long as she averted her striking, amber-flecked, hazel eyes.
To a man, every American soldier believed the prisoners, members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, should have been executed on the spot of their capture. Their guards were in no mood to give them any consideration of any kind and Jane didn’t want to be turned away by revealing that she was an American, and a reporter, who might be perceived as sympathetic to these Irishmen.
When she first heard about them, Jane shared the opinion of nearly every American that they were despicable cowards and the worst kind of deserters: traitors who joined the enemy and brought death and destruction upon their former comrades. But when she returned to Mexico City after reporting to President Polk that the covert peace mission he sent her on had failed, she met Alicia Salinas Ryan, the young wife of one of those San Patricios. Now those feelings had changed to a tender compassion for her and their ill-fated love.
Jane was there to find out if Alicia’s beloved Patrick was still alive and, if so, deliver a letter she’d written him. She had given her word to Nicholas Trist not to write about the deserters in order to secure permission for this visit but her curiosity was piqued. She was eager to find out more about them and their leader, John Riley. She would keep her promise but when the time came, she wanted to tell their story.
The sergeant studied the paper with undisguised contempt. It was signed by Trist, the American peace minister, and he had no choice but to let her in. He handed it back to her while openly ogling her breasts. Jane muttered gracias and went inside.
The smell hit her like a slap in the face. Human feces mixed with the filth of unwashed bodies made her gag and she covered her mouth and nose with the rebozo. It was dark inside, lit only by four small windows on each thick, earthen wall near the ceiling. It took her eyes a few moments to adjust and to recover from the stinging tears the stench caused.
Eventually, the shapes of the men scattered about the room came into view. Most were on the floor with their backs against the wall. All were shackled at their hands and feet. She pulled the scarf away from her mouth and called out, “John Riley?” She felt more than saw their eyes turn toward her but no one answered.
“Major Riley?” she repeated.
“Over here,” came a strong baritone voice from the farthest side of the room.
He got slowly to his feet as she approached. He was a giant of a man, well over six feet tall. A shaft of sunlight shone through one of the windows, illuminating his dirt-streaked face, and Jane was struck by his probing sky-blue eyes. She extended her hand which he took with a gentleness that belied his size and strength.
“I’m a reporter, Major Riley. My name is Jane McManus Storm but I write under the name of Montgomery.”
“An honor to meet you Miss Storm. I’ve read some of your articles. You write for the New York Sun I believe?”
She was shocked. She didn’t know what to expect but it certainly wasn't an intelligent man who was familiar with either her or her work. He noticed her reaction.
“We had access to many newspapers in Corpus Christi when I was with the Americans. And here in Mexico City we received the Picayune out of New Orleans as well as the Sun on occasion.”
“I’d like to speak with you, Major but first I need to ask about one of your men?”
“And who would that be, Miss Storm?”
“Yes. Corporal Ryan it is. The finest of men.”
“Is he here with you? I have a letter for him, from his wife.”
Riley smiled. “The beautiful Alicia.” He motioned with his head to the opposite side of the warehouse. “That's him, in the far corner, against the wall.”
“Thank you. May I come talk to you as well afterwards?”
“Yes, but don’t wait too long. Like the lot of us, I have an upcoming appointment with the hangman.”
Jane marveled at his cavalier attitude. “Thank you, Major,” she said. “Under the circumstances, I wish you the best.”
He gave her a tight smile and a slight, two-fingered salute before turning and going back to his spot at the other end of the room.
Patrick was slumped forward with his arms and head resting on his knees. He glanced up but made no other move other than to stare vacantly as she approached. Though they had met briefly a few weeks ago he did not remember her. His face and hair were smeared with dried blood, grease and grime, making it impossible for her to recognize him either. She was almost to him when she said, “Patrick?”
His eyes flickered. “Yes?” he said.
“I’m Jane, we met after Mass a couple weeks back. I’ve brought you a letter from Alicia.”
He was immediately alert. His shackles scraped and clanked as he got to his feet.
“You’ve seen her?” he said. “Is she safe?”
“Yes. An armistice is in place. The Americans have not invaded the city. Perhaps the war is over.”
“Thank God,” said Patrick. “May I have the letter?”
She took it from a fold in her skirt and handed it to him, watching the tears well up in his eyes as he read it. “She’ll be happy to know you’re alive, Patrick.”
He let out a grunt and said, “Not for long.”
“I have a pass, Patrick. And contacts. I may be able to get her here to see you.”
The tears had made thin, pallid rivulets down his blackened cheeks. He bit down hard on his lip and his head shook back and forth as he fought with himself. “Please tell her I love her,” he said. “But she can’t come here. I don’t want her to remember me this way.”
Jane put a hand on his arm. It was all she could do to keep from crying herself. “I’ll tell her, Patrick. And I’ll come back to see you again, if I can.”
“Thank you. Can you bring a pen and some paper so I can write her and my sister in Philadelphia?”
“Of course. I’ll be back as soon as possible. I’m a newspaper reporter and I would like to find out about you and your story.”
“Yes. How and why a young Irishman migrates to America and winds up fighting on the side of the Mexicans.”
“So that more Americans will despise us?”
“To be honest, it’s for my own satisfaction. I’d like to find out more about you and Alicia and to understand what it was that made you do it.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Patrick.
Jane’s pass continued to be valid and over the next week while their court-martials were conducted, she visited both Patrick and John Riley. The verdicts were all the same. Without exception, each of them were found guilty of desertion and treason and sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until dead.”
Patrick, reluctant at first, eventually opened up and told Jane his story, starting with the day he and his sister Ellen left their family in Ireland and boarded a ship for the Promised Land of America.