Excerpt from Come And Take It Search For The Treasure of The Alamo
Joe looked around the Alamo compound and could sense the soldiers were preparing for death. Tiny figures were beginning to form on the horizon, the Mexican army of doom, and the twenty-year-old knew it was only a matter of time before General Santa Anna launched his invasion. Colonel William Barret Travis, Joe’s master and the commander of the Alamo fortress, stood in the center of the garrison dressed in full military garb, a portrait of bravery, but his steel was no match for the overwhelming force forming across the river. The harrowing letter Colonel Travis had drafted and recited to Joe in his headquarters several days before indicated as much:
Commandancy of the Alamo
Bejar, Fby 24th 1836
To the People of Texas and all Americans of the world, fellow citizens and compatriots—
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison is to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from 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, 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 to his own honor and that of his country—Victory or Death.
P.S. The Lord is on our side.
Inspiring, Joe thought, but not enough to dissuade him from considering his escape options. But he was loyal to Colonel Travis and knew that his best hope for making it out alive rested on surviving the onslaught and then seeking mercy from the Mexican army. Until that time, Joe would stand alongside his master, rifle in hand, and if called to do so, die nobly in battle. Joe’s fate and that of all of the soldiers in the Alamo was now in the clutches of His Excellency, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
The next morning, Joe watched the Mexican army parade into the streets of San Antonio less than a half-mile away, their standard-bearers proudly carrying the red and green colors of the Mexican government. However, the powerful eagle clutching a serpent in its talon in the middle of the Mexican flag was not the only image that captured Joe’s attention. There was a new flag, previously unknown to the Alamo soldiers, unfurled at the top of the San Antonio church tower at the end of town. But Joe knew what it meant. “The blood-red banner,” Travis had told him, “is the Mexican’s symbol of no compromise—General Santa Anna’s message that he intends to kill every last one of us.” Joe watched Travis spring into action upon sight of the dreaded flag. “Let’s give them our response,” the Colonel yelled. Travis then darted between his men. “Load the cannon,” he directed, and the Texans returned their answer—a thunderous cannon shot that flew the eight hundred yards separating the Alamo from the Mexican army before falling harmlessly at the edge of town. Surrender, Joe realized, was no longer a possibility.
For two weeks, Joe had watched General Santa Anna’s troops lay siege to the Alamo from their protected positions across the river, using cannon fire and howitzers to relentlessly pound the crumbling fort. Day by day, the Mexican lines had inched closer to the fortress, a python slowly constricting its kill, waiting for the right moment to strike. Joe and all of the men beside him could feel what was coming, and it was only their faith in the cause, and the faint hope of reinforcements from Colonel Fannin’s troops in Goliad, that kept them going.
Joe was glad that Travis had picked his boyhood friend, James Butler Bonham, to handle the job of securing additional troops for the Alamo. The two men were close, and the soldiers trusted Bonham to carry out Travis’s orders. The native South Carolinian had ridden to the Alamo’s defense months earlier along with his fellow riders, the Mobile Grays, and had become a favorite among the men. The trip to Goliad required not only courage in evading the Mexican forces but an equal amount of confidence to convince Colonel Fannin to come to the Alamo’s defense. Joe could sense from Travis that Bonham’s job was virtually impossible, but the men needed hope and Bonham was fearless.
Travis called Joe to prepare Bonham for the trip. Joe readied the lieutenant’s cream-colored horse, placed key documents in his saddlebags, and loaded ammunition. It was February 26, 1836, when Joe stood alongside Colonel Travis and his co-commander of the garrison, the feebly ill Jim Bowie. As Joe rechecked Bonham’s saddle, the South Carolinian finally arrived, huddled with Travis and Bowie, and recited a brief prayer. He then rode out—and Joe and every man in the Alamo held their breath. A short time later, the tower watchman rang the bell to report Bonham had cleared the Mexican line safely. The spirits of the men were lifted.
Santa Anna’s relentless siege took its toll on the fortress during the week Bonham was away, and Joe watched Travis’s mood darken. But hope returned on March 3. Joe watched from one of the parapets as Bonham galloped through a hail of bullets past the Mexican army and through an open gate near the Alamo corral. Joe cheered with all of the Texans as Bonham flew past the stunned Mexican soldiers without lifting his head from his horse’s neck. Good news had surely arrived.
Bonham had none. The reluctant Fannin wouldn’t bring his troops to the garrison’s defense and the only other hope for support was still reportedly a several-days’ march away in Gonzalez. Despite the grim report, Joe sensed Bonham’s confident return through enemy lines had bucked up the morale of the troops and energized them for battle. If victory wasn’t possible, why would a man who’d ridden to safety come back to a certain-death hole? Bonham’s courageous act revived hope for victory.
Then, as if Santa Anna knew it was time, an eerie quiet fell over the Mexican army and the town of San Antonio. Troop movement. Formation. The attack loomed. Joe felt fear grip the beaten-down soldiers of the Alamo once again but Colonel Travis would have none of it. He rallied his men, summoned them to the center of the garrison, and drew a line in the sand with his sword. “Those prepared to give their lives in freedom’s cause, come over to me,” he implored. The assembled group knew exactly what this meant—if they stepped over the mark, they were likely to die. Every man, save one, crossed the line.
March 6, 1836
After a fitful night of preparations, Joe finally convinced Colonel Travis to rest. Joe set the Colonel’s sword and double-barreled shotgun by his side and helped Travis stretch out on his bunk. He then walked across the room and closed his eyes. He’d not even fallen asleep when a voice hollered from outside the headquarters. The second time the voice cried out, the words were unmistakable.
“Colonel Travis, the Mexicans are coming!”
Travis jumped out of bed, grabbed his rifle, and strapped his sword on his hip faster than Joe could pull on his shoes. The Colonel then sprinted from the headquarters across the plaza toward the buzz of activity at the northern end of the fort. Joe did his best to keep up. Travis quickly assumed a position by the north battery station and surveyed the area. There was no sign of the enemy in the morning fog but the eerie trumpet blasts, sparks of weapons fire, and distant Mexicans’ cries of “Viva Santa Anna” signaled they were coming.
Joe looked back toward the plaza at the anxious Texans who were stumbling and running in every direction. Travis noticed the panic and attempted to bolster his men by exhorting, “Come on, boys. The Mexicans are upon us and we’ll give them hell!” Travis continued shouting, urging his men to hurry to their positions. As Travis faced the plaza yelling instructions, Joe turned around and saw the first wave of Mexican troops emerge from the darkness, ladders extended, attempting to scale the northern wall.
Travis wheeled around, aimed his double-barreled shotgun at the gathering force, and fired. Several Mexican soldiers screamed when the buckshot rained down, piercing their hands and faces, inciting chaotic movement among those at the base of the wall. Within seconds, a volley of return fire whizzed by Joe’s head. The slave dropped below a parapet to avoid the incoming round but his master didn’t fare as well. Joe heard a thud and turned in shock as Colonel Travis recoiled, his head wobbling as if detached from his body, and fell backward to the ground. Joe jumped down after Travis but immediately knew it was too late. The blood streaming from the gunshot wound in Travis’s head told Joe what he already knew.
Joe then turned around and saw several other defenders struck by incoming fire and he knew the Mexicans would soon be inside. He darted through the crowd of soldiers and sprinted toward the southern end of the plaza away from the battle zone. His hands shook as he flung open the door to the low-barracks room and raced inside, momentarily forgetting the building had been set up as a quarantine zone for the sickly Bowie. The once-mighty warrior was alone in the building, having relinquished his co-command to Travis as the undiagnosed ailment ravaged his body and rendered him immobile. The entrance area was dark but Joe saw candles flickering at the far end of the hall. He sprinted toward the light and froze when he came upon his bedridden former leader, whose head barely lifted from his pillow. Bowie was covered with blankets but had two rifles positioned across his chest and his trademark Bowie knife teetering on a side table next to him.
“What’s happening?” Bowie asked in a faint, scratchy voice.
“The Mexicans, sir, they’re coming over the wall. They already shot Mr. Travis.”
“Well,” Bowie responded before coughing, “we knew this day would come. They’ll be looking for me soon enough. My scalp’s worth something to Santa Anna’s men. Go over there and hide in one of the closets. All of the ladies have gathered down the hall.” He pointed at a room across the way. “Don’t come out until I’m dead and the shooting’s stopped. Do you hear me?”
“Yes sir,” Joe answered nervously. “God bless you, Mister Jim.” Joe made a move toward the closet just as gunfire exploded outside the doors. Colonel Bowie then yelled out with all of his remaining strength, “Come here, son.”
“They’ll kill all of us, you know?” Bowie continued. “Of the men still alive in this place, you’re the only one likely to survive. Ol’ Santa Anna claims he never kills black slaves or women. Come closer—I’ve got something for you.” Bowie feebly reached under his pillow and pulled out an envelope. He handed it to Joe. “Whatever you do, don’t let the Mexicans have this. Tear it up or burn it if you have to. But if you make it out of here alive, remember Jim Bowie and remember the Alamo.”
Loud Mexican voices filled the low-barracks room and Joe realized time had run out. He dove into the closet across from Bowie’s bed and held his breath, stuffing the envelope deep into his pants pocket. He said a quick prayer and waited, trembling, preparing to die. Within seconds, multiple gunshots rang out and Joe heard the trampling of feet, the thunder of a death squad, moving closer to Colonel Bowie.
The sounds that followed haunted Joe for the rest of his life.
Angelina de Zavala Gentry moved around the interior of the Alamo grounds hoping she’d feel a sign that would remove all doubt from her mind. In her many years of false starts and wrong turns, chasing the treasure that had bedeviled her great-grandmother, she’d never found definitive evidence of the location. But now that she’d come this far, there was no more room for indecision.
Angelina was finally in a position to move. Janet Nelson had cleared the way for the excavation project that was certain to vindicate all of her efforts. If Angelina discovered the most famous secret of the Alamo, after one hundred and seventy years of speculation and disappointment, she would rehabilitate her family name overnight. The de Zavalas’ place in Alamo lore would be secure, forever etched alongside the legendary names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett.
Janet’s wrestling of the Alamo away from the clutches of the Akers-Butler faction of the DRT, which had torpedoed all of Angelina’s former “archeological” projects, had cleared the last obstacle in her path. Even the meddlesome politicians—who’d become so enamored with Janet that they’d turned over the new Alamo Preservation Advisory Board with virtually no restrictions—were out of the way. But even with all of this good news, Angelina grew more paranoid every day that the slow process had worked to others’ benefit, that someone like Joe Travis was about to blow her cover, or worse, beat her to the finish line. Killing the old black man had solved one of those problems, but she sensed others lurked around the corner.
Frank Kalender was one of them. She’d taken a significant risk by hiring him to lead the Alamo project—the man was uncontrollable and a shameless self-promoter—but his credentials were good and his oversized personality permitted Angelina to maintain her low profile and avoid scrutiny. She’d always worried that finding her expedition leader on the Internet through a Google search was foolish but, in reality, Kalender had been the perfect tool for the job. He’d kept Angelina regularly updated on the latest news about potential competitors, misdirected the boundless community of speculators who followed his blog posts with religious fervor, and thoroughly researched each rumor about the treasure.
But he had a habit of misfiring. She remembered the day Kalender had excitedly announced that he’d found a descendant of Joe the slave living in Brewton, Alabama. Angelina herself had trembled at the report, sensing Kalender had finally uncovered the ultimate clue, but like all of his other discoveries, it had proven a dud. Kalender’s inability to get Joe Travis to produce the treasure map finally led her to take matters into her own hands, only to discover that the old man knew far less than she did. And because Kruger and Shakes had bungled their job, she now found herself an accomplice to murder. The Travis fiasco convinced Angelina that the existence of a game-changing clue like a map was purely a Kalender fantasy. She berated herself for believing in his false leads and far-fetched ideas.
But even then, she still needed him.
Kalender had provided the expert testimony necessary to convince Janet’s new handpicked board that an excavation event was just what the Alamo needed to reinvigorate the public’s interest in the iconic structure. His project offered the group a gateway to notoriety for the decaying mission and a vehicle for free publicity and fund-raising. Yet, even with the approval granted, and the dig waiting only on a final plan, Angelina still worried the location remained too unsettled. Kalender had not convinced her that his latest suppositions were accurate. But finding Joe Travis had accomplished one important advance in her research—it had led her to Anthony Ambrose and fresh support for her long-held suspicion about the treasure’s resting place. In particular, there was a specific paragraph from one of Travis’s letters that dovetailed perfectly with her great-grandmother’s note. Angelina perused it again:
BT – moved? Not in the LBR. Find JB’s trail. S had M.
Bowie’s Treasure moved. Not in the Long Barracks Room.
Find JB’s trail. Slave had Map.
The trail had always been the key. Where was JB’s trail? What did those few words mean? One of Joe Travis’s letters to Ambrose provided what Kalender believed was confirming information:
My ancestor Joe was a slave who was owned by William Barret Travis, the commander of the Alamo. He had many responsibilities in serving Travis. He fixed meals, took care of his animals, and stocked supplies from the stores in San Antonio. His most important job however was pumping water from the one well in the fortress. The men never had enough water. Joe beat a path to that well so many times that Colonel Bowie nicknamed it Joe’s trail.
“JB’s trail,” Kalender had concluded, “is the final resting spot for Jim Bowie’s treasure! This has to be a reference to Joe’s trail to the water well.”
But even while intrigued, Angelina remained skeptical. She knew exactly where the Texans had drilled their lone water well in the Alamo, and she’d long understood it to be the perfect hiding place for Bowie’s Treasure. But Joe Travis’s letter was anything but definitive. Frustrated, Angelina had reluctantly signed off on the location, but her gut still told her she’d missed something.
Angelina thought back to the 2005 television show History’s Mysteries, which speculated that an old abandoned well was the burial site of a previously unknown treasure hidden inside the Alamo. She remembered during those nascent days of her own personal quest, just after her long feud with the DRT had ended, how worried she’d become that some opportunistic Geraldo Rivera-like TV crew from the History Channel might usurp her prize. She’d known so little then but to this day remained shocked how close the ill-equipped explorers had come to making her discovery. Angelina had remained fraught with tension every day during those weeks that one of the TV researchers actually knew what they were doing; that was until word leaked out that the director was relying entirely on readings from some Kalender-like treasure hunter with a metal detector. Only then did she finally breathe.
The failed excavation project left the world and the DRT believing the treasure story was a hoax. But Angelina knew differently. She understood, unlike most others, that the television crew never considered the existence of a map, nor did they properly research the precise location of the well. Yet, the TV crew, despite their inept efforts, had only been off the mark by some fifty yards. Angelina realized then that the treasure could belong to no one else. And after the embarrassed DRT vowed never to allow a similar sacrilege on Alamo grounds, she felt confident the treasure would remain safe until her time arrived.
Finally, in 2013, with Janet’s ascension to the presidency of the DRT, she was ready.