Side Trail Story
March 6, 1986, was a hectic day for Rose Banner. She had left Houston the day before to drive to San Antonio for the sesquicentennial celebration of the Battle of the Alamo. Her children were with her mother while her husband had to stay home for an important business meeting.
Rose was sitting in the Alamo Plaza looking for a specific old man. She had arrived before 8:00 AM and immediately walked all over the grounds. There were few people around at that time. Now it was closer to ten, and a crowd was beginning to form. There was no sign of him, and she was tired of walking. She thought she would sit for a while and watch the people.
As time passed, she started to feel foolish. Had she imagined that meeting of twenty-five years ago? She had any number of silly memories from her childhood. Perhaps this was just another memory that she had embellished over the years? Maybe she should leave.
She started to stand, when a voice behind her said, “Hello, Rose. It is nice to see you again.”
She jumped a bit at the familiar voice and slowly turned, afraid of disappointment at what or who she would find. When she saw who it was, she said, “Hello, Johnson. It is nice to see you again, as well.”
People in the area who heard her gave her a puzzled look but just moved along. She appeared to be speaking to no one in particular. Rose noted once again that people just looked through or past Johnson as if he wasn’t even there.
“If you would like to walk into the garden, we can talk there for a while. I suspect you have a lot to tell me about the last twenty-five years,” Johnson said.
“I also have a lot of questions for you,” Rose replied. “You disappeared so suddenly the last time I saw you that I wasn’t even able to say goodbye, let alone ask you about my dreaming.”
When they reached the park-like area next to the chapel, they were away from the bulk of the forming crowd and even found a small, secluded bench.
As they sat, looking out at the Alamo Plaza beyond the chapel courtyard, Rose said, “I have waited twenty-five years to see you once again. I am married with two children and a loving husband. I have a Ph.D. in History with a focus on the history of Texas, and I have done extensive research on the Battle of the Alamo. My career resulted from the hour or so I spent with you in 1961.”
Before he could comment, Rose continued, “I did not expect you to be here. I believed your age back then would be against another visit twenty-five years later. I was wrong. You look like I remember. I also recall that other people did not react to your presence. They completely ignored you, just like today. I have to wonder if all of this is real.”
Johnson sat quietly while she spoke. When she paused, he said, “Let me tell you about Bill Travis and Jim Bowie. There are statues of them on the Cenotaph.”
“They did not get along with each other. Colonel Travis commanded the men who were part of the Texian Army while Bowie commanded the volunteers. Each of them commanded about half of the men here at the Alamo.”
When Rose did not interrupt, he went on to say, “Bowie had a reputation as a vicious knife fighter, and we expected him to challenge Travis at almost any time.”
As his voice droned on, Rose started to relax and found herself dozing off once again. She had been determined not to let that happen, but it crept up on her. Just before the dream started, she noted that he had used we when talking about the defenders of the Alamo.
She was standing near the north end of the plaza, watching all of the defenders gather into long lines. When they were all quietly standing in place, a man in a military uniform addressed them. That man looked like Colonel Travis on the Cenotaph. His voice carried throughout the plaza.
She could not hear all of his words, but it sounded like he told the men that thousands of Mexican soldiers surrounded them, and no help would be coming. Every man who stayed to fight against the Mexicans was going to die. Santa Anna would take no prisoners. He flew the red flag of no quarter over his lines.
Travis, himself, was going to stay and fight if he had to do so alone. He would fight as long as he had breath in his body. His death would help slow Santa Anna’s advance through Texas and provide the spark that would unite all Texians against that dictator.
He drew a line in the dirt with his sword, dragging it across the front of the standing men. He said, “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across that line.”
As Rose watched, 181 men walked across the line with no hesitation. She saw Johnson cross the line at the side of Davy Crockett. He had a look of determination and pride upon his face.
One of the two men who did not cross was Jim Bowie. He lay on a cot. He was ill and had been injured in a bad fall when placing a cannon. When he asked the men to carry him across the line, four of them lifted the cot and took him over to the others.
One man remained behind. He could not cross the line. The others wished him well as he quickly gathered his things and went over the wall.
Rose could sense the feeling of determination and unity among the men. No one showed any evidence of despair. These men were as one and would be bound together for all time.
The men were cheering and slapping each other on the back as the scene faded away, and she became aware of her surroundings. Somehow, she had moved and was sitting at the side of a tree in the garden. Johnson was not with her.
He was standing in the courtyard next to the grassy area. Passersby were ignoring him. He was an old man in ragged clothing with blackened hands and face.
Rose got up and walked over to where he stood. As she approached him, Johnson turned toward her. Before he turned, she noticed that his tattered jacket had several holes in the back, and several blackish stains discolored parts of it.
As she came close, he said, “Two days before Travis drew his line in the dirt, thirty-two men rode into the Alamo from Gonzales. They knew that once they rode in, they would never ride out. The Mexicans surrounded the Alamo, and the situation was hopeless. Yet, they rode in anyway. What kind of men leave their homes to knowingly ride into a death trap?”
“Why are you still here, Johnson?” Rose asked.
“I don’t know. I find myself here, walking around every twenty-five years since the Alamo fell. I have always been ignored, even when I spoke to someone. You are the first person to pay me any attention.”
“That might be because,” she started to say when a loud noise interrupted her. It was a sonic boom from a group of jets flying over the Alamo.
She had looked up at the sudden loud noise. When she looked back at Johnson, he was gone.
Eventually, she found him just inside the chapel. “It was just some airplanes flying overhead, making a lot of noise. It’s nothing to worry about.”
He breathed a sigh of relief and walked out of the chapel with her. As they walked, he said, “That loud noise reminded me of the firing of the eighteen-pound cannon. It was at the southeast corner of the compound.”
As Johnson talked, a drizzle had started falling, and a strange fog had begun to move in. The people and objects around her became indistinct, and there was a chill in the air.
The fog suddenly lifted, and a roar assailed her ears. Men were running past her and yelling at each other. They were climbing onto the roofs of the long buildings and firing their rifles at an attacking army. Loud blasts were coming from the cannons placed on the walls, and in the distance, she could hear the faint sounds of a band playing a somber yet fierce song. It was the Deguello, and it meant everyone inside the fort would be put to death.
Johnson had disappeared. She ran farther out into the plaza to see if he had gone that way. Looking toward the north, she saw a large opening in the north wall.
As she watched, she saw Colonel Travis and his men aim and fire a cannon at the attacking Mexicans to keep them away from the opening. She saw him stand and point his sword toward the breach and shout something. A group of Mexican soldiers was coming through the opening. He swung his sword, and again the cannon fired. The soldiers were all swept back out of sight.
As the Texians feverishly worked to reload the gun, a large swarm of Mexicans came into the breach. Travis raised his sword and prepared to defend their position when he suddenly flew backward over the cannon with a head wound. He was among the first of the defenders to die.
Rose did not understand what was happening. The battle was taking place around her. It was progressing much as she had learned from her research and studies.
She thought that it must all be a bad dream.
The Texians left their positions on the walls and roofs. They fought the Mexicans in the plaza with clubbed rifles and Bowie knives against Mexican bayonets.
Rose saw cannons captured by the Mexicans being turned and used against the Texians. The long building was sandbagged and barricaded. Its rooms would be used as small forts against any enemies in the plaza. The cannons blasted in the doors. Soldiers rushed in and killed anyone still alive after each blast.
As the Texians died, the Mexicans swarmed into the courtyard in front of the chapel. That was where Davy Crockett and his volunteers confronted them.
The fighting was hand-to-hand and brief as the men were quickly overwhelmed by a large number of attackers, who were ignoring their severe losses. Crockett surrounded himself with a pile of dead men but met the same fate as all the others.
A small group of Crockett’s men had pushed out into the plaza as the main body of attackers had focused on Crockett and the men directly around him. They wanted to retake the two cannons on the elevated platform in the plaza and fire a blast into the attackers.
Rose saw Johnson with these men. They were not successful and were pushed toward a section of the barracks building near the Alamo well. As she watched, she saw Johnson getting speared in the back by two of the Mexicans. As he fell, a third Mexican hit him with his musket stock and knocked him into the well.
The sounds and mayhem faded away, and she stood in the plaza near the site of the old well. It was later in the afternoon, and the crowd was thinning. As she looked around, she saw Johnson walking toward the chapel.
Rose caught up to him as he entered the front door. He appeared to be searching for something.
“I always come here, hoping to find the place where Jim Bowie died. It was a small room just off to the side of the main entrance. I didn’t see him die, but I know Davy had given him a brace of loaded pistols, and he had his knife. He would have taken a lot of those Mexicans with him.”
Rose walked into a small room with him and said, “Some say that he killed himself. Others say that he was so sick that he just lay there and was speared through the bedding.”
“He was a fighter and would not have killed himself. He was a leader and did not fear death. I know he fought to his dying breath. He could do no less. He and Travis both were killed fighting.”
They left the room and walked outside the chapel, where they stopped for a moment. Johnson addressed her, “Twice now, I have been able to talk to you when everyone else ignores me. Plus, you came here today with the desire to meet with me. There must be something special at work here, but I have no idea what it may be.”
“I originally thought you were a homeless old man who knew things about the Alamo and was sharing them with me. Then I discovered that whenever you told me a story, I would dream it as if I was there. I found that very strange.”
“I had to come back this year to see if you would be here. I did not think that after twenty-five years, you would still be coming back. Then I saw you and the dreams returned when you told me stories about the Alamo.”
“My mother had shown me a drawing of Davy Crockett and some of his men. A man who looked just like you was standing beside Davy. I believed it had to be a coincidence. Now I believe it was you.”
“I remember when he did the sketch,” Johnson interjected.
“We can talk to each other because you are my great-great-grandfather.”
As they talked, they had walked near the site of the old well. It was filled in and covered with the concrete of the modern Alamo Plaza.
Johnson suddenly stopped as Rose kept walking. When she realized he wasn’t staying at her side, she asked, “Did I upset you?”
“No, I think I knew you were somehow related to me. It is just that I can’t walk over the site of the old well.”
“I don’t know. It just makes me feel very uneasy.”
“I saw you die in the last battle, and your body fell into the well. I suspect that is why you can’t walk over it. You must have been left there when the bodies were taken out and burned in large funeral pyres. You were separated from your friends.”
“I got no memory of what happened from when I died until my first visit to the ruins of this place. In 1861 it was mostly neglected, and I was lost and confused. I had no idea what was going on, only that American soldiers were stationed there at the time.”
“You can’t rest until we find a way to reunite you with your friends from the Alamo.”
“Is that why I come back here every twenty-five years?”
“I believe that your visits will continue until we can discover a solution. I still find all this hard to believe, so I’m not sure how I can find any help. If I tell anyone about our problem, no one will believe me.”
He did not respond because he was gone.
Rose had an idea. If the ground was consecrated and some words said over it, that might release his spirit. At least there was a good chance of it, especially since the men who fought here had such a strong bond.
There was a large church nearby. She went to it and found a Priest doing some work at the altar. She explained to the Father that one of her ancestors had died at the Alamo, and she would like to have someone bless the area where he was supposed to have died. A Seminarian kneeling off to the side heard her request to the Priest
Jason, the Seminarian, approached them and said, “Father Michael, I couldn’t help but overhear this lady’s request. I have always been fascinated with the stories I read and hear about the Alamo. I have studied the battle and did considerable research on it at the seminary. With your permission, I would like to accompany her back to the Alamo and undertake such a blessing. As a Transitional Deacon, I believe the Lord would hear my prayer.”
The Priest was a kindly man and liked the initiative shown by Jason. He gave his permission.
Jason filled a small container with holy water from the font as they left the church. As they walked toward the Alamo, Rose tried to be cautious about her story. She would not lie to Jason, but she was concerned that he might think she was crazy.
She had her train of thought interrupted when Jason asked her, “Who was your ancestor that died at the Alamo?”
“Morgan Johnson was my great-great-grandfather. According to records I have studied about the Alamo, he died near the old well. That is where I would like to have a blessing. There is even the possibility he might have fallen into the well itself.”
While they walked, Jason said, “At the church, we occasionally hear stories about an apparition that wanders about the Alamo grounds. Father Michael thinks he may have even seen him twenty-five years ago, but he is not sure. People describe him as an old man with dirty hands and face who wears rags for clothing. He wanders about like a person who is looking for something.”
Rose stopped walking and turned to him, saying, “Do you believe in such a thing?”
“Many things are difficult to explain, and as a Catholic Deacon, I accept a belief in spiritual things. Every year, one or two homeless men are mistaken for such a person, and people feel very foolish. I think that if there is an apparition roaming the grounds, he is probably drawn to the big celebrations and is simply trying to find his way home.”
“You don’t think it is an evil ghost or a demon roaming the grounds?”
“Of course not. The grounds have been blessed many times and are sacred to all Texans. There could be nothing evil on those grounds.”
As they walked into the plaza, he gave Rose a questioning look. When she turned away and walked ahead toward the well, he realized what might be happening.
The crowds were gone, and just a few people were walking around the plaza. They showed no interest in Rose and Deacon Jason as the two of them stopped above the old well.
Deacon Jason sprinkled holy water during a brief funeral service and blessing. He mentioned Morgan Johnson by name, and Rose believed he understood what they were trying to accomplish.
After the service, they walked a short distance away as an early evening mist reduced visibility. A shadowy figure stood by the old well site. An old man removed a hat and bent his head in their direction. Then he placed the hat on the concrete and walked into the courtyard where a large group of men welcomed him. Rose could not make out any details, but the one who put his arm around Johnson was wearing an animal skin as a hat. She could see the furry tail hanging down the back of his head.
All the men gradually faded from view as they walked toward the garden by the chapel.
Rose looked at Deacon Jason to ask him if he saw what had just happened. He was standing still, staring in the direction taken by the shadowy group of men. His lips were moving in prayer, and an expression of joy was on his face.
Neither of them said a word as they walked over to the site of the old well where Rose picked up a dirty, old felt cap and held it next to her heart.
All Deacon Jason could say to Rose was, “Thank you ever so much. Please go with God on this most blessed day.”
She shyly smiled at him as they went their separate ways.