Ashes on His Boot

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The Bells of Seguin - April 1847

Bells? Why were all the bells clanging? And where? God, would they never stop? Jack stirred in the big four-poster bed. His mouth felt strange, full of cotton. Bedcovers tangled around him and held his legs prisoner. The ringing hurt Jack’s head, right over both eyes. Where the hell was he? Not Washington. His meeting with President Polk and Congress was still fresh in his mind, but he’d been back for over a month now.

His back hurt, too. Had somebody dragged him somewhere behind his pony? And his stomach churned. Bad supper? Nope, he was shaky. Nervous. But why? Ah, yes. Last night, he and Sam Walker, along with John Caperton the surveyor and ol’ Bigfoot Wallace, had tied one on with the rest of the boys at the cantina. The party had gone on till the sun came up. Then Susan’s parents’ house. Seguin? Yes, Seguin. That’s where he was.

Getting up the stone steps hadn’t been easy. Some of that incident from last night floated back. Sam Walker had helped, weaving and stumbling up and up with Jack, arm-in-arm. Somehow, right toward the end of the climb, Sam had slid off the steps into the bushes below. He might still be stuck there. Jack snortled a laugh between dry, parched lips. He’d probably made too much noise, too, laughing and singing. Now every damn thing made his head hurt. And, damn, he was thirsty.

God, still those bells. The bells and their everlasting racket. Someone end the racket. Then Jack sat up in bed, rigid. His pulse thundered against his temples. He remembered…. The bells were for him. For him and Susan. They were getting married today.

Two hours later, Jack stood as erect as he could in the Magnolia Hotel ballroom. Reverend William Blair, a tall, hook-nosed Presbyterian missionary, loomed to one side of him. He and the Reverend faced the crowd. Jack was dressed like he was going back to the White House. His head still ached, and now the damned brogans hurt his feet again.

Emily West sat in the front row beside Missus Priscilla, smiling up at him and the preacher. Susan’s mother liked Emily. She’d hired her to organize this whole damned affair. Jack didn’t want to know how such relations between Emily and Missus Priscilla had all come about. Susan and Emily did know each other, but were they truly friends?

The Reverend Blair had come all the way from Victoria because he’d owed Emily some kind of favor. Didn’t need those details, neither. Jack was pretty sure the Reverend Blair was not, as he was, suffering the pains of far too much drink, although he’d heard that the man frequented saloons and taverns down on the Coast to do more than just preach the Gospel.

Jack glanced to his other side. His best man, Sam Walker, stood stiff and all cleaned up from last night, but whiter of face than a fresh bed sheet. Sam Walker, new Captain, U.S. Army, not Rangering any more. Too bad. Sam was the only kind of friend a man needed. Jack would miss having him around.

The fancy tie at Jack’s neck was too tight and felt a little like that wire garrote Tojo Iverson had used on him years back. Hadn’t been for ol’ Chief Flacco that night, Jack wouldn’t be standing here waiting for Susan Calvert and her father to come down the aisle. Damn, Flacco oughta be here now to see all this fuss. He’d have enjoyed seeing Jack get married and settle down.

Over to one side of the Magnolia Hotel ballroom, a fat little man in a morning coat sat on a bench and used one stubby leg to pump his melodeon pedal. With stubby fingers he somehow coaxed pleasant music from a row of black-and-white keys. The piece was something Jack recognized from listening to his Aunt Rachel play the harpsichord back in Nashville. Maybe a song from that fellow, Mozart?

By God, he’d drink no champagne or whiskey at the party after all this marrying at the altar was done. Maybe just one cleansing ale. Jack glanced over toward Sam again. His best man was looking grim, like he might throw up any minute. Wonder if Sam had remembered the ring?

A rustling passed through the ballroom. Heads turned toward the back of the hall. Susan had started down the aisle toward him, a stunning vision in white floating between the rows of guests. She held her father’s arm and smiled at Jack through a veil of fancy lace. Judge Jeremiah Calvert was smiling, too. First time ever. Jack tried to smile back. God, Susan’s wedding dress was so damned white. Why was everything so white today?

Jack’s heart raced, his knees grew rubbery. The life he’d known was about to end, or at least change significantly. But after all, he’d been planning to marry Susan for quite awhile. He just had to get through the wedding ceremony. Then he’d address that other matter. Hopefully with a clearer head later, he could manage some urgent Ranger business.

More war with the Mexicans was on the horizon. For that, Jack needed a thousand new pistols from Samuel Colt. He and General Sam had already discussed the revolvers and how he might recruit Emily to help. So, before the day was over, wedding or no wedding, he and Sam Walker would talk to Emily about her going to see Samuel Colt. Susan would understand he had to have the meeting. At least he hoped she’d see things his way.

Susan would be shocked if she knew some deeds he’d done. Appalled. He hadn’t said much to her about all his killing, of course. The Swede in Nacogdoches, Comanche at Bandera Pass, that Frenchie General Woll’s boys at Salado Creek. He’d surely not brought up the bloodbath he’d led in Monterrey. General Taylor had damn well upbraided him for that one. Emily West would’ve understood the carnage, but Susan wouldn’t. Women, at least the marrying kind, weren’t supposed to.

“Quite a celebration.” Emily West grasped Jack’s free arm. “You and Susan are a perfect couple. My congratulations, and all the very best wishes.”
Dammit, Emily was good-looking, all dressed in that white-trimmed, yellow velvet clingy thing and fancy hat. Emily West loosed her grip on Jack and raised her half-filled champagne glass. She clinked hers with Susan’s. Jack lifted his ale mug, smiled and returned the toast.

He was feeling much better, now that the ceremony was over and he’d downed almost a pint of dark brew. Should’ve done that hours ago. Jack turned his gaze from Emily to Susan. Emily might be a fine woman, good at a lot of things, but he’d picked the right bride. Couldn’t have done better if he’d looked for the rest of his life. He patted Susan’s hand, resting on his arm. She gripped his arm and squeezed.

“Emily,” Susan Hays shouted over the din. “Mother and I appreciate how well you organized our wedding. The flowers, Reverend Blair, the food and drink. Everyone is having the time of their lives. Father may never recover from the cost of having his daughter’s wedding in his own hotel, but one marries only once, hopefully.”

“The pleasure was mine, Susan,” Emily responded. Then she smiled at Jack. “Good men are hard to find these days, and Colonel Jack Hays here is a good man. Yet I fear you’ll need a lariat or a leash if he’s to stay home long.”

Damn Emily, always poking and jabbing at him, and always when he was least ready. Aw God, the heat under the collar again. Jack glared at her. He got just a one-sided smirk in return. What about Susan? Was that a frown? Susan didn’t agree with Emily? Good. Anyway, Jack was glad Emily was here. She’d done well with organizing the wedding, and now he had that other business with the new Colt pistols for her to tend to back east. The talk wouldn’t keep till another day, neither.

“Emily, another matter.” Jack half sighed her name and motioned for Sam Walker to join them. “Sam Walker and me, we need a few minutes for some business talk. We need your help with Mr. Colt pretty quick. Got to have guns, and a lot of ’em, for the war.”

Emily West stared, wide-eyed, from under her green, feathered hat. Jack glanced at Susan. Uh-oh, the new Missus gave him that evil look he already knew too well. Sam arrived, hat in hand, and kept silent. Susan turned away, shaking her head, and marched toward her mother and father, an empty champagne glass in one hand.

Bad timing probably. Jack would have to apologize to his bride later. Getting married to Susan was important, but war with Mexico wouldn’t wait for him and a honeymoon. Jack put a hand on Sam’s shoulder and faced Emily.

“Sam here,” Jack said. “He’s just been ordered to be a Captain in the US Mounted Rifles. Ain’t just a Ranger no more. He’s Regular US Army now. He’s put together a company that’s got to be in Veracruz end of next month.”

Jack kept his gaze on Emily. God, those dark eyes. He needed to get on with the pistol talk. Besides, he was just married and already in the shit with Susan.

“Maybe you know already.” Jack lowered his voice. “Sam here, he had that Colt feller make him a six-shot pistol a while back. Damned thing worked real well, too. Emily, now we need them new Colts. A thousand of them. And pretty quick. Ain’t supposed to talk about it, but the Rangers and the Federal Army, we’re going to war with Mexico.”

Susan returned, an odd half-smile on her face and a fresh glass of that expensive French champagne in her hand. He’d need to finish this business with Emily and Sam pretty quick. He glanced at Sam. His friend was looking better. Probably that pint of ale he’d had.

“Emily,” Jack resumed his entreaty. “We need you to go back east and get Samuel Colt to put together them six-shooters for us. We’ll pay you well, a thousand dollars gold, plus your expenses. You can offer twenty-five dollars a pistol to Mr. Colt. Twenty-five thousand’s a helluva lot of money. Gen’ral Houston’s already seen to the finances. Will you do the thing for me and Sam Walker here? More important, will you do the deed for Sam Houston and Texas?”

Susan broke in before Emily could respond. “For God’s sake, Jack. I can’t believe all this talk of pistols and going to war with Mexico. And on our wedding day? Will this madness never end? Besides, Emily has done enough for Texas. And you, Jack…you have as well. No more of this nonsense, I beg you.”

Poor dead Chief Flacco’s words made their way back into Jack’s consciousness. “No more Captain Jack smell rose, just gun smoke. Time to kill everybody we not like.” So now he’d go off to war. Or should he leave the Rangers and stay with Susan? Could Jack do battle any more without worrying about coming back alive? He was a husband, a family man now. Had Jack lost his mettle?

“Earlier today,” Susan stared at Jack and went on, “you stood before God and our friends and family. You pledged your love and your life only to me. Yet you would leave now? Go off and fight again? Quite unfair, Jack Hays. Most unfair. You would risk that life you promised we’d enjoy together and perhaps leave me a widow. And for what? Texas? You married me, John Coffee Hays, not Texas.”

“Susan. Susan Hays.” Jack took a breath and calmed a bit. “You’re right. I made you and God Almighty promises today. For better, for worse and in sickness and health, till death do us part. And dammit, woman, can’t you see? ‘Worse’ is what we got in Texas right now. Matters between us and Mexico are so bad they couldn’t be worse. Men like me and Sam here, we got to go fight. Stop the Mexicans once and for all. Make life tolerable for everybody living here.”

His new bride’s eyes moistened. Jack reached to touch her wet cheek. Susan pulled away and dabbed her eyes with a kerchief. He glanced at Emily West, then at Sam Walker. Both stood quiet and wouldn’t look at him. They weren’t getting involved in his problem. Jack faced Susan and gripped her shoulders. She tried to pull away.

Jack held Susan in front of him. “But here’s another promise for you, Missus Hays. No Mexican’s sendin’ Jack to the Great Beyond. I’ll be back when I’m finished with Santa Anna and his boys. And you asked about fairness. I tell you nothing’s fair in this world, Susan Hays. Fair ain’t nothin’ but another four-letter ‘F’ word.”

Susan twisted out of Jack’s grip. Cold wetness hit his face. Jack flinched and blinked the stinging liquid from his eyes. His bride’s empty champagne flute shattered on the floor, spraying glass shards against his goddamn brogans. Susan’s narrowed eyes and pursed lips reflected sadness as much as anger. Jack’s bride whirled about and stormed off through the crowd.

Idle chattering and laughter died away. Susan’s whimpers and footfalls became the only sounds in the silent ballroom. Her anguish pained Jack’s ears more than the bells had, but he shrugged his shoulders, looked from Sam Walker to Emily West, then down at the floor. The wet, icy shock had brought back the damned Tojo Iverson incident again. Flacco had saved him then, but Jack was on his own this time. At least the drops on Jack’s nose and chin were champagne, not dirty water. Jack drew a kerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at the wetness. His wedding night sure wasn’t going to be much fun if Susan wouldn’t forgive him.

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