Ashes on His Boot

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Walker’s Creek - June 1844

More than a year had passed since Flacco’s murder at the hands of some gutless sons-of-bitches. Jack’s rage didn’t boil up every day, but the anger was always there. His silent companion.

He stood in the afternoon shade of an old, twisted live oak tree on the bank of Walker’s Creek. Red Wing was due back any time now. The Apache scout had better have news about the renegade band of Comanche Jack knew to be around. A good scout, that Red Wing. Loyal, too. But the Apache just wasn’t the same as the man he’d replaced. Jack missed Flacco’s straight talk. Missed his humor. Nobody was ever going to fill that Indian’s moccasins.
Whoever the hell had killed Flacco, they were still out there, and one day, Jack would get even with them. But for now, he was after the Comanche who’d raided settlements north of San Antonio last month. They’d killed off the men and older boys, carried off women and children, and they’d taken a lot of livestock. Word was, Yellow Wolf had done the deed. Needed to prove himself to Buffalo Hump after the Bandera Pass licking Jack had given him.
Jack had brought only Ben McCulloch, Ad Gillespie, Sam Walker and eleven others on this patrol. The toughest men in his unit, all heavily armed. He’d had them out a week already, tracking Yellow Wolf’s raiding party, maybe as many as a hundred warriors.
A week, ten days at the most, was all Jack could afford to be out of garrison, though. Texas was short on money. Patrols, range firing and most training had been cut back to the bare bones. Jack had heard the talk. Everybody had. The Republic might have to disband the Rangers one of these days.

Red Wing’s mid-afternoon report didn’t prove much. The scout had found pony dung along Walker’s Creek a little further north. Otherwise, no sign of any Comanche. Jack ordered his patrol into their saddles ready to ride back to San Antonio. The only Ranger not yet mounted was Adam Cherry, one of the newer boys. He’d spotted a beehive in an old oak tree, and Jack had given Cherry time to climb up and raid some honey.
“Captain!” the boy yelled out of the tree, pointing north along the creek. “Yonder be Comanche, I swear. They’s tailing us. Two or three of the bastards just run into the woods!”
Jack shouted, “Cherry, leave the goddamn honey! Shinny down and saddle up, boy.” He turned his mount to face the rest, “No need for quiet now, fellers. They know we’re here.”
Hays let out a deep, satisfied sigh, then moved his Rangers into the open. He rode in the center with seven men on each side in a well-spaced V formation. Jack drew his pistol and led the squad straight for the tree line where Cherry had pointed. Three bare-chested warriors dashed out, black and red war painted faces glistening in the sun. No weapons. They were the bait. The Comanche waved and shouted, then bolted back into the thicket. Jack drew the squad to a halt facing the woods and Walker’s Creek beyond. Not gonna fall for that crap, boys. Old Comanche trickery, for sure.
“Steady, men.” Jack ordered. “Ain’t gonna charge nor fire till we see how many we’re up against.”
Jack waited in the open, two hundred yards out from where he’d seen the Indians duck into the underbrush. Some minutes passed. Seemed longer in the sun and humidity. Then the trees and brush along the creek bank rustled. A mounted Comanche war party, at least fifty, maybe more, edged out into the open and formed one long battle line facing Jack and his Rangers. Their weapons were visible – muskets, bows and quivers filled with arrows – but none threatened. Dead quiet. Nobody moved. The afternoon heat pressed down.
“Bastard in the middle is Chief Yellow Wolf.” Jack nudged his pony’s sides. “Forward at a trot, men. Weapons at the ready.”
Jack jostled in his saddle as he trotted toward the war party. He drew his second pistol and half-cocked, guiding his pony with his knees. The squad followed Jack’s lead. Was anybody going to blink? He was barely sixty yards out when Yellow Wolf turned and motioned the war party back into the tree line. No fight today, Chief? Some cat and mouse? More Comanche bullshit.
Jack drew the squad to a halt. Time to watch and wait. He heard and saw nothing until he stretched in his saddle to peer at the far ridge-line. Comanche were moving to the crest on the other side of Walker’s Creek. They dismounted and formed one long line, this time with muskets and bows at the ready. The warriors gestured, waving weapons and yelling taunts. War whoops pierced the humid Texas air. Yellow Wolf beckoned with one arm, “come on over.” He was challenging Jack to come and get him, and from the front at that.
“Cain’t take ‘em on from here, men!” Jack shouted left and right, “Too many and too spread out. Got that creek between us, too.” He turned his pony north. “Let’s ease our way down the ravine along the creek and get some hill cover. See what we can come up with. Maybe they’ll think we’re leavin’.”
One arm in the air, Jack signaled his squad into single-file and led them past the brow of the surrounding hills, away from the taunting Comanche war party. After half an hour’s march, he halted his fourteen horsemen and picked his way up a low embankment onto the open plain. He should be well behind the Comanche by now. Cackles and whoops rose and fell several hundred yards away.
Jack nudged his pony forward so he could peek over the low rise ahead. The whole damned Comanche war party stood there with their bare backs to him. Hard to believe. Some still waved and shouted across the creek. Others leaned on their bows or muskets. One or two waved buffalo horn helmets in the air. Hays hand-signaled his squad to come up the hill behind him. He full-cocked both Colts, time to deal with Yellow Wolf.
He kicked his pony in the ribs with both heels and charged. No other command needed, Jack’s patrol dashed forward alongside him. He kneed his mount straight ahead and steadied the pistols’ aim. The closest Comanche braves turned to face his charge, drawing arrows and snapping them to bow strings in one fluid motion. Jack fired both Colts. Two Comanche slumped into the dirt, their arrows loosed high in slow arcs well over Jack’s head.
“Fire at will, men!” Jack Hays shouted as he rode on, firing. “Hit what you aim at. Kill ’em all!”
The pistol barrage crackled. Waves of lead thundered from bluish gray clouds on Jack’s left and right. More braves fell. The rest turned and ran, probably heading for their ponies in the trees near Walker’s Creek. Hays drew up and signaled the squad to regroup and get ready for a counter-attack, stand their ground.
As suddenly as they had vanished on foot, the Comanche reappeared on horseback. Twenty or more young warriors made a flanking move on the run and encircled Jack’s party. Riding counter-clockwise, the bronzed, bareback war party fired arrow after arrow into Jack’s formation. He countered, drew his Rangers tighter and signaled them into a circle where the ponies’ haunches touched. Jack and his boys fired at the circling Comanche warriors and reloaded. Fired more. Reloaded again. A few braves broke off their encirclement and charged toward one side of Jack’s formation, head on, moving to break his defenses.
Jack glanced toward Sam Walker, who’d been knocked from his saddle and thudded onto the rocky ground, his shoulder pierced by a through-shot arrow. Feathers showed to Sam’s front, and the bloody arrow point stuck out from his upper back. Walker’s pony had taken an arrow in the neck and buckled onto its forelegs. Two other Rangers fell close by.
Sam Walker struggled to his feet near some scrub brush, his body partly shielded by his fallen pony. He kept firing both his Colt pistols from beside his wounded mount near the encirclement. Sam was alive and still fighting. The other two hadn’t moved from where they’d fallen. An arrow hissed past Jack’s ear, jolting him back to business. He aimed and fired off more rounds.
A lot more Comanche than Rangers were down. The rocky ground was slick with blood. Screams, curses and animal-like grunts echoed off the hills. Comanche on foot swung war axes and clubs as they came at Jack and his boys, but none were a match for the repeater pistols. Lead-filled torsos were piling up.
Somebody needed to break the feathers off that arrow in Sam Walker’s shoulder and pull the goddamn shaft through once this was all over. Didn’t need to have Sam die of blood poisoning. But the Comanche weren’t done yet. Yellow Wolf and the rest of his gang charged again with a straight-up-the-gut move.
“Crowd ’em!” Jack shouted, kneeing his pony around. “Powder burn their red asses. Any of ’em left need to remember who they met at Walker’s Creek!”
Ad Gillespie dashed out of formation in front of Jack and rode at the young charging Comanche Chief. Yellow Wolf reined in his pony barely ten yards from Gillespie’s horseback lunge and hurled his lance. The steel-pointed shaft hit the galloping Ranger high up and tore through the boy’s leather vest and right shoulder as he thundered past the Indian.
Jack Hays drew up further off and stayed in his saddle. Not much he could do. Gillespie wheeled his pony around to face Yellow Wolf again. The Chief reached over one shoulder for an arrow. Ad Gillespie left-shouldered his rifle and, one-handed, shot his foe in the throat. Blood spattered and sprayed forward over Yellow Wolf’s pony, coating the animal’s mane and neck. The Young Comanche’s head bobbed, out of control. He slumped and slid off his mount, landing with a muffled thump on the rocky ground. The battle at Walker’s Creek was done.

“Fine shot, Ad. How bad you hurt?” Hays asked, spurring his horse alongside his injured trooper.
“Damn spear tore my shoulder up pretty bad, Cap’n,” Gillespie muttered, “But I’ll live, I guess.”
Ben McCulloch rode up to Hays. The man was soaked with sweat, like the rest of the men. A long arrow shaft stuck out behind McCulloch’s thigh, the point lodged in the crook of his saddle. One of McCulloch’s eyes was swollen shut.
“What’d you do to that eye, Ben?” Hays asked. “And what of Sam Walker? Last I saw, he’d taken an arrow, too. Damn thing knocked him right off his horse on the hillside.”
“The eye’s awright.” McCulloch replied. “Sand or Comanche spit, I reckon. And I told Cherry to stay with Walker. Sam warn’t good.” Ben McCulloch shook his head. “Arrow went plum through him in the shoulder, arrowhead stickin’ right out his back. Cherry had to break the feathers off and pull the fuckin’ thing through.”
Well, that at least was a relief. Maybe Cherry had saved Sam Walker’s life. Jack looked around. Bodies were scattered all over the damn place. Who else had he lost?
“We lost Private Fohr.” McCulloch said, reading Jack’s thoughts. “And two more bad injured. Plus, Ad here, and Sam.”
Jack Hays shook his head, cap off. “Damned shame, that’s what it is. A goddamn shame. Got to be a better way to settle this.”
He waved his cap at the blood-soaked ground and looked around the field. Dead Comanche everywhere. Private Fohr, his new man, tough as he’d been, lay in their midst.
“How ‘bout them, the Comanche?” Jack asked, “Looks like we killed a bunch. Buffalo Hump’s pride, young Chief Yellow Wolf’s layin’ out in the brush there, too.”
“I’d say they lost more’n twenty-five dead,” McCulloch responded. “Countin’ Yellow Wolf. And must have been least forty more of ’em we wounded.” He grinned. “Reckon Buffalo Hump’s gonna be real pissed now. Yellow Wolf’s lucky his time come out here.”

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