Ashes on His Boot

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Trouble in Monterrey - September 1846

The thin sliver of a waning moon lit the cool night. Jack Hays sat in short grass and scrub brush near the west bank of the Rio Santa Catarina. A faint rustling came in the low mesquite behind him. Should be friendly. He half-cocked the Colt repeater in his lap and looked over his shoulder into the woods. Three short, mockingbird-like chirps, the signal that Walker and Chevaille were arriving, as expected. The two Rangers nodded a greeting and squatted opposite Jack. He eased the hammer down on his pistol and stared past his two commanders. The river drifted behind them in weak moonlight.

Good thing there hadn’t been a lot of rain lately. No flood crest to contend with. He needed to get the whole goddamn regiment across this river before dawn, and in silence. Jack had to have total surprise if General Henderson’s plan for him to infiltrate Monterrey was going to work.
“Evening, fellas.” Jack whispered. “About time y’all showed up. I was beginning to think wasn’t nobody here. Damned good discipline. Ain’t none of our fellers nor their mounts made so much as a peep so far.”
Walker and Chevaille nodded. Jack slid closer to the pair in the weak moonlight to better keep eye contact. He fixed his unblinking stare on Sam Walker. The new lieutenant colonel stared back.
“Sam, you and your squadron’s goin’ in with me at first light,” Jack said in his lowest voice and waved his arm toward the river. “Mike, I want you and your boys linin’ the west bank. Cover us while we cross. Lay fire on anybody coming back across the river. Whoever’s coming won’t be us.” Jack looked from Walker to Chevaille for their nods of understanding. “Then you come cross with the second squadron right at sunup, Mike.”
Henderson had advised Jack that General Zachary Taylor’s main force had tried twice to take the town from the East, but the Mexicans – Major General Pedro de Ampudia’s stubborn bastards – had driven them off. Well, Sénor Pedro, nobody was gonna keep Hays’ 1st Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers out of Monterrey tomorrow morning.
The day had been a long time coming. Jack Hays straightened up and stared at his squadron commanders. They were about to strike at the heart and soul of Mexico and take Monterrey. This attack was big. Texas would have retribution for the Alamo and Goliad.
“Now, both of you get this next order clear.” Jack Hays demanded. “No killin’ civilians, unless they shoot first. But no military prisoners. Anybody in uniform, give ’em no quarter. Not even their officers. Kill ‘em all. None of Ampudia’s goddamn dragoons gonna be walkin’ around Monterrey when this is done.”
There was no turning back now. No need to, he’d given a clear order. Jack wanted the Mexican bastards dead.

Colonel Jack Hays led his pony in the half-light down the bank and into the warm water of the Santa Catarina River. Barely three paces behind him, Sam Walker and two hundred Texas Rangers slipped into the slow-moving current, clutching the necks of their mounts. The occasional splash of swimming horses was the only sound. Within minutes, the silent unit mounted up in one long, wet line on the east side. Jack’s regiment was in position. He held his breath and sensed the battle to come.
Jack twisted in his saddle and looked left and right. A soft ruffling passed all along the line as pistols and rifles were unwrapped from oilcloths. Men checked their weapons for water, and oilcloths were folded and stuffed into pommel bags. The Eastern sky showed the first hint of yellow light on Sam Walker. He waved his pistol up and down to Jack from twenty yards away. All set to go.
Jack full-cocked both his pistols and tried to breathe deeper. He nudged his pony and guided the animal with his knees, a quiet trot toward the line of low adobe houses and shops that made up the outskirts of Monterrey. Now Jack could hear the reverberation of hooves behind him, like soft thunder. His Rangers on the advance, spread out on the hardpan. The first squadron was on the attack. Headed into battle.
Who would shoot first? From where? How accurate would their aim be? He tried to slow his breathing. Jack sensed his surroundings almost as much as he saw them. Weak light reflected off metal in the tree line ahead. Some kind of structure there? Wood? A wagon?
Double-clicks of metal-on-metal just ahead. Jack ducked against his pony’s neck. A muzzle flash and a sharp crack, then a second one, just to Jack’s right. Both rounds hissed overhead and ricocheted off an adobe wall on his left. Shakoed heads poked up over a wagon parked in the trees. Jack fired both pistols, followed by a volley of friendly fire echoing behind him. The barrage shattered the wagon sideboards and sent shakos flying into the early morning air.
Three Mexican infantrymen in blue tunics and white trousers slumped forward into the remnants of the wagon bed. Two others dropped their muskets and dashed around the corner of the nearest adobe building. First contact with the enemy and no more than a skirmish, but Jack knew there’d be a hell of a lot more.
“Los Diablos Tejanos! Los Diablos Tejanos!” The shouts came from the two escaping dragoons. Jack reined in his pony and peered around the corner and up a dark, empty street. “The Devil Texans” was a good description. We are here, by God, and we are taking over Monterrey. Run. Run and tell that to Santa Anna, boys. Jack kicked his pony hard and turned the corner. He galloped toward where he’d last seen white pants running.
Jack knew he wasn’t riding alone. Sam Walker and three squads would be close on his tail. The rest of Walker’s Ranger squadron was somewhere on the flank, riding into Monterrey through the warren of side streets and crisscrossing alleyways. He’d see them all soon at their rendezvous point, the town square.
Gunfire erupted to his front and from both sides. Shadows moved in the street. Jack aimed and fired at the moving forms. Mexican fighters fell, shouting and cursing. Screams came from a house on his right. Grunts of struggle erupted in the darkness to his left, the unmistakable sound of close combat.
Jack rode over fallen bodies. A shape, a man or boy in a straw hat, ran at him from the side and grabbed at his leg. Somebody, a damned civilian maybe, trying to pull him off his pony. Jack pulled his saber and slashed downward twice. The body tumbled away screaming. Blood stained Jack’s blade.
He kept the saber in one hand, ducked down and galloped on toward the town center. The sides of adobe buildings and trees along the narrow streets flickered yellow and crackled with gunfire. Shadows ran and shadows chased. More gunfire. More death. Groaning and the haunting sounds of the dying echoed all around Jack Hays. His Rangers were fully engaged. They were killing the enemy.

An eerie quiet gripped Monterrey at mid-morning. The sun hung over the high crest of the Sierra Madre Orient east of the city. Jack Hays’ Rangers were in control of the west side of Monterrey. Jack dismounted and paced the grimly silent battleground, surveying the devastation with his pony trailing him toward the central plaza. Blue-coated regulars of Zachary Taylor’s Army might be mopping up on the east side, but not much of that was needed here.
A few nervous civilians looked out from windows or doorways, eyes wide. Some covered their mouths with open hands. Most shops were boarded up. Women and children wailed. Other locals glared at Jack and his men. Or they raced about going nowhere in the dusty streets. Two old men bent over the lifeless bodies of scattered Mexican troops. They scraped with little effect at corpses covered with blood and dirt. One severed head, still strapped to a red shako, lay on the rough cobblestones a yard from its torso. A boy not older than ten cried, probably over a fallen relative who’d made the mistake of opposing Hays’ Rangers.
Random shots echoed between Jack and the river to his back. His “no quarter” demand might have been harsh, but the Mexican army wouldn’t be blowing any damned victory bugle calls today. Jack turned and touched the brim of his cap to acknowledge the arrival of Sam Walker and Mike Chevaille. Both men approached on foot, hats in hand, with their horses trailing. They slipped into step beside Jack.
Countless more Mexican dragoons and a scattering of civilians lay dead where Hays strode with Walker and Chevaille through the streets. Several victims had been scalped, many had arms or legs severed from their torsos, and all were mutilated in one fashion or another by gunshot, knife cuts, or saber slashes. Jack gingerly stepped over a cleaved hand still gripping a Mexican saber.
Jack’s nervous pony snorted in protest and tried to rear up behind him. He gripped the reins and pulled the animal down, tugging him through the carnage. The mounts of Chevaille and Walker fought their reins too. The smell of spent gunpowder mixed with the stink of death. The September sun beat down on mostly blue-and-white uniformed corpses, darkening blood pooling under and around them. No breeze stirred to blow the baking stench away.
“My God,” Mike Chevaille muttered, wiping his forehead with a bandana. “What the hell have we done here, Jack?”
“You weren’t at Goliad, Mikey,” Hays snapped. “None of us was at the fuckin’ Alamo, neither. Santa Anna’s boys here, they all had it comin’, goddamnit. We was no more than the instrument of God’s justice.”
Jack turned and glared at Mike Chevaille. The Major would not look him in the eye. Jack frowned and eyed Sam Walker. His second-in-command blinked and looked down.
“How many Rangers we lose, Sam?”
“Nine. Nine dead.” Walker raised his head and looked away. “None of the old boys, though, believe it or not. Ad Gillespie’s gonna lose a leg. Be lucky to live through that.”
Sam Walker faced Jack and looked him up and down, then turned away again. Before Jack could ask Sam what the hell he was thinking, a blue-coated rider approached and drew up short, his mount scattering dust and pebbles. Jack grabbed for the horse’s reins.

“Excuse me, sirs,” the young rider shouted down. “One of you Colonel Hays? Or can you tell me where to find him, quick? General wants to see him personally before nightfall. Said best not to tarry, neither. He’s real pissed!”
Zachary Taylor, or “Old Rough and Ready,” as many called him. General Sam had warned Jack about the man and his sensibilities, and Andrew Jackson had told stories about him years ago. “More the gentleman than the officer,” he’d said.

Jack glared up at the General’s messenger, then dropped the boy’s reins. “I’m Jack Hays! Tell General Taylor I’ll be there just as soon’s we finish cleaning up this goddamn mess in the middle of town.”
He gave the horse a smack on the rump and the animal bolted away with its rider clinging to the saddle horn and fumbling for the reins. Jack frowned and stepped away from his two commanders. He’d best think about this carefully. Sam Houston had confided that Zack Taylor could, for certain, be rough and ready, but deep down, the man was a stickler for rules and tradition, and he rarely lead by example. Taylor was reportedly also a strict disciplinarian, so this meeting would probably not be good. Jack took a couple of minutes to calm down, then mounted up and wordlessly knuckle-saluted Walker and Chevaille. He reined his pony around and rode in the direction of General Taylor’s command headquarters.

Jack came upon the main body of the U.S. Army of Occupation fortifying their encampments in eastern Monterrey. After a delay for identification, he was allowed to pass through the lines of Colonel Worth’s Maryland and District of Columbia Battalion. By sunset, he was in General Taylor’s headquarters encampment set up in a grove of gnarled olive trees. Queried, a sentry pointed Jack toward a stocky, white-headed man with long bushy sideburns who was pacing the dusty trail and slapping his gray campaign hat against his thigh. Two gold stars glistened on the epaulets of General Zachary Taylor’s spotless, fitted navy blue uniform. The General turned at the sound of the horse. Jack reined in his pony and saluted.
“General Taylor, sir.” Jack addressed the U.S. Commander with his best military manners. “I’m Colonel Jack Hays, Texas Rangers…. Ah, s’cuse me, sir, I mean First Regiment, Texas Mounted Volunteers. I got a message this afternoon you wanted to see me just as soon as I could get here.”
The General looked up. He did not smile, nor did he return Jack’s salute. Zachary Taylor stared up at him as if Jack was some strange beast loose in the street – a varmint that needed killing. Jack’s gut tightened.
“Hays? You’re the infamous John Coffee Hays?” Zachary Taylor spoke, almost in snorting disbelief. “But then, how the hell would I know who you are? No uniform? No rank? You ride in here looking like a bloody highwayman and observe no proper dismount before addressing your commander. Mister, you are the most uncouth bit of rabble I’ve seen in this war. That said, I’d wager you are indeed the killer who’s responsible for all the wanton death and destruction I’m hearing about.”
Jack bit his lip and dismounted. Then, silent and rigid, he faced General Taylor without a further salute. The Army Commander could say whatever he wanted, Jack would have to listen. Obeying might be another matter.
“Son,” the General softened his tone. “I’m well aware of your exploits. Stand at ease, now. The United States appreciates your bravery.”

Jack felt the blood drain from his face. He shifted his feet apart and locked both hands behind his back. “Parade rest,” as best Jack could recall the position. This might go well after all. He kept his eyes on General Taylor, still in the midst of his comments.

“We might not have Monterrey tonight without your efforts, Colonel Hays. The Army is grateful, yet we must abhor your barbarism, your demonstrated lack of military order and discipline.” The General paced. “From my reports, you’ve shown an abysmal ignorance of the rules of war. Fortunately for you, however, General Henderson has vouched for your worth. You do understand what I’m saying, correct?”
Jack did not respond to the General’s question. Zachary Taylor stopped pacing and turned to face him. Apparently, the General was far from done. What was next? Certainly some sort of punishment, maybe even a court martial. Taylor pointed one stubby finger at Jack.
“I’ve called you here, Colonel,” The General said, “to provide you and your rabble an opportunity. By sundown tomorrow, I expect to receive General Ampudia’s unconditional surrender. He’s surrounded with no way out of the city and certainly no reinforcements. You, my young friend, are to have yourself and your men in proper uniform in time for reveille two days hence. That accomplished, you will attend General Ampudia’s surrender ceremony, and there you will apologize to him for your serious breach of international military protocol in this engagement.”
Jack Hays could only stare at Zachary Taylor. As a practical matter, where would he find uniforms for his entire regiment? The General had to know the order was impossible to obey. But more important, why would anybody, any Texan or American, apologize to any Mexican? And for what? For balancing the scales of justice? The General had to be a madman.
“Sir.” Jack cleared his throat. “You can ask General Henderson or General Houston. My men, they don’t ask much. They follow my orders. The boys know their job. They keep the peace. They kill the enemy and leave the politics and ass-kissin’ to the politicians. Rangers do that real well. You U.S. Army folks, you call us irregulars, and I reckon that’s a suitable moniker. Good at fighting, bad at soldierin’. We just ain’t regular like you. God willing, we never gonna be. By your leave, sir, Hays’ Rangers will be heading back to Texas.”
Jack turned on his heel without waiting for a reaction. He put one foot in his stirrup and hoisted his weary body into the saddle. This time he did not salute Zachary Taylor. If a court martial was coming, they’d have to chase him down to serve the papers. Jack Hays slapped his pony’s rear and galloped west into the gathering darkness.

Two days after he’d kicked the Mexicans’ asses up around their necks and pretty much took most of Monterrey before anybody knew what had happened, Colonel Jack Hays was up early, sitting under an old oak tree. He sipped at a tin of coffee and waited for the sun to come up. He hadn’t slept well at all since his meeting with that weasly, blue-coated General Taylor.
Jack had fought the Mexicans like they fought everybody else. He’d given them some of their own medicine. Yet here he sat, his whole damned Ranger regiment banished to the woods west of Rio Santa Catarina and packing up for Texas. General Taylor had sent him a stern letter of reprimand that ordered Jack and his Rangers not to get anywhere near the surrender ceremony of General Ampudia. He hadn’t any intention of doing such a thing, anyway. Shit, he’d even heard Taylor had gone and let that Mexican sonofabitch and the rest of his men have safe passage out of Monterrey. Signed a six-week armistice and let Ampudia keep his cannons, too. Wonder what President Polk might have to say about all that…that was, if anybody ever dared tell him the whole truth?

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