Colonel Travis's Lament
by Robert Garner McBrearty
I must have been out of my mind! What a way to die, cold steel in my guts! For what? For Texas? My place in history? All madness! Sheer madness! A vast mistake! Thirteen days to glory? I was used!
Let me tell you what I dreamed of on the ramparts of the Alamo...
I dreamed of glorious Jenny, back in Alabama. Eighteen years old. Beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous. Short. Blonde. A fleck of gold in one of her green eyes. A sumptuous body. Slender at the waist, an amazing hour-glass figure. And let me tell you, she knew how to use it too. Sure, sure call me a sexist now. Add that to your list. Like who wasn t back then? You revisionists love to kick Will Travis around. Delusions of grandeur. Hysteria. Borderline psychosis. Crockett always got the glory. Old Davy. The biggest lunatic of all of us! The most self-serving egomaniac you ve ever met. And Jim Bowie? Absolute cretin. A drunk. I think he had a sexual problem. All those knives of his! Talk about phallic!
Perhaps I was insane, but even the insane can love, and I loved Jenny.
She lived in her father s mansion. Her mother had passed away years before, and her father treated Jenny like a queen. She had a whole floor of the house to herself. Her spacious quarters made me think of words like: gold, sunlight, satin, silk, velvet, purple, alabaster, seashells...Cool breezes fluttered the white curtains. Her bed was a huge four-poster. She loved to make love on it. Then again she loved to make love on the rug or in the tub or standing against the wall. I think our favorite was her sitting in the windowsill while I knelt between her knees, past our shoulders the woodlands of Alabama afire with red and gold autumnal colors, the sky a piercing blue as she precariously arced her head and torso backwards into space. Once I dropped her, or overzealously butted her too hard, and she toppled out the upstairs window to some shrubbery below. She sustained only minor scratches, though, and undaunted she climbed a trellis and we resumed. I really can t tell you how much I relished those golden, autumnal afternoons.
She was eighteen, I was twenty-five, but she was much more experienced. I tortured myself, inquiring about past lovers. She made no bones about it. She d count them up for me the figures were astonishing providing me with descriptive accounts of her amorous adventures, her voice aglow with fond recollection. She went to church on Sundays. She was quite devout. She viewed her lovemaking as a service to mankind.
Why couldn t I have accepted that? We could have played and loved in her golden room, lived like happy savages off her father s riches. He did not mind. He liked to listen at the door. We d hear him there, whimpering.
I knew of a small hiding place in the Alamo. In the final battle, when all was lost, when my leadership was of no more value (not that it ever had been; look how many poor souls I d led to their doom) I d slip off, creep into my sanctuary and wait out the slaughter. Then when Santa Anna went after Houston, Sam Houston the cowardly conniving asshole who refused to come to our rescue, I d escape and make my way back to Alabama, back to Jenny. Certainly by now she d have another lover, several, but there were things one could do. A duel perhaps, though I had an aversion for bloodshed, particularly my own. But I did believe Jenny loved me still. If I could not immediately be number one, I could at least work my way back into the starting rotation.
But before matters got serious at the Alamo, I thought it would be a fine thing to die for a cause. I needed to die for a cause. I wanted my fifteen minutes of fame.
I was desperate when I drifted into Texas, heartbroken, madly in love with Jenny but unable to cope with her promiscuity. Pale and wan, I withdrew from her sexuality as if from a drug.
I was depressed. Today I would have certainly been Prozac material. Just think! A prescription might have saved the lives of a hundred and eighty-two defenders of the Alamo. Not to mention all the Mexicans, good decent fellows mostly, reluctantly recruited for their cause. Madness all around! And snake in the grass Sam Houston out there safe on the prairie goading me: Better blow up the Alamo, son, and retreat...Course a real man might just...Might just what?...Oh, nothing, nothing, just a thought, of maybe make a stand, slow Santa Anna up while we get organized...No big deal, not that you have to...Yet I could almost feel him slobbering in my ear: C mon, Travis, sacrifice yourself, balls to the wall, grab yourself a little history, son...
Before I d assumed my command, I d rented a room in a boarding house in San Antonio. I d put out word that I was a Colonel, a West Point graduate. (Well, had been a captain in the Alabama militia, where we had honed our military skills on weekend duck hunts.) Then I waited for a summons. I lay in bed, lonely as a cloud, and stared at the cracks in the ceiling. Cantina music drifted through my window. The music called to me, but I did not answer. Others had the good sense to drink away their despair, but liquor made me ill; it made me more anxious rather than less. When I drank I trembled and shook. Once I had a kind of seizure in my bedroom. I rolled around on the floor, my head banging against the hardwood...I say a seizure, but it wasn t quite...I was aware of what was happening, I had the sense not to bite my tongue off, I could have stopped if I wanted...But I allowed myself to keep rolling and banging around on the floor, foaming at the mouth...I got into the attack...I began to bark...
You can only imagine my emptiness, my utter lack of purpose...A total existential nightmare...God?...Oddly enough, I did believe in God, in something, but my belief only made me lonelier. I was abandoned. I was one of the rejects. Nothing in my life had ever worked out. My career as a lawyer? In shambles. I loathed my clients, wanted them all hung, actually drafted a letter or two to judges requesting they do so.
My love life? Jenny, I sighed, Jenny.
Then the word spread. Santa Anna and the Mexicans were coming. The butcher of Mexico! Now this was stimulating news! The town went into a frenzy. Even the Mexicans in town were worried. Santa Anna just might shoot them as collaborators.
Most of the sensible people immediately packed up and left. Those who refused to be run off, your worst drunks and louts mostly, holed up in the Alamo talking a lot of trash talk: Not scared of nobody...Nobody pushes me around...Kick Santa Anna s ass he messes with me... Their bold talk bolstered their spirits, but they were planning to drink up all the booze in town, then haul ass north. They just didn t want to give the impression they were being hurried. I ain t afraid of Santa Anna...who the fuck does Santa Anna think he is?
Sheer bullshit, frankly.
While I waited in my room, Houston started sending his crazy and mendacious messages: Take charge...blow up the Alamo and retreat... I had met the man at a cocktail party once. Clearly psychotic. You could see it in his eyes. . . . Of course you just might...If you cared to...If anyone could do it...A manof destiny, I felt it in your handshake... I could fairly hear his crazy crackling voice as he seduced me.
I embraced my doom.
Like a madman I showed up at the Alamo. Offered my services. Professional soldier, you know. West Point. I even had a kind of self-styled uniform. Blue cavalry coat, white navy-like trousers. They snickered. In retrospect I might have chosen my uniform more wisely. I came off as a petty tyrant recruiting for a yachting expedition. I d found most of the men in the long barracks, which they d converted to a kind of beer hall. I stood on a table, brandished my sword, railed on about the inequity and perfidy of Santa Anna and pledged to lead them in our glorious battle for independence. They were mostly Bowie s men. They looked at me as if I were mad. A great furious outcry went up. Look here, you Alabama dandy, said one. Then there was something about taking the ramrod out of my hindquarters and other such pleasantries, and then matters escalated. When the muskets came out, I beat a hasty and undignified retreat.
I slunk back to my boarding house. I lay down in bed. Well, this was it. I was finished. I was determined not to eat, to starve myself to death. I could not refrain from water. And there were a few oranges in the room...I could not quite resist...I lay like that over a long weekend, sipping water, gnawing at an orange...
On Monday morning there was a knock on my door. It was Jim Bowie himself. Big red-haired fellow. Barrel-chested. Long sideburns (a bit affected, I thought), knife scars on his wrists. He gave me a friendly smile, meant to be disarming. He could be a hail hearty sort of fellow, but beneath that facade he was cunning and shrewd in a dumb sort of way. He gave you the uneasy impression he was examining your torso for a good spot to stick his huge knife. A violent man. A real prick at heart. No grasp of philosophy or appreciation of history. He simply did not want to lose his land. Like a lot of thugs, he had a certain amount of benevolence. He wanted to look after his men, my people as he referred to them.
I sat on the edge of my bed and he prowled about the small, ascetic room. It was as barren as a monk s quarters. When life feels meaningless, why put anything up? I won t say he moved like a cat, he was too heavy for a cat, and I won t say he moved like a bear, he was too graceful for a bear...Anyway, he made me nervous. As if it helped him to think, he played with his great knife, tossing it from hand to hand, then putting the point of the knife on my desk and spinning it like a top, catching the knife before its last wobbly rotation. He looked about the barren room as if it disturbed him somehow. He moved to the window, looked out on the glorious cool, clear March morning. The cantina music floated in. From the window he frowned at me. I felt frail and stiff before his gaze, the way his eyes took in me and my lonely room. He grinned like one of those unimaginative persons who are happier once they ve figured you out. You need to get laid, Travis, he said, not unkindly.
I straightened my shoulders in protest.
He beat around the bush for what seemed like an eternity. Then he turned from the window and said firmly, Well, Travis, I m not the sort of man who beats around the bush. What do you think? Can we defend the Alamo or not?
My spine tingled as if jolted by electricity. I don t know why I said it. I didn t care one way or the other. It s absolutely imperative! I sputtered.
He scowled at me. He d never heard the word before. So maybe we ought to retreat? Hook up with Houston?
I had him. The silly man. He didn t really want to retreat but he didn t trust his own judgment either. Like a lot of cloddish cunning people, he recognized his own stupidity.
Imperative that we defend the Alamo! Absolutely imperative! Spittle sprayed from my lips as I said the word now, again and again. Imperative!
I was transfixed. By the saying of the word, I was saved. I spoke my purpose into being.
Bowie stared at me as if I were a madman, a way of being looked at I d grown accustomed to.
I don t know, he grunted. I don t want my people to get hurt.
But I had him. I knew it. He wasn t going to leave town and leave me looking like the ballsy one.
By now I was ready to fight Santa Anna alone. One against five thousand. I d give a brave showing. Perhaps Jenny would read of my valiant quest. Lone man routs army of thousands... I wasn t too bad with a sword. I d spent time practicing in my room in front of a mirror. You talking to me? I d say, whipping out my sword. You talking to me?
Let me think about it, Bowie grunted.
He sent his emissaries the next morning. We would share command of the Alamo.
Share command indeed! He didn t have a clue! Not the foggiest clue of how to conduct a proper siege and certainly not the faintest notion of how to leave a legacy for history.
I inspected the old Spanish mission that had been converted to a fort. I noted with satisfaction that the low rock walls, crumbling in places, could be readily mounted with ladders. Cannonfire could mercilessly rake our ramparts. I looked about at our thin garrison, our ragtail band of warriors. We didn t have a prayer with this number of men. Good! Everything was set in place. We could get ourselves killed in style. For history!
I did go through the appropriate motions, though. I wanted it on the record that I d done my duty. We scoured the town for food, assured ourselves the well would not run dry, got our hands on every ounce of gunpowder, erected more scaffolding, reinforced the walls and gate, built up the earthworks on the low western wall, the weakest spot in the fort.
Throughout the preparations, as we awaited Santa Anna s visitation (we felt a bit honored, really, that he had singled us out for extinction) I looked at the men as if I were already looking at ghosts. At times I wanted to let them in on the secret. Run, you fools, I wanted to scream. You re doomed, don t you get it? I ve been duped by Sam Houston, and you ve been duped by me!
I scrupulously oversaw every detail of the siege preparations, but I also set to my real task. I began to write. Letters to Jenny, of course, to let her know what a noble fellow I was. I trusted she would have the sense to get them into the historians hands so I presented myself in the best imaginable light. Letters to Houston. To the Texas legislature, such as it was far worse louts and drunks that I was quartered with here. In fact, I had begun to like the men here, and that frightened me. They had come out of their stupor and were working like fiends, without complaint. I realized they d gotten carried away. Perhaps my speeches had affected them. They were really determined to hold off Santa Anna and his hordes.
I hardly slept, writing by candlelight. Really first-rate stuff, I thought:...the greater glory of Texas...determined to hold out until the end...against all odds...dignity ... honor...as God is my witness...all that is good and brave and noble in the heart of man...Imperative!...
You get the idea. It was really marvelous stuff, enough to bring a tear to the eye as I implored the good people of Texas, the good people everywhere to come to our aid...
As I wrote, I fell into a kind of trance...A kind of hysteria gripped me...I d fall into a sweaty sleep toward dawn, my head lying on my desk...Then I d wake up and read what I d written and I was shocked; it seemed feverish, it seemed as if someone else had written it...But before I could stop myself, I d be off on another writing jag.
After all, the Alamo has provided me with my true calling. I would go home to Jenny and write, mostly histories I presumed. I would make peace with Jenny s lurid past. We would resume. I trembled at the possibility of true happiness. There was only one small problem. I had convinced everyone that it was imperative we defend the Alamo. You've never seen such enthusiasm for self-sacrifice...outright fanaticism!...and I could hardly back out now. My followers would have shot me themselves. I had to keep up the charade.
It was as if I had woken up clear-headed after a long drunk. My God, what was I doing here? What did I care about Texas? Sagebrush, mesquite, sand, rock, heat, cockroaches. Though just now, as if to torture me, the spring days were deliciously warm and mild, the nights cool and starry. History has it that I harbored a death wish. Sheer bull! It may have begun that way, but now I wanted to live. I wanted to live! Twenty-seven years old and woken from a long drunk and ready at last to live! My God, you do not know how badly I wanted to throw myself into the sweet tangy embrace of Jenny. How I yearned to be back in that windowsill. Jenny's heartbreakingly lovely and slender torso arced back as she ecstatically received my thrusts, made more gallant from my hearty frontier days. Between lovemaking, over mint juleps, I would regale her with tales of my adventures out West.
I grew so aroused anticipating Jenny that I took a bit of time off from siege preparations to visit the sporting house down the block. But it was a sad affair.The girls had packed up and headed to Austin to console the nervous legislature, a custom, I understand, which exists to this day.
Have you ever experienced clarity? A profound bitter clarity when it is too late? Glory, honor, grandeur, they meant nothing to me! My angst? Nothing! All I wanted was a life with Jenny.
It was Bowie now who was determined to die. He d received word that his family, his wife and children, had died of cholera. He drank more than ever. He developed pleurisy. He holed up in a private cell in the infirmary, drinking and sharpening his knives. I visited him. Perhaps if he ordered a retreat...I stood over his sick bed, frowning down at the sweaty, stubbled, pallid face. Perhaps, I muttered, with you sick...we might consider...After all, we really don t have that many men... He sat upright, reached up and grabbed my collar, pulled my face close to his, stuck the point of his knife against my jugular. Jimbo s ready, he breathed in my ear, his foul breath making my stomach lurch.
Meanwhile Crockett arrived. He and his toothless, lice-ridden Tennessee boys. What a cutthroat bunch. I wouldn t have wanted to encounter them if I were canoeing down a backwoods river.