The incessant battle cry of "Viva Santa Anna!" becomes a fervid two-piece symphony when the soprano wailing of bugles join in. The rhythmic cracking of non-stop musket fire travels beyond the fort. It is swallowed up by the ground quaking stampede of horses kicking up a golden cloud of dust in their wake.
Inside the fort the cacophony is compounded by officers bellowing orders. Guttural howls of soldiers in bayonet blood waltzes. Harrowing death wails of women and children echo off the walls still standing. Blood spills and seeps into cracks in the parched brown earth. It ebbs into ever-widening circles of burgundy sludge.
We are running for our lives. My mother holds my hand so tight in hers, I fear my bones will break. But she won't loosen her grip no matter how much I cry out. We head for the chapel. When we arrive, we see holes being carved in the sacred walls to shoot from. Through clear stained glass I see the outline of a soldier. He makes a hasty sign-of-the-cross before shattering a piece of the window depicting angels in a supplication gesture to the heavens. Before he gets his rifle through the hole, he is shot in the chest. He staggers backwards a few steps then lurches forward. He crashes through the window and falls face-first into a pile of shattered cherub statues.
We change direction and run along the west wall toward the barracks. The Mexican cavalry has breached the wall and overwhelmed the Texians. Civilians race in the direction of the San Antonio River. A soldier yells at my mother to follow, but she ignores him. I am terrified and manage to pull my hand out of my mother's grasp. I start running toward the river. My mother screams for me to stop. Rounds are exchanged in bursts of red sparks and smoky white pyrotechnics. A cannon blast explodes very close to me. My ears start ringing and I fall to my hands and knees, too terrified to go further. For a moment there is an eerie silence, only disturbed by the hungry cries of vultures gathering and circling above. In front of me there is a ditch filled with dead bodies. Faces with frozen eyes stare unfazed into the blazing light of the merciless Texas sun. One gasping soldier crawls over bullet-ridden corpses of his regiment, reaching for a nearby rifle. The soldier manages to feebly grip the butt of the weapon for one brief moment before he goes limp. He spews out a splatter of dark red spittle with his last breath.
My mother catches up to me and grabs my hand once more. We are running again, this time back to the fort. The ground is exploding all around us in fiery bursts of bloody dirt. I fall, but my mother hoists me up the instant I hit the ground. Somehow we make it to our barracks. She leads me inside to the back of the building. She opens a small trap door in the ground that reveals a small storage area which was used for hiding valuables. It's empty now. She pushes me down into it and I have to curl into a ball to fit. There's no room for her.
Bending over, she grabs my face in both hands.
"Charles, don't you dare move from here no matter what. You wait for me to come back for you. Promise me!" my mother screams above the gun fire, cannon blasts, and death cries. She sees the look on my face. I have just turned twelve years of age and she is all I have left after losing my father in battle. She tries to assure me.
"Don't worry, I will find a place to hide in the chapel." I swear I will not budge. Her reply of I love you is cut short by the slamming of the trap door.
After what must have been hours, the last shrieks of the slaughtered die out to occasional whimpers. The steady burst of gunfire dissipates to an infrequent pop.
I can't stand being trapped in this dark hole any longer. I know I shouldn't, but I emerge from my hiding place and what's left of the building. I must find my mother. My hands fly to my face to shield my eyes from the sudden burst of daylight.
Through the cracks in my fingers I see hellish carnage everywhere. A real-life manifestation of the apocalyptic watercolor illustrations depicted in my Sunday school prayer book. The air is still cloudy with gray-white smoke. I choke on the acrid, sour scent of burnt charcoal and ammonia. Stumbling forward, bits of haze clear momentarily revealing snippets of nightmare visions. Bodies in unnatural poses on the ground. A woman with her arms still wrapped tight around a child. An open wedding scrapbook, pages fluttering in the wind. A wooden game table blown to bits with charred chess pieces scattered nearby. There are craters the size of watermelons from cannon blasts. One of the barracks is burning, sending thick orange flames high over the rooftops. Occasionally a sharp splitting sound rings out as support beams in the building collapse and crash to the ground.
When I am near the chapel I almost trip over the body of a woman splayed out on her back. Her long dress is hiked up over her face. Embarrassed for her robbed dignity, I reach down to pull the garment below her knees. But before I can, I hear the sound of boots stomping behind me. I turn to see a man dressed in a blue single-breasted coat with red facings and piping. He has linen trousers on with patches of pristine white, but mostly covered in slick reddish brown stains. His skin is smooth dark bronze and his eyes a shade darker. He looks at me with distant coldness. I drop to my knees and close my eyes.
"I am sorry young Señor," he says politely as he aims his rifle. "No tomar prisioneros." I think the Mexican soldier assumes I am praying for my immortal soul because my lips are moving silently. But I am not. I'm mouthing a silent apology. It is the first and only time I have ever broken a promise to my mother.
I hear a loud click. I open my eyes to see the look of surprise on the soldier's face. He chuckles. "No más municiones." He points his bayonet at my throat. My eyes squeeze shut again. When nothing happens I peek through one eye. He smiles, shrugs and spits in the dirt next to me. "Well perhaps I answer your prayers. Spread the news. Viva Santa Anna!"
He is gone. I turn back to the woman whose dress is up over her head. I tell myself I have seen other women dressed exactly like that. But I know it's not true. My hand trembles as I pull down the dress to reveal my mother's face.
I wander aimlessly, covered in dirt and sweat, unable to decide what to do. I want to go back and lie down next to my mother, but keep walking in circles until I feel I might collapse. I see a young girl who looks close to my age in a torn dress sitting in the rubble of the burned-out barracks. Her hands are caked with mud and blood. She has smeared her face with it in long streaks. It looks like war paint. I walk over and sit down next to her. We remain that way for a while. Finally, my gentlemanly upbringing compels an attempt to comfort her.
"History will not forget the Alamo." Hollow and absurd. As soon as the words escape my mouth I regret them.
She takes a while to respond. "God willing, the dead who fought for us will no doubt be honored." She turns to me. Her nose is running. "But what about those of us who are left?"
This time I don't attempt any response. After a few minutes of silence I say, "My name is Charles, you can call me Charlie."
She sighs deeply. "Victoria. I guess you can call me Vicki."
I didn't know what possesses me to do this, but impulsively I reach out and gently hold her hand. I look straight ahead at the darkening sky over the hues of the prairies. Her hand stiffens and for a moment, my upbringing tells me I have overstepped. But then Vicki slowly returns my grasp. We continue looking out onto the landscape and not at each other. An unusually large red-orange sun is setting over the flat, barren land. It changes the color of the prairie to a similar palette. It is breathtakingly beautiful. We watch in silence.
Fifty years later on the anniversary of the Alamo, Vicki and I sit on the front porch of our house in Dallas, 250 miles from where the doomed fort stood. We do this every year. There are never words spoken between us about what happened on that horrible day. We just sit on the porch swing, gently swaying and holding hands.
With only the sound of the softly squeaking swing and a chorus of crickets, we watch a very similar sunset to the one we gazed upon the first day we met. We are still there after the sun dips below the horizon and stars materialize to dot the pitch-black sky.