Boot-Hills and Their Stories

Alamo Battle

Alamo Battle

Long before daylight the next morning the 4,000 were marching in close ranks to gather for the final assault. The sun had not risen when they made the charge. The infantry came first; the cavalry closed in behind them driving them on with bared sabers. The Americans took such toll with their long barreled rifles from behind the barricaded doors and windows that the foot-soldiers turned to face the naked swords rather than endure that fire. The officers reformed them under cover; they swept forward again, and again fell back. Santa Ana directed the third charge in person. They swarmed to the courtyard wall and raised ladders to its summit. The men behind bore those before them onward and literally shoved them up the ladders. They overwhelmed the frontiersmen through sheer force of numbers. Colonel W. B. Travis fell fighting hand to hand here. The courtyard filled with dark-skinned soldiers.

The Alamo was fallen. But there remained for the lean hard-bitten men of Texas, who had retired within the adobe buildings, the task of dying as fighting men should die. It was now ten o’clock, nearly six hours since the beginning of the first advance. It took the four thousand two hours more to finish the thing. For every room saw its separate stand; and every stand was to the bitter end.

There were 14 gaunt frontiersmen in the hospital, so weak with wounds that they could not drag themselves from their tattered blankets. They fought with rifles and pistols until 40 Mexicans lay heaped dead about the doorway. The artillery brought up a field-piece; they loaded it with grape-shot and swept the room, and then at last they crossed the threshold.

Colonel James Bowie, who brought into use the knife that bears his name, was sick within another apartment. How that day’s noises of combat roused the old fire within his breast and how he lay there chafing against the weakness which would not let him raise his body, one can well imagine. A dozen Mexican officers rushed into the place, firing as they came. Colonel Bowie waited until the first of them was within arm’s length. Then he reached forth, seized the man by the hair and, dying, plunged the knife that bore his name hilt-deep into the heart of his enemy.

So they passed in stifling clouds of powder smoke with the reek of hot blood in their nostrils. The noon hour saw Davy Crockett and five or six companions standing in a corner of the shattered walls; the old frontiersman held a rifle in one hand, in the other a dripping knife, and his buckskin garments were sodden, crimson. That is the last of the picture.

“Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat. The Alamo had none.” So reads the inscription on the monument erected in latter years by the State of Texas to commemorate that stand. The words are true. But the Alamo did leave a memory and the tale of the little band who fought in the sublimity of their fierceness while death was slowing their pulses did much toward the development of a breed whose eyes were narrow, sometimes slightly slanting, from constant peering across rifle sights under a glaring sun.

The procession is passing; trapper and Indian fighter; teamsters with dust in the deep lines of their faces — dust from the long dry trail to old Santa Fe; stage-drivers who have been sleeping the long sleep under waving wheat-fields where alkali flats once stretched away toward the vague blue mountains; and riders of the Pony Express. A tall form emerges from the past’s dim background, and comes on among them.

Rock Creek Station, Nebraska

Rock Creek Station, Nebraska

Six feet and an inch to spare, modeled as finely as an old Greek statue, with eyes of steel grey, sweeping mustache and dark brown hair that hangs to his shoulders, he moves with catlike grace. Two forty-fives hang by his narrow hips; there is a hint of the cavalier in his dropping sombrero and his ornately patterned boots. This is Wild Bill Hickok; he was to have gone with Custer, but a coward’s bullet cheated him out of the chance to die fighting by the Little Big Horn and they buried him in the Black Hills in the spring of 1876. James B. Hickok was the name by which men called him until one December day in the early sixties when the McCanles gang of outlaws tried to drive the horses off from the Rock Creek Station of the Overland Stage on the plains of southwestern Nebraska near the Kansas boundary.

There were ten of the desperadoes, and Hickok, who was scarcely more than a boy then, was alone in the little sod house, for Doc Brink, his partner, was off hunting that afternoon. He watched their approach from the lonely cubicle where he and Brink passed their days as station-keepers. They rode up through the cottonwoods by the creek. David McCadles leapt from the saddle and swaggered to the corral bars.

“The first man lays a hand on those bars, I ‘ll shoot,” Hickok called. They answered his warning with a volley, and their leader laughed as he dragged the topmost railing from its place. Laughing he died.

Now the rifles of the others rained lead against the sod walls and slugs buzzed like angry wasps through the window. He killed one more by the corral and a third who had crept up behind the wooden well-curb. The seven who were left retired to the cottonwoods to hold council. They determined to rush the building and batter down the door.

Young Bill Hickok in 1858

Young Bill Hickok in 1858

When they came forth bearing a dead tree-trunk between them, he got two more of them. And then the timber crashed against the flimsy door; the rended boards flew across the room; the sod walls trembled to the shock. He dropped his rifle and drew his revolver as he leaped to meet them.

Jim McCanles and another pitched forward across the threshold with leveled shotguns at their shoulders. Young Hickok ducked under the muzzle of the nearest weapon, and its flame seared his long hair as he swung for the bearer’s mid-section with all the weight of his body behind the blow. Whirling with the swiftness of a fighting cat he spurned the senseless outlaw with his boot and “threw down” on McCanles. Revolver and shotgun flamed in the same instant; McCanles fell dead; Hickok staggered back with eleven buckshot in his body. The other three were on him before he recovered his balance. He felt the searing of their bowie-knives against his ribs as they bore him down on the bed. Fingers closed in on his windpipe. He seized the arm in his two hands and twisted it, as one would twist a stick, until the bones snapped. He struggled to his feet, and the warm blood bathed his limbs as he hurled the two who were left across the room.

They came on crouching and their knives gleamed through the thick smoke-clouds. His own bowie-knife was in his hand now, and he stabbed the foremost through the throat. The other fled. Hickok stumbled out through the door after him, and Doc Brink came riding back from his hunting expedition in time to lend his rifle to his partner, who insisted profanely that he was fit to finish what he had so well begun.

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