Toward sundown, in the murky drizzle, the man who called himself Ord brought Lieutenant colonel William Barrett Travis word that the Mexican light cavalry had completely invested Bexar, and that some light guns were being set up across the San Antonio River. Even as he spoke, there was a flash and bang from the west, and a shell screamed over the old mission walls. Travis looked worried.
“What kind of guns?” he asked.
“Nothing to worry about, sir,” Ord said. “Only a few one-pounders, nothing of respectable siege caliber. General Santa Anna has had to move too fast for any big stuff to keep up.” Ord spoke in his odd accent. After all, he was a Britainer, or some other kind of foreigner. But he spoke good Spanish, and he seemed to know everything. In the four or five days since he had appeared he had become very useful to Travis.
Frowning, Travis asked, “How many Mexicans, do you think, Ord?”
“Not more than a thousand, now,” the dark-haired, blue-eyed young man said confidently. “But when the main body arrives, there’ll be four, five thousand.”
Travis shook his head. “How do you get all this information, Ord? You recite it like you had read it all some place--like it were history.”
Ord merely smiled. “Oh, I don’t know everything, colonel. That is why I had to come here. There is so much we don’t know about what happened ... I mean, sir, what will happen--in the Alamo.” His sharp eyes grew puzzled for an instant. “And some things don’t seem to match up, somehow--”
Travis looked at him sympathetically. Ord talked queerly at times, and Travis suspected he was a bit deranged. This was understandable, for the man was undoubtedly a Britainer aristocrat, a refugee from Napoleon’s thousand-year Empire. Travis had heard about the detention camps and the charcoal ovens ... but once, when he had mentioned the Empereur’s sack of London in ‘06, Ord had gotten a very queer look in his eyes, as if he had forgotten completely.
But John Ord, or whatever his name was, seemed to be the only man in the Texas forces who understood what William Barrett Travis was trying to do. Now Travis looked around at the thick adobe wall surrounding the old mission in which they stood. In the cold, yellowish twilight even the flaring cook fires of his hundred and eighty-two men could not dispel the ghostly air that clung to the old place. Travis shivered involuntarily. But the walls were thick, and they could turn one-pounders. He asked, “What was it you called this place, Ord ... the Mexican name?”
“The Alamo, sir.” A slow, steady excitement seemed to burn in the Britainer’s bright eyes. “Santa Anna won’t forget that name, you can be sure. You’ll want to talk to the other officers now, sir? About the message we drew up for Sam Houston?”
“Yes, of course,” Travis said absently. He watched Ord head for the walls. No doubt about it, Ord understood what William Barrett Travis was trying to do here. So few of the others seemed to care.
Travis was suddenly very glad that John Ord had shown up when he did.
On the walls, Ord found the man he sought, broad-shouldered and tall in a fancy Mexican jacket. “The commandant’s compliments, sir, and he desires your presence in the chapel.”
The big man put away the knife with which he had been whittling. The switchblade snicked back and disappeared into a side pocket of the jacket, while Ord watched it with fascinated eyes. “What’s old Bill got his britches hot about this time?” the big man asked.
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” Ord said stiffly and moved on.
Bang-bang-bang roared the small Mexican cannon from across the river. Pow-pow-pow! The little balls only chipped dust from the thick adobe walls. Ord smiled.
He found the second man he sought, a lean man with a weathered face, leaning against a wall and chewing tobacco. This man wore a long, fringed, leather lounge jacket, and he carried a guitar slung beside his Rock Island rifle. He squinted up at Ord. “I know ... I know,” he muttered. “Willy Travis is in an uproar again. You reckon that colonel’s commission that Congress up in Washington-on-the-Brazos give him swelled his head?”
Rather stiffly, Ord said, “Colonel, the commandant desires an officers’ conference in the chapel, now.” Ord was somewhat annoyed. He had not realized he would find these Americans so--distasteful. Hardly preferable to Mexicans, really. Not at all as he had imagined.
For an instant he wished he had chosen Drake and the Armada instead of this pack of ruffians--but no, he had never been able to stand sea sickness. He couldn’t have taken the Channel, not even for five minutes.
And there was no changing now. He had chosen this place and time carefully, at great expense--actually, at great risk, for the X-4-A had aborted twice, and he had had a hard time bringing her in. But it had got him here at last. And, because for a historian he had always been an impetuous and daring man, he grinned now, thinking of the glory that was to come. And he was a participant--much better than a ringside seat! Only he would have to be careful, at the last, to slip away.
John Ord knew very well how this coming battle had ended, back here in 1836.
He marched back to William Barrett Travis, clicked heels smartly. Travis’ eyes glowed; he was the only senior officer here who loved military punctilio. “Sir, they are on the way.”
“Thank you, Ord,” Travis hesitated a moment. “Look, Ord. There will be a battle, as we know. I know so little about you. If something should happen to you, is there anyone to write? Across the water?”
Ord grinned. “No, sir. I’m afraid my ancestor wouldn’t understand.”
Travis shrugged. Who was he to say that Ord was crazy? In this day and age, any man with vision was looked on as mad. Sometimes he felt closer to Ord than to the others.
The two officers Ord had summoned entered the chapel. The big man in the Mexican jacket tried to dominate the wood table at which they sat. He towered over the slender, nervous Travis, but the commandant, straight-backed and arrogant, did not give an inch. “Boys, you know Santa Anna has invested us. We’ve been fired on all day--” He seemed to be listening for something. Wham! Outside, a cannon split the dusk with flame and sound as it fired from the walls. “There is my answer!”
The man in the lounge coat shrugged. “What I want to know is what our orders are. What does old Sam say? Sam and me were in Congress once. Sam’s got good sense; he can smell the way the wind’s blowin’.” He stopped speaking and hit his guitar a few licks. He winked across the table at the officer in the Mexican jacket who took out his knife. “Eh, Jim?”
“Right,” Jim said. “Sam’s a good man, although I don’t think he ever met a payroll.”
“General Houston’s leaving it up to me,” Travis told them.
“Well, that’s that,” Jim said unhappily. “So what you figurin’ to do, Bill?”
Travis stood up in the weak, flickering candlelight, one hand on the polished hilt of his saber. The other two men winced, watching him. “Gentlemen, Houston’s trying to pull his militia together while he falls back. You know, Texas was woefully unprepared for a contest at arms. The general’s idea is to draw Santa Anna as far into Texas as he can, then hit him when he’s extended, at the right place, and right time. But Houston needs more time--Santa Anna’s moved faster than any of us anticipated. Unless we can stop the Mexican Army and take a little steam out of them, General Houston’s in trouble.”
Jim flicked the knife blade in and out. “Go on.”
“This is where we come in, gentlemen. Santa Anna can’t leave a force of one hundred eighty men in his rear. If we hold fast, he must attack us. But he has no siege equipment, not even large field cannon.” Travis’ eye gleamed. “Think of it, boys! He’ll have to mount a frontal attack, against protected American riflemen. Ord, couldn’t your Englishers tell him a few things about that!”
“Whoa, now,” Jim barked. “Billy, anybody tell you there’s maybe four or five thousand Mexicaners comin’?”
“Let them come. Less will leave!”
But Jim, sour-faced turned to the other man. “Davey? You got something to say?”
“Hell, yes. How do we get out, after we done pinned Santa Anna down? You thought of that, Billy boy?”
Travis shrugged. “There is an element of grave risk, of course. Ord, where’s the document, the message you wrote up for me? Ah, thank you.” Travis cleared his throat. “Here’s what I’m sending on to general Houston.” He read, “Commandancy of the Alamo, February 24, 1836 ... are you sure of that date, Ord?”
“Oh, I’m sure of that,” Ord said.
“Never mind--if you’re wrong we can change it later. ‘To the People of Texas and all Americans in the World. Fellow Freemen and Compatriots! I am besieged with a thousand or more Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual bombardment for many hours but have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison is to be put to the sword, if taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly over the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character--” He paused, frowning, “This language seems pretty old-fashioned, Ord--”
“Oh, no, sir. That’s exactly right,” Ord murmured.
“‘ ... To come to our aid with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his honor or that of his homeland. VICTORY OR DEATH!’”
Travis stopped reading, looked up. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” Ord breathed. “The greatest words of defiance ever written in the English tongue--and so much more literate than that chap at Bascogne.”
“You mean to send that?” Jim gasped.
The man called Davey was holding his head in his hands.
“You object, Colonel Bowie?” Travis asked icily.
“Oh, cut that ‘colonel’ stuff, Bill,” Bowie said. “It’s only a National Guard title, and I like ‘Jim’ better, even though I am a pretty important man. Damn right I have an objection! Why, that message is almost aggressive. You’d think we wanted to fight Santa Anna! You want us to be marked down as warmongers? It’ll give us trouble when we get to the negotiation table--”
Travis’ head turned. “Colonel Crockett?”
“What Jim says goes for me, too. And this: I’d change that part about all Americans, et cetera. You don’t want anybody to think we think we’re better than the Mexicans. After all, Americans are a minority in the world. Why not make it ‘all men who love security?’ That’d have world-wide appeal--”
“Oh, Crockett,” Travis hissed.
Crockett stood up. “Don’t use that tone of voice to me, Billy Travis! That piece of paper you got don’t make you no better’n us. I ran for Congress twice, and won. I know what the people want--”
“What the people want doesn’t mean a damn right now,” Travis said harshly. “Don’t you realize the tyrant is at the gates?”
Crockett rolled his eyes heavenward. “Never thought I’d hear a good American say that! Billy, you’ll never run for office--”
Bowie held up a hand, cutting into Crockett’s talk. “All right, Davey. Hold up. You ain’t runnin’ for Congress now. Bill, the main thing I don’t like in your whole message is that part about victory or death. That’s got to go. Don’t ask us to sell that to the troops!”
Travis closed his eyes briefly. “Boys, listen. We don’t have to tell the men about this. They don’t need to know the real story until it’s too late for them to get out. And then we shall cover ourselves with such glory that none of us shall ever be forgotten. Americans are the best fighters in the world when they are trapped. They teach this in the Foot School back on the Chatahoochee. And if we die, to die for one’s country is sweet--”
“Hell with that,” Crockett drawled. “I don’t mind dyin’, but not for these big landowners like Jim Bowie here. I just been thinkin’--I don’t own nothing in Texas.”
“I resent that,” Bowie shouted. “You know very well I volunteered, after I sent my wife off to Acapulco to be with her family.” With an effort, he calmed himself. “Look, Travis. I have some reputation as a fighting man--you know I lived through the gang wars back home. It’s obvious this Alamo place is indefensible, even if we had a thousand men.”
“But we must delay Santa Anna at all costs--”
Bowie took out a fine, dark Mexican cigar and whittled at it with his blade. Then he lit it, saying around it, “All right, let’s all calm down. Nothing a group of good men can’t settle around a table. Now listen. I got in with this revolution at first because I thought old Emperor Iturbide would listen to reason and lower taxes. But nothin’s worked out, because hot-heads like you, Travis, queered the deal. All this yammerin’ about liberty! Mexico is a Republic, under an Emperor, not some kind of democracy, and we can’t change that. Let’s talk some sense before it’s too late. We’re all too old and too smart to be wavin’ the flag like it’s the Fourth of July. Sooner or later, we’re goin’ to have to sit down and talk with the Mexicans. And like Davey said, I own a million hectares, and I’ve always paid minimum wage, and my wife’s folks are way up there in the Imperial Government of the Republic of Mexico. That means I got influence in all the votin’ groups, includin’ the American Immigrant, since I’m a minority group member myself. I think I can talk to Santa Anna, and even to old Iturbide. If we sign a treaty now with Santa Anna, acknowledge the law of the land, I think our lives and property rights will be respected--” He cocked an eye toward Crockett.
“Makes sense, Jim. That’s the way we do it in Congress. Compromise, everybody happy. We never allowed ourselves to be led nowhere we didn’t want to go, I can tell you! And Bill, you got to admit that we’re in better bargaining position if we’re out in the open, than if old Santa Anna’s got us penned up in this old Alamo.”