Welcome to the “FINDING BILLY BATTLES TRILOGY” Blog Tour! My author friend Ron Yates is celebrating the completion of his marvelous historical fiction trilogy. He shares an except from volume three, here. I’m very glad to get a sneak peek into these sights and scents from old Mexico. Welcome, Ron!
Excerpt from Chapter Three of: The Lost Years of Billy Battles (Book 3 of the Finding Billy Battles Trilogy)
[In this excerpt, it is 1914 and Billy and Katharina are in Veracruz, Mexico on a secret mission for General Frederick Funston, commander of the US Army’s Southern Department along the Texas-Mexico border. They are to learn what Germany has planned in Mexico should war break out in Europe and they have been tasked to infiltrate the nest of German spies and other operatives in Veracruz. On this, their second day, they are getting to know Veracruz.]
On our second day we decided to do a walking tour of Veracruz. We arose early, hoping to beat the inevitable sticky heat. Katharina donned one of her new lightweight Gibson Girl walking suits, and I wore a cream-colored linen suit without a tie.
As we walked past the cathedral, wizened old women hunkered on the tiled piazza selling candles and prayer books. Señoritas and señoras paused at the basilica’s entrance to adjust the white Spanish lace mantillas covering their hair before entering for early morning mass.
We continued along Zamora Street past the Trigueros Market and a row of shops whose proprietors were scattering buckets of water in front of their doorways to settle the dust. The pungent smell of rawhide and pigskin enveloped us as we walked past several leather shops. In other stores, men and women pounded and prodded brass and copper, turning the metal into lamps, pots, and belt buckles.
“No one can accuse the people of Veracruz of being lethargic,” Katharina remarked. “It looks like everybody is occupied.”
That included the city’s musicians. Veracruz resounded with traditional music—what the locals called Son Jarocho—played by the city’s ubiquitous mariachis and marimba groups. Guitars, marimbas, trumpets, bass fiddles, accordions, and gourds filled with dried beans were everywhere in the zócalo. The music was a cheerful, effervescent blend of Spanish, African, and Caribbean. After a while, we came to recognize certain songs, even though we couldn’t always understand the dialect.
Katharina grew especially fond of a song called “El Pájaro Carpintero” (“The Woodpecker”). My favorite was “La Mujer Inconforme” (“The Unhappy Woman”).
“You would like that song,” Katharina said. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Well, after all, you aren’t that happy about this little assignment of ours down here, right?”
“No, I am not.”
“There you have it. La mujer inconforme.”
“I doubt if I will be truly happy until we’re back in Chicago.”
Eventually, we found our way to El Gran Café de la Parroquia, which our hotel clerk told us was Mexico’s oldest and most famous coffee house dating to 1808. There, we ordered café con leche y pan dulce.
“I have to say, this is absolutely the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had,” Katharina said. “And this sweet bread is beyond excellent.”
As we sat drinking our coffee, which was served in glasses, not cups, we were treated to the incessant clinking of spoons on the sides of glasses.
“Is somebody about to give a speech?” Katharina asked our waiter.
“No, it is the way you order a refill,” he said.
A sign I read as we entered was inscribed with the words: “El café como debe ser.”
“Did you notice that sign over there?” I tipped my head toward the door. “It says, ‘Coffee as it should be.’”
“They’ll get no argument from me,” Katharina said.
Leaving the café, we walked through quiet neighborhoods replete with modest stucco bungalows painted blue, pink, yellow, and brown, their vibrant colors softened with age into warm pastel tints.
As we patronized the numerous businesses that bounded or were near the zócalo, it was apparent that Veracruz was one of the most international cities we had ever visited. In addition to Spanish and English, we heard French, Italian, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and some languages neither of us recognized.
“It’s like the city is speaking in tongues,” Katharina said.
“Yes, but fortunately for us, we only need to understand the German.”
“Well, so far I haven’t heard anything auf deutsch, other than Germans complaining about the food, the heat, the insects, and the beer, of course. Germans are such snobs when it comes to beer.”
Katharina was right. Espionage in the oldest European settlement on the North American mainland was proving to be a boring activity. The most exciting aspect was the eclectic variety of food we encountered.
Wandering around town exposed us to a glut of aromas, most coming from the antojitos or street stalls on just about every corner. They sold a wide array of traditional Mexican food.
Women with dark bronzed faces dished out everything from tamales to thick corn patties fried and stuffed with salsa, cheese, cooked eggs, and beans. Others sold fresh, folded tortillas stuffed with seasoned pork, mesquite-seasoned carne asada, and a variety of soups.
“I don’t think my delicate beak has ever experienced anything like this,” Katharina said. “The smells are scrumptious.”
I agreed. The scents of Veracruz were piquant and provocative and unlike anything in Chicago. There, when the wind was just right, the charnel house stench of butchered beef and pork from Chicago’s sprawling west-side stockyards sometimes drifted into fashionable Southside and Northside neighborhoods where the city’s crème de la crème dwelled.
I reminded Katharina of that distinctive Chicago aroma. “It’s the price Chicagoans pay for being, as the poet Carl Sandburg says, ‘hog butcher for the world.’”
“I wasn’t aware you knew who Carl Sandburg was,” Katharina said. “Since when do newspaper drudges have an affinity for poetry?”
“Haven’t you learned by now? We hacks are just chock-full of astonishments,” I said, putting my arm around Katharina’s waist and pulling her closer.
Finally, after almost three hours of wandering Veracruz’s meandrous streets we came to the city’s wharf area where we were greeted by the fetid stench of fish being gutted and scrubbed in fish markets.
“Okay, enough of this,” Katharina said, holding a hanky over her mouth and nose. “Let’s revisit the tamales.”
Ronald E. Yates is an award winning author of historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy. His extraordinarily accurate books have captivated fans around the world who applaud his ability to blend fact and fiction.
Ron is a former foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the University of Illinois where he was also the Dean of the College of Media. His award-winning book, “The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles,” is the second in his Finding Billy Battles trilogy of novels and was published in June 2016. The first book in the trilogy, “Finding Billy Battles,” was published in 2014. Book #3 of the trilogy (The Lost Years of Billy Battles) was published in June 2018.
As a professional journalist, Ron lived and worked in Japan, Southeast Asia, and both Central and South America where he covered several history-making events including the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia; the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing; and wars and revolutions in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, among other places. His work resulted in multiple journalism awards, including three Pulitzer nominations and awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Inter-American Press Association, to name a few.
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