Ashes on His Boot

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Bandera Pass - June 1841

Jack woke the Ranger company before daybreak. Breakfast was hardtack, jerky and coffee. Time to break camp and mount up. Even though his men had been trained – move by night, camp by day – there had been no such order from Captain Jack Hays for this patrol. Fires for morning java were okay, just no fires at night. Comanche had to understand that he and his Rangers were coming for them. He wanted a fight.

Today he’d ride to the headwaters of the Guadalupe River and probe the small side canyons. Jack had dispatched the two Apache boys to scout the main route to Bandera Pass. He’d told them to rendezvous at tonight’s campsite. By then, either his main body or they should have made some kind of contact with the enemy.
Early morning sunlight filtered through the trees. Hays led his company away from the encampment through thick underbrush, kept away from established trails, and headed for the river crossing. Late morning, now. Jack gripped his saddle horn with one hand, then waded into the river beside his pony. Sixty dismounted Rangers and their ponies came behind him, three miles upstream from the easier but more exposed fording site. Minutes later Jack and his mount led the Ranger unit up the banks of the Guadalupe to safe footing on the opposite side.
After midday, he sent forays into the blind canyons. None flushed out any Comanche. Not a big surprise. Bastards were out there, anyway, watching and waiting. There’d been that one signal fire in the hills, smoke rising straight up, then flattening out like a big mushroom. Flacco had showed him the special way Comanche made message signals with fire and smoke. Had to use just the right wind current to pancake the smoke at the top one way or the other. So one signal fire, but nothing more. Still, it was enough to convince Jack the Comanche were shadowing him.

That evening, after a cold supper deep in a mesquite thicket, Jack sat between Sam Walker and the company sniper, Bigfoot Wallace. The O’Keefe boys, along with Flacco and Red Wing, sat cross-legged facing Hays. The sun had dropped behind western hills, putting the Irishmen and the Apache scouts in shadow. A pony snorted down by the creek. Otherwise, silence all around. Jack waited for the scouting report.
“Captain Jack,” Flacco spoke, animated. “We maybe not see Comanche, but Red Wing good spotter. Find much pony shit. And we both see shadow. Heads with feather, more than one, move in rocks.” Flacco held his nose ceremoniously. “Red Wing and me smell bad medicine. Smell Comanche. Numunuh stink worse than pony shit.”
“Yellow Wolf wait for us,” Red Wing broke in. “His favorite place be right inside Bandera Mouth. He always there, they always there, every time fight. Yellow Wolf ancestor kill Red Wing grandfather same place, long time back.”
So Red Wing had a score to settle with the Comanche, just like Flacco. Hard to believe that Buffalo Hump and his people thought they were entitled to keep Texas hill country for themselves. Even called the place Comancheria. Hell, they’d come here same as Jack, same as Sam Houston and all the other folks. Fought their way in, kicked out whoever got in their way, then set up camp. Even the local Apache had suffered at the hands of Comanche invaders. By God, Jack would see that the hill country and San Antone belonged only to Texas from now on.
“Boys, I know you’re right,” Jack responded. “Saw one of their damned signal fires myself.” He looked at Red Wing, then Flacco. “So how many? Fifty? A hundred? Any signs of squaw work, mesquite cut for fires, or travois tracks?”
The Apache scouts shook their heads. A damned sketchy report. Comanche were out there, but how many, and where? Jack knew he’d get a fight soon. Had to be. He was taking his Rangers straight into Comanche homeland, poking the ornery devils right in the eye. By God, somebody – Buffalo Hump, Yellow Wolf, he didn’t care – was going to challenge Hays’ Rangers. Then the Comanche would have their first taste of Jack’s boys and their new Colt repeaters. His men were prepared for battle.
Preparation. Early on, Andrew Jackson had lectured Jack on the difference between a soldier being ready to fight and being truly prepared for the chaos of combat. Prepared to kill or be killed. “Son,” Jackson had observed. “Ain’t no good just being ready for war. Killin’ people you ain’t met takes preparation, and that takes good leading. The commander’s responsible for that. Man’s always ready to eat or drink. He’s ready to fuck or fight. But a man’s got to be trained, led proper, before being truly prepared to kill a stranger.”
By God in Heaven, Hays’ Rangers were prepared. Where, and maybe more important, when would they meet the enemy?

At mid-morning the next day, Captain Jack Hays halted his company. A sheer rock wall to the east shaded part of the trail and gave way to a yawning, u-shaped opening – the mouth of Bandera Pass was just ahead. Scrubby mesquite and boulders marked either side of the trail into the canyon. No movement at the mouth of the pass or above on the escarpment. Where the hell were the red devils? Could be anywhere. For sure, Buffalo Hump’s boys were watching and waiting.
Jack waved two squads, ten men each, into the rock-strewn ground right and left of the main trail. Flacco and Red Wing fell in close behind Jack. The rest of Hays’ Rangers trailed the two scouts, single file, ten yards between riders, up the main trail and into Bandera Pass. Minutes passed. Jack motioned two fresh squads to the flanks in relief of the first men on hillside patrol. Jack didn’t want anybody out there exposed as targets for too long at one time.
Morning was warming up quick with the rising sun. Jack pushed his cap back and wiped his brow with a shirtsleeve. He breathed as deep as he could to slow the pounding in his chest. Thirty minutes or more climbing already, the canyon rim couldn’t be more than a half-mile ahead, maybe two hundred yards above. So far, no sign of any life, other than birds and maybe a ground squirrel or two.
What the hell were the Comanche waiting for? Why hadn’t they come at him and his boys in the one big switchback down below? Jack waved his pistol in a circle over his head. The two outlying squads made their way onto the trail and brought up the rear. With his full company strung out now along Bandera Pass, he signaled “forward at the gallop.” After a short dash, Jack moved to one side of the narrowing trail and waved his boys on. He wanted them to pick up the pace, get up top now, on the double. Then anybody around would have to fight him in the open.
Jack’s horse column sped up, snaking accordion-like, upward. The edge of the escarpment and the open plain waited less than a hundred yards above. With half the riders past, Jack turned his pony and glanced down the trail.
Soft, whirring swishes, dull thumps, then shouts and cries behind Jack signaled an incoming arrow volley. Jack pivoted in his saddle. The deadly shafts had found their marks in the middle of Jack’s unit. Four bodies slumped and fell from their saddles. More shouts and cries from his troops mixed with war whoops and echoed through the canyon. Jack wheeled his mount and kicked the pony’s flanks, his hand gripping his full-cocked Colt pistol.
Shrieks, eagle-like cries and war whoops increased. Eerie, almost deafening. Comanche riders thundered down the hillsides. The first wave of bareback riding, war-painted braves charged down the steep slope on both flanks. A second cloud of arrows mixed with war lances and rained into the Ranger company. Jack fired his pistol, then again. Two warriors were hit some distance out. He had to get back to the action, and quick.
Jack thundered past Flacco and Red Wing as the Apache scouts drew repeater rifles from their saddle holsters. He waved for the scouts and his two lead squads to keep riding for the upper canyon rim, while Jack rode into the middle of the scrape.
“Dismount, dismount!” Hays shouted, reining up. “Tie your ponies. We can whip ’em right here. Ain’t no doubt!”
Rangers scattered into the brush, leading skittish mounts. Some ducked behind boulders and fired. Others burrowed into fallen piles and clumps of mesquite, firing and moving. Then firing again. Arrows clattered off the hardwood branches and stone in wild ricochets. Jack stayed in the saddle, ducked to one side to avoid an arrow that swished past his neck. His nervous pony jostled him, but Jack took aim and fired his pistol once more. The animal pranced and pawed.
Jack cocked and fired, cocked and fired again. He emptied his first pistol and grasped the second one. Smoke and the deafening, crackling roar of rapid fire came from twenty Paterson Colts. Walls of galena, more than a hundred of the forty caliber balls, pounded into charging Comanche warriors on both sides of the trail. Waves of Comanche riders toppled headlong, hammered by the barrage from the Colt repeaters at close range. Painted, bare bodies littered one rocky slope. Jack glanced over his shoulder. Good, the other hillside had a bunch of the red devils scattered around, too.
So far, Jack had four Rangers down, but he’d taken at least thirty goddamn Comanche out in those first volleys. Damn fine work. His rear squads could hold their own. Jack turned his mount, Colt repeater in one hand, and rode hard for the canyon rim above.
He charged the quarter-mile uphill in less than a minute, firing at Comanche on both flanks as he rode. He passed his lead squads and the Apache scouts on the plateau, waving them to follow. The rest of his Ranger company took up the attack behind him on the dead run. Jack headed for one flank of the main body of the war party.
His pony’s reins were in his pistol hand. Jack reached for and fumbled another loaded cylinder in the pommel bag. Dammit, he lost his grip on the reins, too. Still held the pistol. Then all hell broke loose.
His pony took its head. The animal lunged and bounded, too quick, and straight for the Comanche flank. He had the second cylinder in hand, but struggled to stay in the saddle. Jack’s fingers fiddled with the reload. No cover. Nowhere to jump, and no chance to maybe roll behind a rock or under a mesquite bush. More than a hundred Comanche were running across his path, dead ahead. He’d been spotted. They turned to attack. Nothing left to do but shoot as many of them as he could. Jack jammed the fresh cylinder into his pistol and fired, his head low alongside his pony’s neck, kneeing the animal right and left. Was anybody behind him?
He emptied the revolver, aiming each shot through a hail of arrows and war spears. Three bare-chested bodies flew off bareback horses. More braves on foot – war clubs in hand – slumped over rocks or fell in bushes. Jack careened through their ranks, now trying to reload a third cylinder. By God, he couldn’t have been the only Ranger firing. Too many bodies around for that.
Another loaded cylinder clicked into place, Jack bent further forward in the saddle and reached for his reins. After two more tries, he managed to grip the flying leather thong. He jerked hard, pulled the pony up short and wheeled the animal around. His eyes took in the sight. His Rangers – the whole damned bunch – were there. Impossible, yet, there they were. Flacco, Red Wing and the two squads. They’d followed Jack’s lead. He’d had them with him the whole way.
The Comanche, those still alive, were now in full retreat, riding and running hard as could be away from the fight. Flacco and the boys drew up beside Jack, ponies winded, but without a scratch. The rest of his men popped up from behind boulders and out of the mesquite below. Cheers erupted, weapons and hats waved.
“Not quite time for cheering yet, boys.” Jack shouted, relieved.
He rode from squad to squad, getting those down below remounted and moving his company back on line. Consolidate the position. Get reloaded. Take care of the dead and wounded. The damn Comanche couldn’t be finished. After the Indians figured out what had happened, they’d be back. But he’d be ready again.
Nobody, not Flacco nor anybody else, needed to know that his flank attack hadn’t been deliberate, at least not in the way he’d charged off. The good luck of war, that’s what he’d been graced with. And Jack sure as hell hoped his luck would last a little longer. This had to be just the beginning.

Hours later, the sun cast long shadows across the high plain. No sign of the Comanche, other than death cries from the hills to the east. Seven of Hays’ Rangers and two ponies had perished. He’d ordered the troops buried where they’d fallen and made sure his boys retrieved the new Colt weapons. Didn’t want those in Comanche hands, ever. Animal carcasses and dead enemies were left, all unmolested where they lay. Comanche could have the dead horses for meat, and his Apache scouts would have to forego their scalping ritual. Too risky right now.
Flacco rode up. “Captain Jack, you order no scalps. Me and Red Wing not like order. Anyway, we honor. You be mucho bravo leader.”
Jack eyed the canyon rim behind Flacco. Several Comanche stood, silent and unmoving, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. Was Buffalo Hump one of them? Maybe Yellow Wolf?
“Now me truly surprised.” Flacco spoke low. “Damn Comanche honor Captain Jack. See you respect dead Comanche. Soon they pick up dead brothers and go village. Comanche no more fight today.”
“Sure is good news, if you’re right, Chief.” Jack took a deep breath. “You got any idea exactly who we came up against?”
“Captain Jack,” Flacco grinned and puffed out his bare chest. “I speak one laying down Comanche before I give him home in spirit world. He say they be Yellow Wolf party. Yellow Wolf sure in big trouble now with Buffalo Hump. Comanche boy say they very surprised. Ask me how come White Face now have one firestick every finger? Always before, have only one firestick each hand.”

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