Ashes on His Boot

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We the Living - San Antonio - December 1842

Three months later, Jack Hays sat in the Menger’s new beer hall alone near closing time, sipping his third whiskey. He’d bought Sam Walker a beer and a couple of shots after supper and listened to Sam piss and moan about Sam Houston’s safe passage order for General Woll after Salado Creek. General Sam didn’t like Mexicans any more than Jack did. So why the hell had he done that? The General hadn’t even asked for Jack’s opinion.

Jack took another sip and eyed Lilly, the good-looking new whore. She’d come from somewhere back East a few weeks ago, smiled at everybody with her full, red lips. Her olive skin, coal black hair and big, dark eyes reminded him of Emily West. He wasn’t buying Lilly a drink tonight, though. Didn’t seem right, what with Susan in his life now. Jack paid his tab to the barkeep, nodded to Lilly, then pushed the beer hall’s double oak doors open. Outside, less than twenty quick steps brought him to the half-mile path back to the barracks and his officer’s quarters.
His breath made cloud after cloud in the damp December moonlight. Jack had walked this way God only knew how many times since he’d come from Tennessee years ago. Something was different tonight, though. Maybe Jack was just tired. Needed sleep. Or maybe he should’ve stayed back at the Menger and bought a glass of champagne for Lilly. Just talked some.
He rounded the corner near the blacksmith’s stables. A loud thump and blinding pain struck his temple. Then nothing. Blackness.

Cold water hit Jack hard in the face. Choked him. He shook his head. Oh God, what a headache right over the ear. What had done that? And now something really bad was goin’ on with Jack’s neck. He couldn’t reach up, though, because…. Who? What in flaming hell? His hands were bound up behind his back.
“Well, look who jes’ woke up in my ol’ varmit trap.” A familiar voice rasped. “This time I done caught me a real Tennessee shitkicker.” Grit and gravel in the throat, somebody from years back? “So, Ranger Jack. Clever, clever you might be. But not so smart as a drifter like me.”
Goddamn rhymes now? Who? What the devil? Ow…. Wire, or something like wire, bit into Jack’s adams apple and neck. A terrible, choking tightness. Blackness. No air. Then nothingness again.
Cold. Wet. Was that water in Jack’s face? He licked at his lips, then the rasping, hacking coughs came. His coughs. God, Jack’s throat was killing him. What hell on God’s earth had he fallen into? Not a bear trap. Maybe a Comanche snare? Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t swallow.
Oh Christ, scraggly face hair and sour breath, up real close. The beard obscured a vaguely familiar ugly face on a scrawny body. One of the hands was fiddling with something around Jack’s neck. A noose? Garotte, maybe? Stinking whiskey breath, hot and heavy. Shit, how had he gotten into this mess? Oh God, how to get out?
“Tojo, Theodore.” Jack rasped. “Tojo Iverson, that you?”
Jack half-remembered the face now through the fog in his head. He’d spit out the name. Hard to see, but had to be the sonofabitch Flacco had caught sleeping on guard years back.
“Tojo.” Jack squirmed. “Get this goddamn thing off my neck. Unhitch me. That’s…” He struggled to get the words out. “An order.”
Jack tried to cough again, but Iverson forced a bandana into his half-open mouth. Cold steel, the muzzle of a pistol, jammed against Hays’ throbbing temple. The hammer clicked, half-cocked. Iverson pulled the metal away and showed Jack the muzzle of his own Paterson Colt. His attacker thumbed and full-cocked the hammer.
“Keep your claptrap shut,” Iverson muttered. “Those was your last words, you snivelin’ lil asshole.” Iverson smirked. “Ranger Cap’n though you be, you jes’ a speck o’ shit to me.”
Iverson smiled more at his own bad, childish rhyme. He twisted on the neck wire with his left hand. Jack’s temples pounded. Couldn’t fight back if this went on much longer. Needed to get a grip on something to whack Iverson with. But what? How? More tightness around the neck.
“Captain Jack’s gonna die tonight.” Iverson jammed the Colt barrel hard under Hays’ chin. “He cain’t scream none. Too tired to fight.” Tojo was raving mad and let out high, squeaky whinnies. “Hee hee hee….”
A soft, whirring buzz ended in a dull thud that interrupted Iverson’s crazed laughter and transformed his giggles into gurgles. The feathered shaft had embedded partway into his skull, jutting straight out from Iverson’s left ear. Jack’s pistol fell from his tormentor’s hand. The cocked weapon bounced on the ground, discharged, and sent one round crackling across the wet trail into the night’s blackness. Iverson’s other hand eased off and slipped from the wooden turnstock at Jack’s neck.
His assailant, still squatting in the darkness, faced Jack with wide, unseeing eyes. The lunatic smile faded. Then Iverson’s body toppled sideways into the mud beside him.
Flacco sauntered over and leaned down to snatch the gag from Jack’s mouth. The Apache scout fumbled to loosen the turnstock under his captain’s ear. Hays sputtered and hacked. Holy shit, good to see Flacco, but where’d he come from? Thought he was already gone south trading for new ponies. Jack had to get that cutting wire off his neck and get the damned ropes off his wrists. He kicked, coughed, squirmed and grunted.
“Dammit! Goddamnit, Chief,” Jack mumbled, hacking and spitting saliva and blood. “How’d you get here? I thought you was gone.” Jack coughed again. “You sure took your time. You…you almost let the bastard kill me!”
Jack wiggled more to loosen the rope that bound his hands. His sock feet flailed at the damp grass and mud. Horses stirred and whinnied somewhere in the corral behind the blacksmith shop.
“Captain Jack,” Flacco whispered, “you must be quiet. Rest some. You good safe now. Nobody but Flacco here.”
Flacco glanced around while he loosened the wire on Hays’ neck more, then he cut the ropes on his hands. Jack tried to stand. Flacco put one hand on his shoulder and pushed him down.
The Lipan scout handed Jack a canteen. “Captain Jack sit. Drink water now. I find boots.”
Jack sat on one leg with the other outstretched and rubbed his damaged neck. Dawn slowly hinted pink in the distance. Jack straightened and took the boots Flacco had retrieved. He pulled them on with hands still raw and numb from the rope. The cap could wait till his head cleared. Jack sipped water. Hard to swallow. Hurt bad.
“Captain Jack.” Flacco broke the dawn’s quiet. “That cap be good for sun, maybe rain, but not save head.” The Indian waved Iverson’s heavy club. “You very lucky I not be gone south already, or not with one-hour wife this night.” Flacco gazed at Jack, smiling. “If so, now you be with ancestors in Spirit World.”
Hays let out a laugh, or more of a rattling snort. He shook his cloudy head and stared over at the crumpled body of Theodore Iverson. The man who’d almost killed him lay as if only sleeping, except for that killing arrow in his ear and the pool of blood under his head.
“Got to hand it to you Apache folks,” Jack said, finally able to talk. “That there puts a whole new meanin’ to the word ‘earshot’.”
Flacco nodded without smiling, then stood and drew his long knife. The Indian straddled Iverson’s body and broke off the feathered shaft that jutted from his skull. Jack grimaced. He knew the rest. Still, the ritual turned his stomach. Flacco grasped a handful of hair and sliced away a saucer-size piece of scalp. He attached the bloody trophy to his belt. Flacco then snatched Iverson’s corpse by the boots and, without farewell, dragged the body around the corner of the blacksmith shop and out of sight.
Jack would see Flacco in a week or so when the scout finished his pony trading down south. He owed his Apache scout his life, yet had no proper way to thank him. But by all that was holy, Jack was grateful.
Still shaky, Jack stood and leaned against the fence post. He bent his knees and moved his stiff, pained legs. The December air smelled fresh, cold and crisp. Good to be alive. But he had to be a lot more careful from now on.

Two weeks later, Jack felt good enough to be back at work. The cuts on his neck hadn’t healed, and he had aches everywhere. He sat in the softest chair he could find around Ranger headquarters to read his mail and reports. A letter from Susan caught his eye.
One week now till Christmas, and Susan had been back in Texas since early November. Her letter promised that she’d come see him in January if Jack hadn’t recovered enough to ride over to Seguin for Christmas dinner. No matter, he could do that ride in his sleep, even with his lingering injuries. He was glad Judge and Missus Calvert were back home and not still stuck in Austin, hiding from the Mexicans. Finding presents for the Calvert family though filled Jack with a sense of dread. What should he buy? And more importantly, where?
And speaking of where, where the hell was Chief Flacco? The Apache scout and two of Jack’s old hands – Rusty Stimson and the Mexican, Jaime Esteban – had left for Laredo and La Vaca to trade for ponies right after the Iverson ordeal. A long ride, for sure, but they should’ve been back by now.
The door bolted open and banged against the wall. Jack jumped and grabbed for his pistol. A wild-eyed Red Wing stood in the doorway. What the hell could spook the Indian that much? He motioned to Jack.
“Captain Jack. You come quick,” Red Wing beckoned. “I think Flacco back. Maybe Rusty-man and Esteban, too. They be in wagon.”
“Wagon?” Jack blurted. He stood up and holstered his weapon, “Red Wing, what do you mean, wagon? They went for ponies. We don’t need no more goddamn wagons. Besides, bustin’ in here like that…. Hell, I almost shot you.”
Jack limped toward the door. Didn’t sound good. Never seen Red Wing so upset. He followed the young Apache out into the morning sunlight. A local rancher sat on the wagon seat, head bowed, reins in his hands. Oh God, this was bad. Maybe worse than bad. Rangers were gathered around the wagon bed, hats and caps off.
Jack pushed through the group, took off his cap and rested stiff arms on the slatted side of the wagon. Ranger Captain Jack Hays already knew what he’d see, but he didn’t want to look. Three blanket-wrapped forms were laid out, side-by-side. Sam Walker climbed into the wagon and sat down next to the rancher. He reached back over the seat and peeled away one of the blankets.
Flacco’s throat had been slit halfway through. Part of his cheek was gone. Probably buzzards. But God Almighty, the scalp was still there. Cherokee would’ve taken the scalp. Wasn’t Comanche either. Comanche would have scalped him first, then hung him by his heels in a tree. Gutted him like a deer and let him bleed out. Comanche didn’t like Indians scoutin’ for the Rangers.
Walker stood, climbed over the seat and straddled the other two corpses in the wagon bed. He uncovered Esteban, then Stimson. Like Flacco, their throats had been slit. Esteban’s wound was the worst. Slashed through to the neck bones. His head was nearly sheared from the shoulders. But the boys still had their scalps.
Horse thieves? Had to be horse thieves. But who? The smell of death stuck in Jack’s nose. Three good men gone, and for what. Nothing but a bunch of horses? Jack threw his cap in the dirt. He shook his bowed head.
Horse thieves would’ve just shot ’em where they slept. So who the hell would’ve gone through the trouble of butchering these boys like this?
“How the hell these boys let this happen?” Jack muttered at the dirt. “Who could’a done this?” He raised his head and looked around. “Whoever the fuck done this deed, they’ll damn sure pay.”
“Found all three tied up together under that big pe-can tree out by San Pedro Springs,” the rancher looked down from the wagon at Jack. “Dead as door nails and bled out, they was. No guns. Nothin’ but the clothes on their backs. Lots of horse tracks around. Flock of buzzards peckin’ away at these poor boys. Had to take a scatter gun to run ’em off.”
Jack choked back rage. “You see anybody else? Any idea who done this? Reckon it wasn’t Comanche nor Cherokee. Men still got their scalps.”
“Cain’t says I did, Cap’n,” the wagon driver responded. “But had to be done least a couple days past. Bodies was stinkin’ up already when I found ’em.”
What in God’s name would he tell Sam Houston? What could General Sam say to Flacco’s father? After all, Houston was the one who’d talked the old Lipan Chief into letting his son work for the Texas Rangers all those years ago.
Jack would have to write sympathy letters to Esteban’s brother and Stimson’s wife. He’d make sure the boys got buried proper. He and Red Wing would take Flacco home to his village. God, the Iverson thing flooded back. Flacco had saved his life, but Jack hadn’t been there for him. Bunch of murderin’ assholes.
And now, one more problem. Somebody, for sure, had three of his Paterson Colts. Dammit. Would he come up against his own guns again somewhere?

Christmas Eve morning. The year 1842 had been real bad, the worst for Jack. He led the pony carrying Flacco’s blanket-wrapped corpse into the Lipan Apache village twenty miles east of San Antonio. Red Wing, his face painted into a white mask, rode to the rear. An old somber Apache waiting at the edge of the village raised his open right hand in greeting. Jack waved his in return. He’d never met Flacco’s father, but from Red Wing’s earlier description and the man’s sad face, Flacco the Elder was the one welcoming him.
The Chief wore fringed, deerskin trousers and a long, belted vest that was trimmed in white beads. Black and white paint lined his leathery cheeks and chin. Not peace paint, and not a marker of grief, either. War paint. But who would this old man make war on? Just a way of showing anger, maybe. Fathers should not outlive their sons. Not ever.
The graying hair trailing down Flacco the Elder’s back was plaited with black-and-white ribbons. Women with colorful blankets and trinkets stood behind their Chief. Black-haired Apache braves with their faces painted white and dressed in fringed deerskin breeches and vests lined the path into the village.
Jack and Red Wing dismounted. Jack took off his sea cap and nodded to Flacco the Elder. He said nothing and held out the pony’s reins. The Chief took them, then rested one trembling, leathery hand on Jack’s shoulder. Silence.
Red Wing would stay and attend the burial ritual. Jack would not. The young scout Flacco’s time with him was done. The Apache warrior had done his duty for Jack Hays and the Texas Rangers. Now he’d come home to rest.
Jack put his cap on and stepped to his pony. He grabbed the leather horn and pulled himself into the saddle. Once astride, he reached one hand inside his duster and found the thin pouch from Sam Houston. He handed the packet down to Flacco the Elder. Jack had no idea what General Sam had put in there, but where relations with Indians were concerned, the General was always damned good.

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, Jack rode up to the Calvert’s house in Seguin. Susan waved to him from the veranda and smiled. He had looked forward to Christmas with Susan for half the year. Hadn’t seen her since late May. Now, dammit all, Jack just wanted to be alone. Not here, smiling and giving out gifts, talking polite and all with Susan and her family. Flacco was dead. Esteban and Stimson, too. He needed time alone to think. How to settle the score, and with whom.

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