The Gates of the Alamo
Colonel Travis and his slave, Joe, are trying to stay awake in the early-morning hours of March 6, 1836, as they await the final assault.
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“Do not let me fall asleep, Joe.”
Travis sat upright in his chair, a sheet of paper under his pen. It was a letter he had begun in the early afternoon and returned to time and again during the course of the day, striking out its imperfect phrases with angry swipes of his pen. From the way Travis fretted over the letter Joe decided it was to young Charlie. He remembered the day last spring when they had ridden down from San Felipe to fetch the boy from Travis’s wife, and how Charlie had seemed afraid at first of his father, of his expansive, theatrical nature and of his booming voice as they rode back across the empty prairies and through the endless dark canebrakes.
The boy had warmed to Travis soon enough. He was a man who naturally seemed to know where he was going, who always had a destination in his head, and Charlie no less than Joe himself had taken comfort in this — you wanted the man who controlled your life to have confidence in his own. Even Bowie’s men, Joe had noticed, wanted to trust in Travis now. When he had addressed the garrison tonight some of them had been mocking at first, but by the end of the speech he had them believing that help might really come, that Williamson and the others were really out there somewhere beyond the ring of Mexican troops, trying to find a way into the Alamo.
What bothered Joe was that he didn’t think Travis believed it himself. He was usually a quick and furious letter writer, but now he was wrestling with every word in a way that made Joe think he was trying to set down his final testament. It had been three or four hours since he made his speech to the men, and for most of that time Travis had been on the walls, and Joe with him, staring out into the winter blackness for any sign of movement, either Texian or Mexican. He had doubled the watches, but in the ominous silence of the suspended cannonades the men on the parapets were having trouble staying awake. Even the fierce cold could not keep them from drifting off, and Travis and the other officers, barely conscious themselves, had to repeatedly shake them back to life.
“It would set a poor example if I were to go to sleep,” Travis was saying now, putting down his pen at last in weariness and frustration. “You will not let it happen?”
“No,” Joe said.
“Good.” Travis looked at him with distant, glassy eyes. “Your service to me during this difficult time has been commendable.”
“Thank you, sir,” Joe replied, irritated at Travis’s compliment and at the decorous response it required. He had no ill feeling toward Travis and no particular disrespect either, but he found himself desiring to shoot a pistol ball through his master’s chest, and then to go shoot that Private Herndon and grab his colored woman from his dead grasp and walk with her into the Mexican camp. It was a mischievous thought and it passed through his mind with the speed of a blink. He wondered: If something like that appeared in your imagination, was it present in your nature as well? He had lived his slave’s life with a neutral, unquestioning mien, but he was starting to think that there was something loud and vigorous and bitter within him as well, something that told him that the destination in Travis’s head and the one in his own might be two different places.
“Soy nay-gro,” he kept saying now over and over in his thoughts. He was fairly sure that was the right phrase in Spanish. Early in the siege he had heard Crockett jokingly ask Travis how to say “Don’t shoot me,” and Travis had laughed and said, “Just throw up your hands, Congressman, and say ‘no me mate.'” Joe had secretly held the words in his mind, and now he put them together and practiced them: “Soy negro. No me mate.” I am a black man. Do not kill me.
Travis went to sleep, his body upright against the chair back, his two arms resting on the desk like weights. His mouth dropped open against his chest.
“Colonel Travis,” Joe said, gently at first and then sharply, and Travis jerked awake and said, “Thank you, Joe.”
But then he fell asleep again, and before he could wake him Joe fell asleep as well.
From The Gates of the Alamo, by Stephen Harrigan. Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Harrigan. To be published in March 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf.