The Death of Antonio José de Sucre
I wrote this story using excerpts from the essay “The Assassination of Sucre and Its Significance in Colombian History, 1828-1848,” by T.F. McGann, published August, 1950, in The Hispanic American Historical Review. Thomas McGann was my grandfather, though I never knew him; he passed away a few months before I was born. I hit on the idea of writing a short story using some of his words and some of mine a few years ago, and this is the product of that work. I kept a version with his writing made distinct through italics, but prefer to simply let the prose mingle.
The Death of Antonio José de Sucre
Steven C. John and Thomas F. McGann
The night of June 2, 1830, Antonio José de Sucre slept in a rude hut by the side of the trail leading from Popayán to Pasto. The hut was ten feet long and eight feet wide and set back a short stone’s throw from the road, but a thick stand of untended banana trees blocked sight of it from the path. The trail was rutted from wagons pulled through deep mud caused by rain that had fallen throughout much of the previous month, and the going had been slow.
Sucre and his men rode atop mules ill-suited to the poor mountain roads, having thus far spent their lives attached to plows. But there had been no time to wait for proper mounts, and no time to wait for the mountain road to dry out and harden. José Antonio de Sucre, the Grand Marshal of the Revolution, was homeward bound to Quito after the closing of the “Admirable Congress” in Bogotá.
“Admirable,” he whispered under his breath, looking around the small, dingy dwelling. “Mierda, puro mierda, nada más.” How many years had he given to this cause or that? More than any of it would last, surely. Almost surely, anyway.
Sucre scratched at his chin, though there was no itch. The hut was lit by a single flickering lantern, and there was not much oil left to burn. As the sunlight waned, its glow already weak through the thick forest, he resigned himself to a long night spent sweating in darkness. Sucre knew he had selected a dangerous lodging at this lonely spot, which was called Salto de Mayo, and he was far from any he could call friend, save for the two men now snoring outside the hovel. And these were not friends, no, they were soldiers, men paid to prevent Sucre’s death.
He had ordered his two aides to stand guard during the night, but decided against stepping outside again and waking them. “I’m awake, aren’t I? I’ve my pistols. I’ve come through three goddamned wars already, what’s one more night?”
They had been followed the day before; that much Sucre knew. Whether or not the detour through the pass had shaken the pursuers, he knew not. Yet at only 35 years of age, already Sucre had assumed that weary acceptance more common in men twice his age. If he was hunted down, so be it. If all he and Bolívar had fought and bled and wept and cheered for were to crumble, so be it. What more could one man do than that which Sucre had done already?
In the hut there were three pieces of furniture: a wooden chair, a cot with knotted ropes stretched across it, and a small table, on which the dying lantern was perched. A bronze crucifix hung on the wall opposite the bed. It was poorly made and was hung too low.
Sucre sat down on the chair which did not much creak beneath his slender frame. The wood of the chair was rough. At his home, the chairs were smooth and polished or else covered with silk or fine cotton. His bed was large and warm and surely his wife was spread out across it.
Outside, one of the guards coughed and stirred, and Sucre could tell he had stood up, likely to relieve himself. At once fatigue set in, now that Sucre knew one of the sentries was awake. Sleep took him quickly. His head sagged to one side. Before long, a thin line of drool ran from the corner of Sucre’s lip down onto the epaulet of his uniform, which was badly soiled.
The night passed uneventfully, and on the following day Sucre and his companions pushed on a few leagues to Ventaquemada, their next stopping place. There they took rooms at a small inn, Sucre alone in the smaller chamber, the soldiers sharing a large room with a fireplace. The soldiers drank wine well into the evening and though the Grand Marshal could hear them drinking and cursing and laughing, he did not intervene. One of the soldiers was older than he, and Sucre felt strange chastising the man, though he outranked him by more ranks than could be counted on both hands.
Leaving Ventaquemada about seven o’clock on the morning of June 4, the famed general and his fellow-travelers entered a heavily wooded trail crossing the lower slopes of a mountain called Berruecos. The darkness that had enshrouded Antonio José de Sucre began to lighten as the day progressed. He knew this mountain, knew these trails. He was closer to home. He was not two days ride from the large bed, and could be there tomorrow if they pressed on through the night.
The group rode a few kilometers in single file, for the trail crossing Berruecos was hedged in by lush foliage. A thin strip of blue sky was visible above the trail, and to this Sucre looked often. Always before a battle he had looked up to the sky, perhaps to keep his eyes off the enemy a moment longer, perhaps to see if anyone was looking back down, down just at him, the idol of the Columbian army, hero of the people, confidant and principal aide to Simon Bolívar, Antonio José de Sucre. He smiled.
Sucre’s eyes were on that thin strip of blue sky when suddenly four shots were fired from the thick growth at the roadside. The Grand Marshal of Ayucucho, struck in the head and chest by three bullets, pitched forward from his mule to the trail, dead. His terrified companions fled. The corpse of Bolívar’s “immaculate Sucre” lay face down in the muddy track for twenty-four hours before three local farmhands went out to recover it. The men were paid an extra day’s wage for their grim detail. Only one of the farmworkers had ever heard of Sucre, and he had no sense of the politics of the corpse.
Two of the farmhands wanted to take Sucre’s pistols and his boots, but the third, who was not the man who knew the Marshal’s name, said: “No, no soy ladron,” he was no thief, he said, and neither were the others. They left the corpse facedown near the local magistrate’s office as instructed, and then returned to the fields. Later that afternoon, one of the farmhands went back to steal Sucre’s pistols, but the guns had already been removed. Sucre’s body was lying on its back, and his eyes were open.