Ashes on His Boot

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The Mexicans at Salado Creek - September 1842

The sun was a silver coin trying to penetrate the high, thin clouds over Mission Square. A crowd of well-dressed San Antonio citizens – the gentry – mingled in the plaza. Mexican dragoons in cobalt blue, double-breasted tunics crossed with white belts and matching white trousers maintained order with muskets at the ready. Jack Hays leaned on a porch rail of the Menger Hotel and scanned the gathering from under an old straw hat pulled low over his brow. He wore his oldest jacket and trousers, and his Paterson Colt was hidden in the frayed belt under the tail of his coat. Jack Hays’ overall appearance was purposely rumpled. Spying wasn’t his favorite pastime.

These Mexican bastards and a thousand or more like them were back in San Antone. General Adrián Woll’s troops had gotten in because Jack had screwed up. More than a full cavalry regiment, plus infantry and artillery, had run him and Hays’ Rangers out of town a couple weeks back. On the 11th of September, to be exact. So now Jack had to fix things. He knew how to deal with Comanche, so why were Mexicans such a more difficult matter?
Wait a minute, that little turncoat French bastard, Adrián Woll, the man responsible for the mess he was in, was riding up. The General pulled the reins of his white stallion, the halting animal pawing the ground and jostling the little man. Woll was about to address the crowd. The murmuring died away after one or two shouts of “Viva México”
“Citizens of San Antonio de Béxar.” Woll shouted in passable Spanish. “You and your city are the jewel of Mexico del Norte. The Most Honorable Lopez de Santa Anna, el Presidente, sends his greetings to you, the residents of his most favored spot in the New World.”
Woll was a Frenchie turned Mexicano after the Pastry War. The French and the Mexicans had fought to the death for months over some little insult regarding closing a goddamn French bakery in Mexico City. These Latinos, what a bunch of hotheads and chicken-shits. Here this asshole was, back again from France, but this time fighting for Santa Anna, not against him.
Jack shook his head. Woll had gone about screwing up life in Texas just because el Presidente Santa Anna woke up one morning and decided he wanted the whole damned territory back. General Sam should’ve killed that Mexican at San Jacinto when he’d first caught the bastard.
One thing Sam Houston had been right about, though; just as soon as they’d got the Comanche on the run last Fall, the fucking Mexicans had sprung up again. Jack had been forced out of the San Antonio garrison when Woll’s boys surprised him. This little French-Mexican weasel had sneaked a whole division down a back road into town, in the dark, right under his nose. Jack and the rest of the Rangers had barely gotten out with their hides. By God, he’d have to settle that score soon.
Some of the Anglos had escaped, but he’d heard that more than fifty, including Judge Hutchinson and his clerk, had been captured and marched out of town somewhere. So now just a bunch of Mexican sympathizers and old Spanish families were left in San Antone. And this sonofabitch, General Woll, he must have six or seven hundred dragoons, plus an equal number of horse cavalry and artillerymen scattered around town. Woll might be in charge for now, but the little man looked silly sitting on that huge horse and shouting in his Frenchie Spanish.
“I, Adrián Woll, Commandante of the Army of the North,” The General waved his saber. “I have been dispatched here as your protector. My sword shields you from the Comanche raiders.” The general waved his blade toward the Alamo. “And we have driven the Texian interlopers from our missions once again!”
Then Woll stood in his stirrups and pointed the gleaming blade skyward. He touched the sword’s hilt to his lips before sliding the weapon into his gold-festooned scabbard. Jack shook his head. What a disgusting little performance. What an act.
“I go now from this hallowed place!” The General shouted, the white horse prancing under him. “With your permission and God’s blessing, I shall personally drive the rest of the Texian wolves from their bushes and dark hiding places.”
The crowd stirred and cheered politely. Scattered applause echoed off the Alamo facade on the other side of the plaza. Wasn’t as much commotion as Jack had reckoned there’d be. Good. Not all as friendly to Santa Anna’s boys as they could’ve been. And outside of town, the Mexicans sure as hell had no friends.

Jack Hays led his Rangers into Seguin just after sunset on the 17th of September. Hadn’t been there since Susan left for Baltimore late last year. Wonder how she was doing? Only one letter since then, and no mention that she’d forgiven him for that night on the porch. Not that he had need of Susan’s forgiveness. Judge Jeremiah, her father, and the Missus Calvert were still in Texas somewhere, but with the Mexicans terrorizing everybody, they’d boarded up the big house here in Seguin and headed for Austin. Damn, was he ever going to see Susan again? An emptiness he’d not felt before washed over him.
Ewan Cameron’s and A. C. Horton’s Rangers showed up just after Jack and his men gathered around the campfire. They reportedly had seen nobody, Indian or Mexican, on the trail ride over from Austin. A little later, Matthew “Old Paint” Caldwell rode in with over a hundred troopers from Gonzales. Local militia volunteers, maybe fifty, had trickled in on foot and horseback all day. Everybody around Jack had a bone to pick with the Mexicanos.
Two hundred or more grim-faced Texans, all ready for some revenge, gathered around the warming fires. Nobody had ordered any of these other men to Seguin, but here they were. Tonight, somebody had to organize this mob. Get them focused. Prepared. That would not be Jack Hays. Not this time. For once he was ready to listen to somebody else’s plan.
“Boys, boys,” Jack put up his hand and stepped onto a crate of munitions. “I need y’all quiet for a spell. Simmer down.”
The ruckus went on. Jack’s voice and his presence standing on the wooden crate only seemed to increase the din. Angry men argued and shouted about what to do next and who should lead. Jack drew his pistol and fired in the air.
“Goddamnit, fellers!” Jack shouted to the shocked and now silent assembly. “No secret, San Antone is in Mexican hands again. I got to take full responsibility for the mess. Ain’t no excuse I can give. That Frenchie piss-ant General Woll, the fuckin’ midget just outfoxed me.”
Laughter erupted. Were the men chuckling and guffawing because of what he’d called the commandante? Maybe. But he was no taller than the French General, which was likely the real reason for all the chuckles.
“Awright. Dammit, y’all,” Jack yelled. “Go on. I know I’m short. Point is, Woll snuck his whole bunch through the hills and into town overnight, right past our scouts. Before we knew it, he’d kilt off the sentries. Slit the boys’ goddamn throats and run us plum out of San Antone.”
As good as he was, Jack had not been prepared for Woll’s Mexicans. Hell, he hadn’t even been awake that night. And where the hell had Flacco and Red Wing been? What about the poor Ranger sentries, their throats slit from behind? What a mess. Even now, Jack wasn’t sure how Woll’s attack had succeeded and how he’d come to escape. A full division of Santa Anna’s army currently occupied the second largest hamlet in the Republic, so Jack and his Rangers were duty bound to do something.
“We got to get organized, pronto. Got to have a plan,” Jack announced. “What we need, and what I’m looking for in this bunch is a leader. Somebody that’s got a new idea. By God, that ain’t me this time, boys. Anybody else? C’mon, men. Mexicans are slick, but they ain’t perfect.”
Jack pulled his cap off and looked into the crowd. Captain Matthew Caldwell, the tall, gaunt veteran of Mexican and Indian firefights, squatted on his haunches in the rear and drew something in the dirt with a stick. Jack waved to him.
“Ol’ Paint,” Jack used Caldwell’s familiar nickname. “Will you lead us? I know you can do it, if you will. Hell, you can even be ‘Colonel’ Caldwell. I’ll sure as shit follow you.”
A few restless murmurs and shuffling of feet greeted Matthew Caldwell as he stood up. The grizzled Ranger had a reputation as one helluva fighter. The man scratched at his chin whiskers, then stared unblinking at Jack. He waved the stick in Jack’s direction and walked with long, slow strides to the front. He motioned Jack to step off the wooden crate and move to the side. Caldwell’s splotchy face and hands did look like old, sun-blistered paint now that the fellow was up close. Caldwell drew his Colt pistol and climbed onto the box where Jack had stood.
“Cap’n Jack, Gents,” Caldwell bellowed, waving his pistol. “Me and my Colt here, we’d be interested in the job. And by God, I’ll accept the brevet colonelship, too. Jack, if you and the rest of the boys here will have me, I’m your man.”
Cheers and shouting erupted. Rifles and sabers punched the air. Caldwell waved his hat for quiet. Jack smiled. Bad as the situation in San Antone was, maybe his Rangers and these men would kick the Mexicans out after all. Only thing left was figuring out how this new Ranger Colonel proposed to get rid of Woll and his regiment.
“Awright men, ‘preciate the confidence. As it happens, I got a plan that oughta work.” The new Colonel looked down at him. “Captain Jack, you’ll have God’s redemption for bein’ run outta San Antone, and the Mexicans’ll get their comeuppance. Guaranteed.”

Sunup the next morning, Jack led his Ranger company south and out of Seguin. Three hours later, he halted the unit on the flat open plain barely a mile east of San Antonio and pointed to Bigfoot Wallace and Bob Gillespie, setting the ambush in motion. Jack smiled as the two dismounted and their two squads followed.
Wallace’s jaw and face were set in a permanent frown. Leaving San Antone in a flurry, he’d left his leather trousers and more to the Mexicans and was clad only in his leather hat, vest and long johns. Bigfoot had not only lost a brother and a cousin at Goliad, now the Mexicans had taken his identity. The huge Virginia boy had to even the score. Revenge was a valuable motivator.
Bob Gillespie, the more cheerful of the pair, followed Bigfoot’s squad with his men. The two Ranger squads disappeared into the bush on foot, the lot of them hauling weapons and leading their ponies. Hays motioned the men to spread out in the mesquite and rocks near the base of a long, low hill. They faced the red roofs of San Antonio in the distance.
Jack needed to put one more piece of the ambush in place. He searched the remaining two squads and saw no fear on any faces. Some of these troops were about to help him bait the trap. The only thing left to wonder was whether or not they’d live to see the sunset.
“Hank McCulloch,” Jack turned and addressed one of his newer recruits, “You damned Rutherford County flatlander, get with Sam Walker. You two pick four or five more men that ain’t afraid to die and come with me. Rest of you boys head on east to the creek and tell Ol’ Paint we’re set.”

Barely two hours after he’d set up the ambush site, Jack Hays, a field cap pulled low over his eyes, led seven dusty riders off the cattle trail and onto a cobblestoned street in San Antonio. This time, two Colt pistols were holstered on Jack’s leather-clad thighs. A repeater rifle was nestled in a saddle holster near his right leg, and loaded pistol cylinders filled his pommel bag. The other seven men – McCulloch, Walker and Creed Taylor, plus four more of the best riders in the Ranger company – followed in single file.
The men wore all manner of shirts, frayed jackets, dusty trousers, pantaloons and leather. No need to look official and tip off the enemy that his Rangers were coming. Most important, every man with Jack had at least two pistols, a rifle, a saber or musket, a couple knives, and all the munitions they could carry. He’d ordered them to bring little food, only one canteen of water, and no more than a single-blanket bed roll. He didn’t plan to be in San Antone long.
Hays and his boys reined up when they were close to Mission Plaza in front of the Alamo. Almost nobody, at least no civilians, were on the streets. Why? Not siesta yet. The plaza was vacant, except for a company of maybe sixty or seventy Mexican dragoons close order drilling a hundred yards away. The enemy infantry unit moved in unison and appeared impressive in their navy blue shakos and tunics with white crossed belts. Their shiny boots thumped on the cobblestones. Muskets were right-shouldered. Bayonets in scabbards slapped red-striped legs in rhythm with their steps. Their lieutenant, or whatever he was, halted the unit when he spied Jack and his nondescript band.
“Hey, Pendejo,” Hays shouted and waved his cap. “Aiee. Hey, Pedro, Juan, muchachos. Pendejos. Usted tienen nada cojones.” His Spanish was bad. Jack had tried to say they were little-dicked boys with no balls. Anyway, damned Mexicanos, they understood the insults.
Jack waited for a reaction. At first, stunned silence. Then, without command or direction, the dragoons made a disciplined move. The front rank un-shouldered muskets, knelt as one, cocked and took aim. Quicker, though, went the withering fire from Hays’ pistol and seven more Paterson Colt revolvers that cut down the first kneeling row of Mexicans, then most of the second rank - still standing and cocking their weapons. Not a shot gotten off by the Mexicans.
Muskets clattered on the cobblestones. Red-feathered shakos flew off dark, bearded heads. Blue jackets scattered in all directions. Eleven dragoons lay dead. Another writhed in agony from a gut wound. Down and unarmed, no Ranger shot the man. Nor did Jack’s boys fire at the backs of the fleeing troops. He had bigger problems. A thundering racket had erupted to his rear.
Jack Hays glanced over his shoulder, then motioned his squad to fan out. Hank McCulloch, the last rider in the spreading formation, wheeled his mount. Hundreds of horses’ hooves pounded the cobblestone street. A flying column of cavalry, more than two hundred mounted dragoons, less than a quarter-mile away. They closed on Jack and his men in a heavy cloud of dust and debris. The navy blue tunics of the cavalry formed a solid background for the glint of twirling sabers and cutlasses. Scattered musket shots rang out from the front of the column. McCulloch fired down the narrow street. Fired again.
Hank’s second shot dropped the lead rider and his mount. Trailing horsemen flew headlong over the tumbling pair. Jack smiled and kneed his pony around. That had bought him some time. He galloped east, down a side street at right angles to the attack. His squad rode close behind. Jack rode as hard as he could for the edge of town, needing more distance between him and the much larger body of Mexican cavalry before they had a chance to recover. He had to outrun these dragoons and lead them into the ambush. Then again, this bunch of Mexican cavalry might be too big for the trap he’d set. Time would tell.

Jack kicked his pony in the sides and rode, head down, hugging the animal’s neck. He glanced back. Less than a half-mile behind his patrol, at least four hundred Mexican horsemen were now coming fast on the open plain. Damn, way too many for the rest of his company to ambush just ahead. He needed a new plan. Two minutes later, Jack thundered into the middle of his Rangers’ hiding place.
“Mount up, mount up!” Jack shouted. “Whole damned regiment was waitin’ on us. Get going. Too many to fight here. Get going. Now! We’ll fight ’em at the creek.”
Jack’s pony jostled him through the thick brush. How far was Salado Creek? Maybe five miles through knee-high prairie grass. Could Jack get his Rangers to Caldwell’s main force at the creek before the Mexicans caught them? Jack flailed at his mount with the reins, then looked back. Everybody had made their way out of the ambush site and closed ranks, galloping hard behind him. His lead over the Mexicans was still half-a-mile. Musket shots came from the bastards and plunked out of range into the dirt.
A quarter of an hour passed, Jack riding like there was no tomorrow. Random musket rounds hissed over his head. One or two pinged the dirt beside his pony. Four miles under his belt and Jack’s boys were still with him. But damn it, so were the Mexicans. And they were gaining.
Jack felt his mount slow, getting winded. Mexicans’ horses had to be feeling the chase, too. How could they still be closing in? He and his Rangers had another mile to go. Jack untied his bedroll and let it fly behind him, then tossed his canteen. Had to lighten the load. Jack looked over his shoulder. The boys followed his lead. Most of their tied-down gear wasn’t needed for the fight to come. All was thrown backward through clouds of dust.
Still, the Mexicanos kept coming. The lead Mexican unit was about to outflank him on the right side. Flintlock and musket rounds hummed across Jack’s path, too close for comfort. He waved Hank McCulloch and Creed Taylor out to the right for a moving screen between the enemy and his main body.
Hanging side saddle, McCulloch and Taylor took on the damned Mexicans pretty well. Their Colt’s cracked and echoed in the distance. One Mexican fell, then two more. Jack counted the rounds and the bodies as he led the rest of the company closer to the creek and relative safety. By the time he was within a hundred yards of Caldwell’s front line along the creek bed, McCulloch and Taylor had toppled at least seven of Woll’s Finest without a scratch themselves.
Jack pulled back hard on his exhausted pony’s reins and swung out of his saddle in a running dismount. He slid down through a crevasse in the steep banks of Salado Creek leading his mount. His Rangers followed, dragging their horses into the cover of the creek bed. Jack grabbed his pommel bag and repeater rifle, then slapped the pony away. He squatted low but raised two fingers on one hand to signal Colonel Caldwell he was in position.
Jack pressed his body against the creek bank and peered over the edge. The Mexican cavalry drew up and came on line more than a hundred yards away. A long wave of dust rose from their precision maneuver and drifted toward him. Despite the thick cloud he could make out a solid wall of Mexican troops in an orderly dismount. Woll’s cavalry, close to four hundred men, would attack as infantry. Jack grinned and double-cocked both pistols.
Arrogant Mexican shits. They had no idea what was waiting in that creek. Jack’s ambush on the prairie hadn’t worked, so now he’d kill them from the creek bed. Jack took aim and pulled both triggers. His Rangers, along with Caldwell’s men, opened fire almost in unison. Thunderous salvos from Colt repeaters and rifles dropped almost a quarter of the attackers. The rest, though, maintained their disciplined march toward Jack’s position. All Jack had to do was stay put and wait. Just a little closer, you Mexican boys. Hope some of you were at the Alamo or Goliad. This’ll be payback.
Scattered musket rounds came at him. One plinked dirt into Jack’s eye as he aimed. He blinked to clear his vision, then fired his five shots and reloaded. Fired more. Ponies whinnied and rustled somewhere in one of the ravines to the rear. More incoming musket rounds zipped and hissed overhead, but not organized fire. Colt repeater fire chattered from the men on both sides of Jack. General Woll’s dragoons faltered and became navy blue heaps streaked and soaked with red. Moans and cries came from bodies strewn across the field of fire.
One of Ol’ Paint’s boys grabbed his throat and fell a few yards up the creek from Jack, blood spewing through his hands. The first Ranger to fall, as far as Jack could tell. He shook his head, then felt in his pommel bag for more Colt cylinders. A Mexican bugler sounded “Retreat.” Already? Damn, now that was a good sign.

A long stillness came with that bugle call. Jack passed the word up and down his Ranger line to let the Mexicans retrieve their dead and wounded. Must’ve been over two hundred in all. Hard to believe he and Caldwell’s men had only the one casualty so far. Could be more up the creek, though.
The damn Mexicans. Did they know how many Rangers were with him, or how many munitions he had? Jack was pretty sure his boys hadn’t used more than a third of their supplies in that first assault. Mexicans couldn’t cross the creek anywhere nearby. So, for now, he was protected from the rear, but he needed to put men in the big bend of the creek to the north, pronto. Didn’t want surprises from the flank. Jack turned and motioned to Bigfoot, Flacco and three others to head up the creek, north. Ol’ Paint strode past him behind the line, Caldwell’s skin all blotchy and ghost-like.
“Men,” Colonel Caldwell shouted. “We cain’t ever surrender. And make no mistake, we can whip ’em just like we did at San Jacinto.”
Had the Colonel been at San Jacinto? Maybe some of these other men, too? Didn’t matter none now. This was gonna be one helluva fight. Could be bigger than San Jacinto before things were done.
“Don’t waste no shots!” Caldwell bellowed, turning left and right. “You see the whites of their eyes, shoot right between ’em.” Caldwell pointed his pistol toward the Mexican lines. “And if you can shoot General Woll, do it! One that kills that sonofabitch, Gen’ral Houston’ll pin a medal on him hisself.”
That little Frenchie shit could hear Ol’ Paint, for sure. Woll had to wonder just why Jack and the rest of the Rangers had picked this god-forsaken creek as the place to challenge his Mexican army. He’d know soon enough. Double lines of hundreds of mounted dragoons were forming less than two hundred yards away. Jack cupped a hand to one ear, trying to make out General Woll’s orders.
“My comrades.” the little general’s voice carried well across the flat plain. “For this charge at the rascal Texans, I will lead you personally!” The General drew his saber and waved it to his horsemen. “There is nothing to fear from these creek rats and their puny weapons!”
Jack glanced down at his Colts and the repeater rifle leaning against the creek bank. He eyed the sweaty faces of Rangers with their mouths drawn into thin, determined lines. The General was a slow learner.
“We will massacre them where they hide,” The general stretched in his saddle and turned side-to-side, “We leave none standing! No one alive to tell how they perished. My comrades, give them no quarter. Death to all!”
Jack breathed deep and steadied his nerves. He took aim and full-cocked his first pistol. Two hundred hammers on Paterson Colts and rifles snapped. Metal-on-metal echoed up and down the creek bed. The long blue-and-white line of Mexican cavalry formed up, stirring a storm of dust, set to charge.
“Steady in them ranks, fellas,” Colonel Caldwell shouted, running up and down the creek bed. “Front row, ready to fire your five on Cap’n Hays’ first shot, then step back. Reload while the second rank fires. Stay covered. Make all yore shots count.”
Cannons rumbled somewhere behind the line of Mexican cavalry. Whistling rattles of incoming artillery passed over Jack’s head. He hugged the creek bank. The ground under Jack vibrated from the impact. Dirt, bits of shale and sand peppered into the creek behind Jack. The first volley had landed well to the east, behind the Ranger lines. The second volley would land short if the Mexican gunners were any good. Trained artillerymen knew how to bracket their target.
Cannons thundered in the distance again. Jack covered his head and pressed his face against the bank. The grapeshot rounds exploded short, between him and the Mexican horsemen. Dirt and pebbles sprayed into Jack’s position. Four or five Mexican horses reared and dumped their dragoons onto the hardpan.
General Woll steadied his cavalry when a third volley of cannon fire rumbled overhead and exploded in the pecan trees above Jack. Leaves, twigs and lead pellets showered down on the Ranger ranks. Jack glanced around. Still nobody hurt. Kind of gentle, like a spring rain. Not bad shooting, assholes, but grapeshot won’t do much damage in that hardwood canopy. Gonna need heavier stuff than that, Generale.
General Adrián Woll raised his saber, pointed at the center of the Texan lines, and kicked his horse. Damn, here they came, the cavalry charge. In seconds, the creek bank in front of Jack shook from the force of almost two thousand hooves. He held his fire. The Mexicans needed to be closer. More cannon balls whistled and rattled overhead, landing past the creek now, just as the first salvo had done. Guess the Mexicans didn’t want to cut down their own cavalry.
Finally, Jack aimed and fired his Colt, saw one Mexican fall. Sharp, lightning-like cracks and rumbles rippled from the creek bank and all along the Texan line. A screen of blue-gray smoke stretched almost two hundred yards. Jack kept firing. The second, third and fourth volleys echoed from other Paterson Colts. More than a thousand rounds ripped into the charging cavalry, now less than a hundred yards away.
Wounded and dying dragoons and their horses stumbled. Mexicans vaulted over falling mounts and pounded into the dirt. Shakos flew into the air and randomly bounced, one rolling over the creek bank into Jack’s lap as he was reloading. Jack swiped the fancy headpiece away.
A riderless horse skidded down the creek bank to his right and struggled up the far side, blood streaming from its neck. Didn’t matter how many Mexicans died, their goddamned horses, neither. The ornery, useless bastards had it coming.
Jack looked left, then right. Every Ranger was keeping up the fight. Nobody else hit yet that he could see. Wonder why the Mexicans’ artillery had stopped? When was their cavalry gonna break off the attack? Where the hell was that little shit, Woll? Still a lot of infantry out there waiting. Maybe somebody was still coming down the creek, too.
Remnants of the cavalry charge drew up just yards from the creek bank. No sign of General Woll. Had he had enough? Maybe dead? Screams, curses and orders shouted in Spanish followed. Moans of the many wounded and dying, whinnies of panicked horses in distress, all mixed with scattered shots from the Rangers’ repeaters. Then…there he was. Woll on a black horse, that sonofabitch. His leg was bloody. Must’ve had the first horse shot out from under him. Tough bastard. Hard to kill.

Woll waved his sword to regroup his scattered cavalry for another charge. The Mexican commander pranced past his remaining mounted dragoons and motioned his infantry to move up. A bugle sounded behind the Mexican lines. Jack needed a clear shot at the General, but he couldn’t manage one. Maybe Bigfoot could.
Jack grabbed his pommel bag and dashed up the creek to look for his company sniper. A salvo of grapeshot exploded in a grove of pecan trees on the east side, well beyond the Ranger lines. Jack ducked and kept running. Must be the next attack. Damned bugle blasted again. Jack glanced left over the creek bank.
Mexican infantry – almost a thousand of them in two wavy lines – had begun their advance toward the creek with General Woll riding in their midst. The endless waves surged forward, firing, kneeling and reloading by row as they came. Jack found Bigfoot just as the giant took aim at somebody. Unfortunately, not General Woll. Dammit. This time his sniper had shouldered his single-shot Jaeger and not the repeater rifle.
Jack tried to redirect him to Woll. Too late. Bigfoot fired. The shot hit and mushroomed the head of a tall, lanky Mexican infantryman fifty yards out. The target slumped forward and fell on his musket. Bigfoot, clutching his empty rifle, shinnied up and over the creek bank. What the hell? Jack tried to grab the giant Ranger by the long johns. Missed him. Bigfoot ran for the Mexican he’d downed.
“Cover him, boys!” Jack bellowed loud as he could down the line. “Big feller’s goin’ for his pants.”
Jack fired both pistols and reloaded. Fired again. Bigfoot charged the enemy lines, weaving and dodging. Wounded Mexicans stumbled and fell. Others turned and retreated. Sam Walker, squatting beside Jack, cursed and threw one of his Paterson Colts into the creek and pulled a second weapon to keep firing. Guess Sam was going to suggest more damned improvements to the pistols, if he lived through all this, that is. Still didn’t look like many Texans were down anywhere. No more since that first one, as far as Jack could tell. He fired more to cover Bigfoot’s charge. God, his ears were ringing like Hell’s Bells.
What in blazes was going on out there? The huge boy’s massive head bobbed up and down in the tall prairie grass near the Mexican lines. Bigfoot was stark, raving mad. Jack took sharp aim with one pistol resting across his forearm and fired twice. This time, he dropped two dragoons close to the big fellow. Bigfoot jabbed and swung his rifle butt to fend off and club two more Mexicans coming at him hard with fixed bayonets. Knocked ’em ass-over-teakettle, he did. Never seen the likes of that.
The huge, quiet boy from Virginia arrived at the dead Mexican’s body. He laid the Jaeger rifle aside, bent and snatched off the dead man’s boots, then stripped a pair of leather leggings from the body. Jack laid down more cover fire from his second pistol. Bigfoot waved the trousers high and let loose a chilling, bloody scream. He’d got his pants and his dignity back. Now the madman snatched up his rifle and raced back in a straight, headlong line toward Jack. Bigfoot tumbled over the edge and into the shallow water beside him, leather leggings in one hand and laughing like a schoolboy. Not a damn scratch to see on his huge body.
No time for a breather yet. Jack looked past the big Virginian still hooting and wallowing in the creek to his right. Colonel Caldwell was standing straight, pointing up the creek bed. Mexicans, no uniforms – irregulars – and Indians behind ’em. Not Comanche, neither. Cherokee. Comanche wouldn’t be caught dead helping Mexicans. And further back, looked like more, twenty or thirty banditos.
“That’s Cardova!” Caldwell screamed, “Kill that bastard! Now! Shoot!”
So Ol’ Paint knew the man in the lead? Willis Randall, one of Caldwell’s boys, obliged. He fired his rifle in shadow right through tree limbs, a shot under the eye of the leader from forty yards. One side of the man’s face disappeared. Brains and blood spattered the three Cherokee behind him. Wasn’t much left of the head, but Mr. Cardova wasn’t hurtin’. And Ol’ Paint had to be pleased.
The Cherokee and some of the Mexicanos further back in the creek raised up to see what had happened. Jack cocked, aimed and fired. Then more. He emptied both Colts in their direction. More fire came from Rangers in the creek bed. Rounds thumped into heads and chests. Blood and skin bits sprayed and fell, screams and tumbling bodies. The remnants of the party turned tail up the creek and disappeared ’round the bend.

Things got real quiet again. Jack could make out a few mumbles in Spanish through the ringing in his ears. More moans and cries from the prairie. Mexicans rounded up their dead and wounded. Then silence. Nothing more. A hot stillness came like those summer evenings on the Hermitage veranda back in Nashville.
Jack eased the hammers on his Colts to half-cock and leaned against the creek bank. His shirt was soaked through to the waist under his open duster. Sweat, nothing but cold sweat. And by God, Jack’s knees were rubbery. Might still be warm in Texas in September, but he couldn’t stop shaking. He drew the duster tight around himself and slumped down.
Just before twilight, a bugle blew, light and lively. Not a call Jack had ever heard. He pushed his black cap bill up with his pistol muzzle and eased up to see over the berm. He squinted through the setting sun across the plain. General Woll was still stomping around on that big, black goddamn horse. El Commandante pointed his saber west, toward San Antone.
Woll’s division formed up in two straggling columns. Makeshift travois loaded with wounded and dead were dragged behind mounted cavalry. Towed cannons and stumbling infantry brought up the rear. Clouds of dust rose skyward and blew toward Jack as the Mexicans headed away from Salado Creek. Colonel Caldwell eased closer and squatted beside him.
“In case you was wonderin’, Cap’n Hays,” Colonel Caldwell smiled, thin lipped, “Them Mexicanos, they was blowin’ the victory call.” Caldwell smirked. Spit a dirty chew in the dirt. “Fuckin’ Woll’s sayin’ he won.”
Jack snorted, then burst out loud laughing. He couldn’t stop laughing. After that, the tears came. Couldn’t stop them, either.

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