Colonel Travis's Lament, Part II
by Robert Garner McBrearty
Crockett rode in doffing his coonskin hat as if he were some grand lord gracing us by his presence. What a blowhard! He held court in the beer hall, bowling everyone over with his outlandish tales of fighting entire Indian tribes single-handed and killing bears when he was only three. I doubt if a tenth of it was true. Still, he was a formidable man. He was big, but he had an aura that made him seem even bigger...Blue luminous eyes that looked into your soul...A laugh that made me think of buckshot...Everyone loved him. He expected their adulation, considered it his due. He was used to winning. He had no idea he d probably soon be observing his own viscera on the end of Santa Anna s bayonet. He would have lit out if he d known. He wasn t a coward, but being the ultimate politician he had no use for causes other than his own.
I was standing beside him on the lookout tower when we saw the first flashes of sunlight reflecting off the lances of the cavalrymen. Then they rode into clearer view, watering their tired horses down at the river. Crockett wasn t disturbed. He fondled the long barrel of his rifle. Why, we ll pick those dumb possums off with old Betsy here before they get near enough to stick those forks in us, Crockett said in his phony homespun way. He could speak as well as anyone but his backwoods speech had sold well in Washington and he periodically lapsed back into it for effect. Have I ever told you about the time I whupped old chief Running Rear... He droned on, but through my spyglass I was taking in an awesome, sobering sight. I handed the glass over to him and as he held it to his eye I felt a change in him. A curious tremor ran through his body as he viewed, stretched for miles across the prairie, the seemingly endless stream of soldiers tramping toward the Alamo. First the regulars, in blues and whites, carrying bayonets. More horsemen then, pulling field artillery. Then thousands of peasant conscripts in their dusty serapes, old muskets over their shoulders, some armed only with machetes. Then behind them wagons of women, even some children along for the ride. Crockett handed back the glass, looked around our garrison, the thin ranks, the vulnerable walls, the wide courtyard to defend. He didn t physically hunch over, but he gave the impression of one hit hard in the guts, some vital energy departing his body.
Send off some more of those damn letters, Travis, he snarled. Get some more men in here. Get that asshole Fannin. How many does he have?
Five hundred or so.
Five hundred might be doable. Get them, Travis. I didn t come from Tennessee for this.
Why did you come?
Across the river the arriving soldiers were beginning to make camp. They seemed in no hurry. Crockett squinted his eyes in the soft March afternoon light. Calculating. Assessing. How could he have made such a vast mistake? He had the look of a man, who, poised to purchase a property, suddenly detected some fatal flaw.
You came to own it, didn t you? I asked. What was it going to be? Governor? President of the Republic? Maybe a steppingstone back to Washington? The whole enchilada?
With one huge hand Crockett grabbed me by the windpipe and squeezed. Look at me, he whispered, and I was forced to gaze into his eyes. For the first time I understood his power; it was as if I were looking into different worlds, into the past, into the pure virgin forests he had wandered in his youth. I didn t come here to die, he whispered.
I raised my eyebrows, an agreement of sorts, and he released me. As I clutched my throat, gasping, his eyes clouded over, lost their intensity. He clapped me on the shoulder, reverted to his hillbilly accent. Sounded upbeat again. Course a few good boys could slip right past them tortilla twisters come night.
I gathered my courage. With my voice trembling, I mimicked his drawl. Course I wonder what folks would say if old Davy turned tail and done run from old Santy Anny?
His face reddened. His hands went to my shoulders and in a moment he was going to pitch me from the tower. But just then a shower of earth and rock sent men crashing from the walls. The aftershock of the explosion knocked us flat. We lay still, our noses pressed together. Write those damn letters, Crockett said.
I had befriended a ten year old Mexican boy, Luis, an orphan. He spoke Spanish and English and served as a go-between for me and the score of Mexicans, mostly women and children, who had taken refuge within the Alamo. They kept to themselves, huddling within the walls of the old mission church, though sometimes they gathered at small fire rings in the courtyard to cook their supper. I saw to it that they had sufficient supplies and were kept as comfortable as possible. About nine at night, Luis would knock softly on the door of my office and quarters, bringing me some tasty Mexican morsel and a pitcher of sweetened potent coffee to aid my writing efforts. It was a tender moment for me; he was so quiet and reserved, so solicitous of my well-being, staring at me with his limpid brown eyes. It made me imagine what it might be like to have a son of my own.
In a way, the siege was a happy time for me. I felt so alive. My senses seemed to hum. I burned with creativity...How I loved to sip the coffee and rage on, by candlelight, for page after brilliant page...Then make my rounds, checking the sentries, the great March moon glowing over the courtyard and the Spanish fortress. There was only one fly in the ointment. If something didn t happen soon, I was going to be dead in a few days.
The sudden explosions that rocked my moonlit walks were a reminder of that. Why is it that engrossing flights of fancy are so often marred by cannonfire? Just as I was mounting Jenny in the windowsill: Boom! Boom! I did not blame Santa Anna for trying to rein in these unruly and ungrateful Texicans, but I did loathe him for disturbing my imaginings of Jenny.
For some time, I had the uneasy sense that Luis was harboring a secret. His eyes alternately ducked away from mine, then lingered too long. He frowned and bit at his lip. Finally one night, after he d brought me my coffee, he stared at me so long that I was forced to ask, a bit impatiently, What is it, Luis? Is there something the matter? I was a bit frightened actually. I had heard stories of some of the boys selling themselves to men and I hoped it wasn t that. I had no inclination for that, though I certainly wouldn t put it past the revisionists to add pederast to my many derelictions.
Though the evening was warm, his thin shoulders quivered. He took a breath, then signalled me to follow...We walked through a labyrinth of corridors, then entered the church through a rear entrance, coming into the sacristy behind and to the side of the altar. We could hear the murmur of some of the Mexican women praying in the pews, but we were hidden from them. Luis took down a flaming torch from the wall, led me down another corridor and then down a stone stairway into a cellar. There was a wooden wine rack, about chest high, against one wall, but it was empty. I spread my hands. What was so interesting about this? I asked with my eyes.
He started to pull back the heavy wine rack and I assisted him. I still saw nothing. He lowered the torch to the floor, kicked aside a layer of dirt. Then he knelt, working his small skinny fingers into the jagged edges of a slab of stone. I saw then that the stones were not of one piece but were fitted together. Helping him now, together we moved the heavy stone aside and using embedded handholds in the wall, we sank down into a cave. It was too low for meto stand straight up; I measured off about four steps in each direction. The torch s light revealed damp stone walls and in one corner of the cave there was a barrel of water, along with other supplies. In hushed tones, Luis explained that when he was a small child his grandfather, the caretaker of the church, had showed him the secret hiding place. It most likely had been built as an escape from hostile Indians. When the siege had begun, Luis had remembered the hiding place and had stocked it with food and water, blankets, matches and candles.
He went through the procedure with me. One had to first pull back the wine rack, then lift the loose slab of stone. Then, and this took some sleight of hand, descend partially into the cave, then readjust the wine rack and fit the overhead rock back into place.
His plan was clear. During the final fighting, he and his sister, along with me if I wished, would take refuge in the cave. Later, we d make our escape.
No, no, I said heatedly. I couldn t possibly think of it. His sister and Luis, certainly, but I couldn t possibly...
He hugged me suddenly, like a child burying his face against his father. I held him to me for a long time and, wordlessly, I submitted to the plan. In fact, the very moment I had seen the trap door, I had reserved my space.
I carried on as normally as possible. To all intents and purposes, I conducted an admirable siege. I d studied the incoming pattern of cannonfire, and I d deployed the men well to lessen our losses. We had some top-notch marksmen on hand Crockett especially and we were able to pick off some of their artillerymen if they became too bold. One cloudy night, I led a patrol out into the enemy lines and we decimated one of their batteries, spreading fear and discord through their ranks. Meanwhile, I continued with my manic letters, dispatching them with messengers, fearless phantom riders of the night.
But Crockett knew. Somehow he knew I held a secret. At night, crossing the courtyard, I d detect a quiet footfall, or a shadow might move across my path, or I might hear a low cough, a clearing of the throat. But when I turned he was never there. He wanted me to know he was spying. He wanted me on edge. There was something uncanny, almost mystical, about Crockett. His instincts were honed to a razor s edge, his inner warning signals preternatural.
Meanwhile Crockett s boys were cutting up; the confinement weighed on them. They were rovers, woodsmen, and there wasn t a forest in sight. They took to fighting, carving each other with long knives, biting off portions of ears and noses. What a homely bunch they were with their gouged faces! Matters grew worse. Four of them raped a young Mexican woman.
My command was tested. I had them thrown in the stockade, though I knew I d have to release them when the battle came. Crockett s men were furious. They trapped me in the courtyard, circled me, aimed their long rifles at me. Crockett scowled. A nod from me and I d be ripped apart. But old Davy signalled his men to lower their weapons. Before I died, he wanted my secret.
In the night, I continued my solitary patrol of the ramparts, the courtyard, the long barracks and the church. One night Crockett struck a match as I walked past the open doors of the church. The match illuminated his profile for just a moment as he lounged inside the foyer. I turned, called Crockett? but he was already gone. His footsteps retreated down a long corridor, echoing off stone.
He was a presence. Not entirely malevolent perhaps. But he had the power of one who truly wills one thing. To live! He would live. But there was a catch. He might have slipped through the enemy lines at night, but he could not besmirch his reputation. He would not die, yet his legacy Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier must be preserved.
Damn his reputation! Damn his glory! Coonskin hats, Walt Disney, the works! And me? When s the last time you saw a William Travis action figure? You tell me. No, there is no love for Will Travis in this country, there is no real love for Will Travis in the Lone Star state...While he...he...BASTARD!...
The day and night bombardment took its toll. Our already thin ranks were now thinner. Portions of our outer wall had caved in, though we constantly bolstered our crumbling fortifications. Still I sent my messengers loping off through the night with my impassioned letters. But a new tone had entered my writing. A certain measure of bitterness, of expected rejections, had crept into the prose.
Still I held to a thin thread of hope. Would there be a miraculous reprieve? Deux machina? Divine intervention in the nick of time? That sluggard Fannin, that miserable third-stringer, waffled and wavered, started out with his five hundred, bogged down in the mud, turned back...And insidious Sam Houston hinting and ducking and dodging, drunk out of his mind and shacked up with an Apache princess: Heck of a job you boys are doing down there, Travis, all real proud of you...
Proud of us! Damn you! Damn all of you! We were fodder! We were horse meat! Remember the Alamo, my ass! We were used.
As we neared the end, the more inappropriate bravado I displayed. I gathered the men in the courtyard, drew a line in the sand with my sword. We should expect no reinforcements, I said. Those who wish to stay cross this line. No one will blame or think less of those who wish to go.
How I wanted them all to stand still, to kick sand on the line. I yearned for one sensible soul to cry out: Let s bag it boys! Over the wall come sundown!
But one tired dusty soul shuffled over the line, and then one by one and then in clusters they crossed. They didn t know why they were crossing, but they crossed. They didn t give a damn about glory, about history. Maybe it was that stubborn stupidity, that screw Santa Anna mentality. Maybe they were tootired and beaten up to run. Maybe, and they wouldn t have been able to articulate this, it was that holy nudge, that far far better thing I do today than I have ever done before...
I loved them! As they crossed, I loved them. Pitied them. Poor lost sheep. Ordinary men. Or worse. I imagine there were killers among them. Bank robbers. Lawless, wanted men. But they crossed.
Crockett s contingent held back, awaiting his decision. But when Bowie had himself carried across in a pallet, his men following, there was no choice left. The Tennessee boys, not to be outdone, strained like hounds on a chain. Davy could have done the right thing then. He could have said: Boys, this ain t our fight. We own no land here, we ve got no stake. I led you here to serve my own ambitions. Let s go on home.
He could have traded in his reputation for their lives. He looked at me. He read my mind. Then he nodded them forward. With a hoot and a swagger and a hillbilly yell, they crossed. It must be okay if old Davy thought so! Old Davy must have something up his sleeve.
The last bittersweet days. The March sky, so soft, tender, warm...at night the canopy of stars...
Jenny lies beside me at night, her breath in my ear. Accompanies on my nightly patrols, her hand on my arm...
I have not slept for days, not more than a few minutes at a time, mostly at my desk, my head slumping over my letters...empty pages now...nothing comes...I ve gone dry.
Luis and his sister sleep in my antechamber. They fear Crockett. He s been following them, too...
Have you ever loved a woman? Loved her physically? Loved every part of her body? Her fingers? Her knuckles? The lobes of her ears? Loved her smelland her husky sighing voice.
I lay in my bed like a corpse, arms folded over my chest, and I listened to her sighing sing-song voice: First there was Sam, my father s foreman. A big man. Big in every way. Powerful. Hard as an anvil. Always in a hurry...Then Eric, the violin teacher, such glorious smooth hands...but too sensitive...too tentative...and Claude, my father s lawyer, so analytical, so determined to make a point... I covered her mouth with my hand.
The bombardment! The bomb bomb bombardment! What no one knows, what history has never recorded is this: I cried at every death.
My foolishness, my arrogance. It wasn t only guilt. With every death, my own end loomed nearer. I did not really believe in the secret room, did not believe it would save me. I had never gone back, had not discussed it again with Luis. I wondered if it were a fantasy, my mind s kind way of resisting the certainty of death. Perhaps every man in the Alamo had his own secret room.
Unlike Crockett I no longer gave a damn about my legacy. Still, I felt obligated to keep up the pretense. Mr. Balls. Firing off cannons whenever Santa Anna s emissaries waved white parlay flags. I would have surrendered in a moment if I hadn t known the moment we were captured he d have us all shot.
No way out. The clock ticking. I wasn t like Crockett. I wasn t a frontiersman. I was a lawyer, I could hardly tell north from south. I wouldn t have a chance of slipping through their lines.
Bowie called me into his cell in the infirmary. He beat around the bush until my eyes grew heavy with boredom. Then he said, I never beat around the bush, Travis. When you came here, I hated you. I still don t like you. You re too stiff for me. I d never have you for dinner. You ve got a serious rod up your ass. But I just wanted to tell you I admire your courage.
I nodded my dubious thanks. The fool! I wanted to weep. I looked at the long knives on his nightstand. My God, what would it feel like to be stuck with one of those? Or run through with a bayonet?
He seemed to read my mind. He laughed, picked up one of the great knives and carved the air with it. You bring em on home to Jimbo, he said.
He leered with yellow teeth. Waggled his empty jug. Anybody making a beer run?
I went back to my room and suffered one of my near seizures. I rolled around on the wood floor and banged my head from side to side. I sweated. I panted like a hot dog. Luis came in and held my head. He cried. He would save me. He swore he would. Papa! he called me. Papa!
I got it then. Luis had a screw loose, too. Still, he was my only hope.
But on the eleventh day of the siege, I sensed a change in Luis, some new level of reservation in his mannerisms, an unsettling nervousness as he brought me my nightly coffee.
On the afternoon of the twelfth day, I saw him talking to Crockett. Crockett had cornered him in the doorway of the long barracks. He held Luis by the shoulders and stared into his eyes. I was on the rampart and I watched them through my spyglass. I felt the power of Crocketts gaze. Perhaps he really had stared down bears. Luis stared back, mesmerized, then slowly nodded his head.
I prayed in the chapel that night. Then I slipped into the vestibule, crept down the stairs to the dank cellar, crossed the stone floor to the wine rack, pulled it back. I shone my torch on the floor, found the slab of rock with the jagged edges and slid it back. My heart thudded wildly. I had not dreamed it. There really was a secret hiding place.
I went back up the stairs. As I crossed behind the altar in the chapel, I heard a quiet cough. I glimpsed a broad-shouldered figure in the rear of the chapel; the candles on the altar flickered in a draft, and in the blink of an eye the broad-shouldered figure was gone.
When Luis brought me my coffee that night, I confronted him. Had he told Crockett about the secret room?
No, no, Colonel!
But he was happy to be asked, to unburden himself. His story gushed out of him. Crockett had cornered him and insisted there was a secret passage out of the Alamo. Luis had denied such knowledge, but under Crockett s threats he d promised to ask the old ones among his people.
I smiled. I squeezed Luis s shoulder. So maybe Crockett wasn t so sharp after all. He d picked up a scent, but the wrong one.
That night we were serenaded. Santa Anna s buglers played the song of death. No quarter. An oddly beautiful and haunting song...we were touched...we all agreed it was a fine performance...there was some weeping among the men...a few wrote letters home, to be delivered afterwards they hoped...One rough soul, a shoemaker by trade, asked me to look his letter over. It was heartfelt, but the syntax was garbled. I made the tenses more consistent and clarified the pronoun references and he went off pleased.
We sat down to a last supper of enchiladas.
Just after dawn on the thirteenth day, they surged up from the river, a great tidal wave of peasant soldiers, untrained, unskilled, dropping muskets along the way, shooting each other, tossed against us, used...
They came yelling and screaming, but our first volley discouraged that. The charge is manic but lacks real conviction. They fall in droves before our long rifles. These Texas boys can shoot, Ill say that...
The charge dissipates...loses force...they retreat...
I train my spyglass on the low western wall which Crockett and his Tennessee boys are defending. It s the weakest link in our fortress, hardly more than an earthworks. Crockett and the boys dance around, high five, jubilant. This is the way it s always gone for Crockett. Easy victories. Hell, he s thinking, what was I worried about?
The enemy regroups. The peasant army is driven forward by the regulars, their bayonets lowered, prodding them into the stragglers. The wave gathers force, surges to our walls before we repel the attackers. At Crockett s section, a score of the frontrunners begin to climb the earthworks before the Tennessee boys mow them down.
As the enemy retreats for the second time, I train my spyglass on the western wall. His men are cheering again, waving and pumping their rifles, but Crockett s not grinning. He knows. He sees how close they came. His eyes wander my way, locate me on the rampart. He can see me with his naked eye as clearly as I see him with the spyglass. He gives me a loopy little wave as if he s enjoying himself.
It looks as if we've broken the third charge, but then the cavalry rides in, cuts down the retreating men, turns them back. In panic, with nowhere to go, they barrel towards our walls, a mass of screaming, terrified men. Desperation and frenzy give them courage... We can only fire and reload so fast...The ladders go up...Out the corner of my eye, I see them swarming over Crockett s earthworks, his men engaged in hand-to-hand combat...
An odd thing happens to me. Something unexpected. I relish the battle. It's as if my mad letters have convinced myself...I pull out my sword...hack at the soldiers coming over the wall...I can see the beads of sweat on their faces...smell the stench of fear...In a curious way, I am at one with them...Even as I run them through, I love them...The smoke, the blood, the cries of agony, the cannonfire killing Texans and Mexicans alike, and I am lost...For Texas! I cry out. For Texas! I'm a madman up on the wall.
Twelve, then fifteen men lay about me, slaughtered by my sword...
I fight with the best of them.
In a break in the action, I see that the western wall has fallen. The Tennessee boys fight valiantly, retreating foot by foot as the hordes pour over the wall ...I see Crockett swinging his long rifle, the bodies falling around him...
Then a fresh wave of soldiers assaults me and I lose sight of Crockett...I realize that it s only myself and a few others still guarding the parapet...Retreat! Fall back! I cry out. It s desperate now...Chaos...Each man for himself...Those who can disengage from the deadly embrace of the battle race for the interior buildings...We take up position there, barricading the doors, firing from the windows of the barracks and the church...
We kill hundreds in the courtyard before they roll cannons inside the walls. Then they blast down our doors, rake the windows...and follow the cannonfire with a massive charge...
The fighting is horrible now...room by bloody room...in corridors...
It is only when there is no one left to save...no point in my staying...I run through the chapel, down into the cellar...
I lift a torch from the wall. My light falls on a sight that brings a cry from my throat. Luis and his sister lay dead on the stone floor, in a pool of blood, their throats slashed.
Now a head peers out from behind the wine rack. Crockett stares at me, his eyes hot and wild, mad with victory. Unapologetic. Then he slips beneath the floor, pulling the wine rack back into place.
Then I am turning to the sound of heavy boots descending the stairs. Eight, now nine, now ten soldiers gather at the foot of the stairs, across the floor of the bloody cellar...They lower their bayonets...gather themselves for the charge...my bloody sword is in one hand...flaming torch in the other...
I know what will happen...In the months and years ahead, Crockett will make his way across the frontier...heading north...to Wyoming...Montana...up into Canada...Alaska...travelling by a different name...he will sit at campfires with adventurers and mountaineers, telling tales of an old friend of his, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier, hero of the Alamo...he will not own the country as he had planned...and that will be a kind of death for him...yet he will live, the sole survivor of the Alamo...
I wanted to weep. Weep because I would never walk beneath the stars again, never compose another line by candlelight, never kneel again in the windowsill with Jenny, the hills of Alabama afire with color.
So foolish of me...all so foolish...to come to this...this moment in time...this fate...
I hurl my torch at them...I charge, wade into them hacking and slashing and for a mad moment I imagine I can drive them off.
Then I am pierced. They lift me, toss me like a ragdoll on the points of their bayonets, my guts spilling out...I scream the sheer scream of agony...They howl in bloody glee, ecstatic to have survived the siege...The blood pours from my mouth, until I feel I am nothing but blood...I am blood...Then there is only one thing left to do. For Texas...For history...Die.