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The Gates of the Alamo (Stephen Harrigan)


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  Goddam it, nigger, quit crowding me," a man next to Joe said as he shoved against his shoulder, inching him closer to a gap in the defenses where he could hear the Mexican rifle balls ripping through the air.

It had started out to be a lazy, tentative fight, with the Mexicans hopping from cover to cover, and the rebels--those like Joe who were not armed with long-range hunting rifles--mostly holding their fire.

"They are testing our defenses, gentlemen!" Travis had called out in a clear voice to the garrison as the Mexican soldiers filtered onto the field. "Keep a steady hand and show them what we have to offer!"

But the fight was hotter now, and Travis was crouched behind the ramparts with the rest of the defenders as rifle and musket balls steadily raked the top of the wall. The colonel was yelling something to Captain Carey, but Joe could not make out the words. He lay on his back with his musket charged and cocked, telling himself that at the next moment he was going to twist around and fire. The Mexicans were just under the walls, having found shelter in the abandoned houses, and the incessant snapping of their muskets and the occasional thunderous discharge from one of the Alamo's artillery positions pushed all other sounds into a feverish distance.

Carey gave Travis a sharp nod and then took off at a crouching run to carry out whatever order it was he had been given. He scrambled down the dirt ramp as rifle balls scythed through the air above him.

The metal storm had barely passed when Captain Dickinson, commanding the twelve-pounder that had been hauled up to replace the damaged eighteen-pounder, rose up and shouted "Fire!" One of his crew lurched forward to apply the slow match, and the piece erupted with such astonishing noise that Joe thought he would never hear again. But soon the popping sound of the musket and rifle fire returned, though the dense, sulfurous cannon smoke would not clear. Joe found it odd that the atmosphere could be so still and windless when all he could see around him was tumultuous movement. He opened his mouth to take a breath, and the poisonous fumes he inhaled coated his already parched throat.

"Keep up a steady fire!" Travis shouted as he moved from man to man on the rampart, slapping each on the shoulder to wake them once again to action. Crouching next to Joe, Travis pulled back the hammers of his shotgun and stood up to discharge a volley.

"Take a shot, Joe!" Travis yelled as he began to reload. "We've got to drive them back from those houses."

Joe took a breath and did as he was told. His hands were shaking so much as he exposed his head over the rampart that he felt he was not so much aiming the heavy English musket as wrestling with it. At first he saw only the same suffocating cloud of smoke, but then a wounded Mexican rifleman staggered into sight just below him. The man had been hit by the canister from Dickinson's recent volley and the whole bottom half of his face was gone, just gone, so that all that was left to his features were a pair of staring eyes on a bloody stalk. He looked up at Joe with those eyes, and Joe, as startled as if he'd seen a man rise from the grave, slunk back down behind the parapet without firing.

"Don't let up!" Travis called to the men, and Joe forced himself back into firing position. The staring man was gone, but a detachment of Mexican soldiers was now sallying from the nearest house to attack the tambour at the south gate. Joe fired along with everyone else. One or two of the invaders dropped in midstride, another stumbled as if he had tripped over a stone and then tried to right himself but couldn't because one of his feet was gone.

There was a general hurrahing as the Mexicans fell back to the safety of the houses, dragging the dead men but leaving the detached foot on the field. Dickinson's twelve-pounder fired again, and the riflemen on the walls and in the lunettes and palisade kept up a rapid, heartening fire the drove the Mexicans out of the jacales nearest the fort and back to the more substantial adobe houses beyond them.

Joe reloaded and fired again. His thirst was so great, the smoke and its acrid vapors so dense, that what frightened him most about being killed was the thought that he would die without ever again having a drink of water or drawing a clear breath.

Nevertheless, he found himself sharing in the jubilant spirits of the men around him. The Mexican attack was wavering. Not one of the men defending the Alamo, so far as Joe knew, had yet been hit, and they were pouring down a volume of fire now that the retreating enemy could not counter or withstand. Joe heard more canister passing over his head, and a solid cannonball struck the wall below them, sending up a dark geyser of dust and chipped rock, but he kept loading and shooting until his flint came loose and fell out from between the jaws of his hammer.

He blinked hard to expel the grimy paste of gunpowder and sweat that was burning his eyes, and then groped around among the rubble for the lost flint.

"Quit wigglin' around!" the man next to him commanded as he took another shot with his rifle, the spark from the pan flashing against Joe's cheek.

"I'm lookin' for my flint," Joe tried to explain, still struggling to avoid being pushed into the breach. The Mexicans may have fallen back, but they were not retreating, and if anything their fire had grown more intense.

Joe opened the flap of his captured Mexican cartridge box and rooted around in it for an extra flint. He found one wedged among the paper cartridges and fitted it into the jaws of the hammer, but his hands were shaking so badly that when he tried to twist the tightening screw the new flint fell out as well and tumbled down off the rampart and bounced off the hat brim of the man at the shooting hole below him and landed in the dirt.

He was about to scurry down the ramp after it when he felt Travis's hand gripping his shoulder.

"Joe!" he shouted. "My shotgun is fouled. Take it back to my room and bring my rifle."

Joe took the gun from Travis and ran with it and the musket along tbe west wall of the Alamo toward the headquarters room. The Mexican batteries were still spraying canister at the walls, and the defenders on the roofs above him were bent down with their hands pressed upon their hats like men caught in a furious rainstorm. As he ran he caught sight of Crockett scuttling from man to man, slapping each on the back, shouting words of encouragement that Joe could not hear. He was more exposed than any of the men, but he seemed so calm and unhurried that Joe yearned to be up there with him, dangerous as his position was, rather than down in the sheltered courtyard where he was alone with his fear.

A bony yellow cat, one of two cats that Joe had seen in residence at the Alamo, sprinted across the ground in front of him as he reached the door to Travis's quarters. With a firearm in either hand he pulled the door open with his foot and hurried inside. When he saw the Mexican soldier with a crowbar in his hand who had broken through the bricked-up window he yelled like a child calling out in a nightmare. He had two useless weapons in his hands and though in an instant he had dropped the shotgun and was levelling the Brown Bess at the Mexican, it felt to Joe that he was in the grip of a frantic decision that took an eternity for him to resolve.

No word of Spanish came to him, nor even of English. He simply stood there with his musket pointed at the man who had just tumbled out of the window and bared his teeth and said "Haah! Haah!" as if he were a teamster trying to give orders to an ox. The man on the floor tightened his grip on the crowbar. His own rifle was on the floor along with his shako where he had dropped it coming through the window. Another soldier was crawling through behind him, and this one had a rifle in his hand. Joe shifted the barrel of his musket from one to the other, praying that they were as frightened as he was and did not notice the missing flint in the hammerlock.

The soldier with the rifle, the one still halfway in the window, kept his eyes on Joe and boldly pulled himself through and stood upright. He pointed the rifle at Joe and said something in Spanish in a calm, insistent voice. He used none of the few Spanish words that Joe knew, but from the way he kept saying "naygro" Joe reckoned that the word might be Spanish for negro and that it referred to him.

"No!" he shouted to the first man when he started to reach out for his own rifle on the floor. "No!"

The gunpowder sweat was pouring into his eyes again, stinging them violently, and his throat was so raw and dry he felt that single word--"No!"--scraping up and down it like sharp glass.

Not one of the three of them knew what to do to break this impasse and they stood there for what seemed like a long time listening to the rattle of gunfire and the yells of the Texians on the roof above them and the violent, mysterious bugle calls hectoring the Mexican soldiers forward into peril.

The man with the rifle shifted his weight from one foot to the next then started to lift the weapon. Joe held his musket tight to his shoulder and squeezed his eye and sighted along the bayonet lug at the end of the barrel. Even though he knew the weapon would not fire, he needed to impress this fearless invader that at any moment he could blow away his head. The man's face had pox marks and a jagged white scar along the chin line where perhaps a dog had bitten him as a child. A scant satiny mustache grew on his upper lip.

The soldier lifted his free hand a little more, until it was hanging in the air. Joe blinked more sweat out of his eyes. Then the soldier moved his fingers, gesturing, beckoning Joe forward. The soldier on the ground nodded. He spoke some more words in Spanish.

"Ven con nosotros," they were saying. "Ven con nosotros, negro."

He understood now what they were saying: to come with them, to go out through the window with them and leave the Alamo behind.

The thought was enormous. Inside this room he was a slave. If he went out with these men through the window, he would be free. It was true, then, what was said about Mexico. Though it was, as Travis had insisted a hundred times in Joe's hearing, a country ruled by tyranny, there was no special tyranny set aside only for black men.

He did not plan to nod his head or to lower his musket. He did so without factoring out the reasons or arguing the case in his head. His body knew before his mind could catch up with it that he could choose to die as a slave in the Alamo or live out his life as a free man.

He allowed the man on the floor to retrieve his rifle and his shako. The other soldier gave Joe a curt smile of welcome and led the way out the window. He was halfway through when he was cut down by flanking fire from the rooftops and shooting holes along the west wall. Joe heard him say, very softly, "Ahhh," as first one ball, and then another, struck him in the spine, and a third passed through his head and blew off his ear.

His dead body was almost out the window, and now it teetered on the sill and then slid like a bundle of wet laundry to the earth below. The other Mexican soldier had been on the point of following his comrade, and now he turned to Joe with a wild look and a flood of excitable Spanish coming out of his mouth. Joe did not understand a word of what he was saying, but the sound of it and the gestures he was making were plain enough. He wanted Joe to find them another way out. But there was no other way out, and now he could hear shouting and footsteps on the rooftop as the men up there began to realize there might be more infiltrators in the rooms below them.

"Amigo!" the man was saying. "Ayudame!"

Joe threw down his useless musket and grabbed Travis's rifle from a wooden shelf above the cot. He cocked the rifle and pointed it at the soldier and told him in English to drop his own weapon and put his hands against the wall. The man understood and was surprisingly compliant, but the look he gave to Joe was harsh, and Joe was glad when the other men burst into the room and he could take his eyes away from his prisoner.

 
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Excerpted from The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan. Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Harrigan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.