Ashes on His Boot

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On to Mexico City - October 1847

Red-streaked clouds covered the eastern horizon. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” Jack had always heard. Such a dawn meant an October rainy spell in Tennessee or Texas, but he wasn’t sure what “red in the morning” meant down here in Veracruz. In fact, nothing seemed certain in this damned country, except for the fact that a lot of Mexicans were going to die soon, including their little General, Santa Anna. Jack and his Rangers would see to that.

Jack splashed water on his face and walked to the makeshift corral in the trees behind the long row of tents. He took his pony’s reins from the duty private, put a boot in one stirrup and swung into the saddle. The young attendant saluted stiffly to Jack’s nod of thanks.

Orders had arrived with the headquarters courier last night. Jack had ten miles to ride for a breakfast meeting with his new commander, General Robert Patterson.

American combat units were camped everywhere along the road leading back into Veracruz. Must’ve been 10,000 or more men milling around, some still bedded down. No secret to what was happening here, America was taking over and occupying Mexico. Halfway along, Jack rode past a unit of blue-coated cavalrymen and their stable boys gathered around a morning campfire. Some laughed, while a few belted out a rousing, haunting tune Jack had never heard before. Words about a “Yellow Rose” in Texas they all longed to see again. They’d need to settle the score with the enemy here before any of these boys had a chance of getting back in the arms of a pretty woman anywhere, that was certain.

Jack was a long way south of San Antone now, deeper into Mexico than he’d ever been. The song he’d heard made him think of Susan. He missed her. And for some reason, he thought of Emily West, too. Dammit, that Comanche years ago had called her “Yellow Woman.”

Less than an hour later, Jack passed the sentries for General Patterson’s division lines. He wasn’t sure why he’d been summoned to the meeting with the Division Commander. Probably marching orders. High time to get going.


The mess steward held the canvas flap back to let Jack Hays enter the General’s command tent. Robert Patterson sat rigidly upright, sipping coffee. Two rows of gold buttons ran from his stiff collar down the front of the General’s double-breasted jacket. Gold-braided epaulettes on his shoulders displayed the two matching stars of his rank. Jack stopped a couple of paces in front of the mess table and saluted.

“Colonel John Coffee Hays reporting, sir,” Jack recited.

General Patterson looked up and returned the salute. He wiped his mouth with a linen napkin and motioned Jack to take the seat opposite him at the mess table. Patterson was somber, even grim.

“Colonel Hays, be at ease and welcome to Mexico.” The General’s distinct Irish accent rolled through each mournful syllable. “You look as though you could use some coffee and breakfast.”

Jack sat on the stool opposite the General. The mess steward placed a tin of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs in front of him. He’d never met General Patterson before, but from the man’s demeanor, this was no usual assignment briefing. Had to be bad news of some kind. The General picked up his fork and examined the tines with one finger.

“Colonel,” General Patterson spoke in a low, almost reverent voice. “I am certain you and your lads will make a great difference in our battle for Mexico City. We shall deal with your upcoming orders in due course, but first, sir, I’m afraid I have some regrettable news to deliver.”

Somebody was dead. The blood drained from Jack’s face and whatever appetite he’d had disappeared. He felt dizzy. Good men in his command had been lost before, but who the hell could he have lost so early in this campaign? Hell, he hadn’t even been in a firefight yet.

The General frowned and went on. “As I’m sure you’re already painfully aware, death in war has no regard for rank or friendship. I am informed that your good friend and comrade-in-arms, Army Captain Samuel Walker, was killed in action a few days past. The 9th day of October, to be precise, in the battle for Huamantla. For what it’s worth, Colonel Hays, my command saw to his proper burial with full honors.”
General Patterson bowed his head, muttering something about “God’s peace.” Hellfire, the last time Jack had seen Sam was back in April at his and Susan’s wedding. Now Jack remembered Sam prone in the dirt at the Battle of Walker’s Creek, a Comanche arrow sticking out of his shoulder. His friend had somehow managed to stand up and continue the attack. Jack shook his head remembering Walker’s Creek, Salado Creek and Monterrey. Sam had always been there. Always had his back. Damn him. Damn them all.
Jack blinked back the image of his hung-over friend standing at the altar in the Magnolia Hotel, fishing for Susan’s wedding ring somewhere in his pocket. Now he was dead? Had to be a goddamn lie. Nobody could kill Sam Walker. Jack was overwhelmed. Why hadn’t General Sam and the U.S. Army folks let Sam stay with the Rangers instead of going to the Army? He’d still be alive.
“Mistake, sir,” Jack managed to croak. “Got to be some mistake. Sam cain’t be dead. Him and me, we been shot at by the best. Comanche couldn’t kill us. Bandito’s, neither. Hell, we even tried more’n once to drink ourselves to death. Don’t see how fuckin’ Mexicans coulda done him in. Just ain’t possible.”
“Colonel Hays,” General Patterson responded, his cold blue eyes focused on Jack. “We are all soldiers. Killing is our business. We fight, and sometimes we die. Unfortunately, my report is quite accurate. Multiple accounts confirm Captain Walker was felled by a Mexican sniper late in the battle.”
The General gripped a thin leather packet in one leathery hand. What was that? Jack’s orders? Was this all he’d get? Jack tried to sit erect on the hard stool and look his commander in the eye. General Patterson apparently had more to say.
“Certainly, you and your men are entitled to your anger and righteous grief,” the General remarked. “And you shall have your chance, beginning less than a fortnight hence. An engagement to avenge your gallant comrade’s death. These are your orders, Colonel. Study them well. We’ve come too far and sacrificed too much to fail now.”
General Patterson handed over the packet. Jack opened the leather envelope, unfolded the papers and blinked away the moisture in his eyes. He and his regiment would be the first unit to enter Mexico City from the south. His eyes widened as he read the details. Engage any resistance en route. Pass through with all dispatch. U.S. Infantry will mop up. No military prisoners, but no combat with civilians, unless armed. Use only necessary force. General Patterson must’ve heard about him and his men at Monterrey.
“A word of comfort, if I may, Colonel.” The General smiled, tight-lipped. “My favorite author, Eugené Sue, recently offered a notable piece of advice in his book, Memoirs of Matilda. If you’ve not been privy to the work, I’ll quote him. Mr. Sue wrote that ‘Revenge is a dish best eaten cold’.”
Jack Hays blinked moist eyes again and laid the orders on the mess table. He had a sip of coffee and took a few deep breaths. Jack would be prepared for the street fighting in Mexico City. Combat was dirty business. Kill-or-be-killed. Somehow, Jack would need to exercise more restraint than in Monterrey. He wasn’t used to that, and neither were his men. In spite of his rage, though, he’d have to try.
General Patterson and whoever that was he’d quoted had a good point about revenge. There’d be time enough after he got to Mexico City to find Santa Anna. And when he did, the little Mexican would pay. By God, he’d see to that personally.


The next morning, Jack stood facing his men. The eyes of more than three hundred war-ready, weathered faces stared at him from under the usual sombreros, cloth head-wraps, sweat-stained field caps and high crowned, broad-brimmed hats. Most of them sat or squatted in the shade of a grove of scrub oaks. Men further back stood to better hear Jack’s orders. No insignia of rank was visible. No uniforms or indication that this was an organized military unit. Jack had issued each Ranger two new six-shot Colt pistols, and, as before, his regiment bristled with all manner of additional weapons: rifles, lances, axes, knives and sabers. To a man, the face of the regiment was tight-lipped and steeled for battle.
“Men, I said some a’ this already.” Jack’s voice wavered. “Sam Walker was a helluva loss. Bible says we all got to die to get to Heaven, but I’m damned tired of that little Mexican shit, Santa Anna, helpin’ our Maker with his work.”
A ripple of laughter passed through the grizzled ranks. Solemn nods came from some. Jack held up one of his Colt pistols.
“Gents,” Jack shouted. “Y’all been issued these new pistols. Best damned gun I’ve ever seen. Ain’t no ordinary piece of Ranger hardware. This here’s a Walker Colt. Sam Walker’s invention. This new gun is gonna help us kick some Mexican ass.”
Cheers erupted. Men jumped to their feet and thrust pistols and knives into the air. Time for battle. Sam Walker’s face hovered in Jack’s mind.


Hays’ First Regiment, Texas Mounted Volunteers had been the lead element of General Patterson’s command from the time they’d left Veracruz over a month earlier. Jack rode at the head of his column into Mexico City the first week of December. Several skirmishes had erupted getting this far, but resistance had been a lot lighter than Jack had expected. Following General Patterson’s orders, he’d engaged the Mexican troops he’d encountered, but just enough to punch through their defenses and ride on, leaving most as a mop-up mission for the infantry coming behind him.
Jack looked left and right at the buildings of the Mexican capital. Civilians stared out of partly boarded-up windows and barricaded side streets. Some shouted muffled curses. Not pleased to see los Diablos Tejanos? But no uniformed enemy were anywhere to be seen. No gunfire. How far would he have to ride before making contact with elements of General Winfield Scott’s Army regulars? They must already occupy parts of the Mexican capital.
Less than half-a-mile further on, two gunshots broke the silence behind Jack, then screams came from both sides of the street. Jack put up one hand to halt the regiment. He wheeled his pony around and galloped down the line until he reined in where Corporal Cherry sat in his saddle with a smoking revolver in one hand. Blood streamed from a cut over his left eye and down his face. Ten yards away, a young boy lay face down in the street, unmoving. Jack’s orders had been to defend when attacked, but it was apparent that this young boy had done little else than throw a stone. Mexicans lined the roadside, crying and mumbling. But no one made a move toward the corpse.
Jack Hays touched the bill of his black field cap and nodded in Cherry’s direction. Corporal Cherry holstered the Walker Colt and saluted with two-fingers to his hat brim. Jack turned his pony again and galloped toward the head of his column. Seconds later, the regiment moved on. Cries of “Diablos Tejanos,” came as he passed by. Were he and his men truly the “Devils from Texas?” He’d always thought himself and his men heroic. But now?
Bare minutes passed before Jack halted his regiment again. This time, a more vocal crowd pressed into the street around and in front of him, shouting insults and urging on young men armed with knives and swords. Jack turned back along the line, nudging bystanders away with his pony and signaling his men to fire only if provoked. He drew up near Bigfoot Wallace, who pointed a pistol at a particularly noisy cordon of young Mexicans. Some had rocks. One or two were armed with knives.
One of the knife wielders stepped into the street in front of Jack and hurled a short, broad-bladed weapon toward the column. The blade struck the haunch of Bigfoot Wallace’s horse and sunk partway in. The rearing beast dumped gear and Bigfoot to the cobblestones in a thumping heap. As the hulking Ranger struck pavement, he flexed his knees, dropped and rolled to his right, and began firing the new Colt, first at his assailant, then emptying the weapon into the scattering crowd. The young knife thrower fell, along with three more young men.
Jack trained both his pistols on the remnants of the crowd that now screamed insults and waved arms, rocks or knives visible in most hands. Others spat their defiance. Bigfoot Wallace stood and walked to his horse. He pulled the knife from the skittering animal. Not a lot of blood came from the wound, so he grabbed the saddle horn and mounted up. Jack signaled the regiment to move on. Wasn’t much Jack could do about the Mexican casualties. Bigfoot, like Corporal Cherry, had followed his orders, and a mob could be as deadly as a regiment. Best to move along quickly and not incite an outright bloodbath before ever seeing any uniformed enemy.

An hour later, Jack halted the column near a small, shaded market square on the south side of he central plaza. He’d just read a new order delivered by the Army Headquarters messenger. General Winfield Scott had written that he should clear the least secure sector of town, a local stronghold designated in the order as “Cutthroat Barrio.” He passed word down the line to his regiment to dismount for rest and water while he developed a plan to take down any remaining Mexican opposition in the barrio.

Just before supper, Jack summoned Captain Jonathan Roberts, one of his company commanders. Roberts had been a Texas Ranger less than a year, but he was already the best tactician in Jack’s regiment. Fearless, too. Jack’s engagement order to Roberts was simple:

“Restore order in the Cutthroat Barrio. Anybody that don’t obey orders and stand down, you know what to do. No prisoners.”

Within minutes, more than thirty heavily armed horsemen thundered away from the market square, headed for Cutthroat Barrio. Jack mounted up to lead the rest of his regiment east and link up with elements of Scott’s army. He knew Jon Roberts, and he knew the men under Captain Roberts’ command. They’d do only what they had to do to get the job done. Still, the caution in his original orders from General Patterson gave Jack pause. “Proceed without delay. Use necessary, but not excessive force.” That was clearly not how he’d just told Captain Roberts to proceed.


Barely twenty-four hours after Jack had ordered Jon Roberts into Cutthroat Barrio, the young captain and his men returned. Roberts dismounted and removed his hat as he approached Jack, gripping the reins of a second horse that carried a single body wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. Captain Roberts’ grizzled company drew up to the rear of their young troop commander. His report to Jack was terse.
“Colonel,” Jon Roberts spoke, waving back at the dead man. “No sooner’n we rode into the barrio, two bastards snatched Private Allsens here off his pony and slashed his throat.” Roberts stared at Jack, wide-eyed, and went on. “That put us in a bad way, Colonel. By the time we was done, we musta killed more’n eighty of ‘em. Had to. We fired, and we fired some more. Hell, they just kept comin’ at us. Came at us with knives, came at us with rocks, and hell, some come at us with kitchen pots. One or two flintlocks and muskets, too. When it was finished, we left them Mexicanos laying in the street where they fell. But the place is quiet now. No more throat-cuttin’.”
Captain Roberts went on to tell Jack that Alan Allsens had been the only Ranger casualty. They’d seen Mexicans, young and old, picking up their dead after the fight. He’d personally counted more than fifty bodies on litters being taken off, probably to a morgue. He and his troops hadn’t ridden out of the barrio until the smoke had cleared and he was sure order was restored. Damn, Roberts and his men had certainly done their job, but even during wartime, this was going to be hard to explain to General Scott.
Jack dismissed Captain Roberts with thanks. Then, facing a cold supper of beans and hardtack, he scribbled a note for his messenger to deliver to General Winfield Scott. No telling what the reaction from General Scott might be, but this was all out war. Mexico had to be brought to its knees. Santa Anna had to die. Everybody knew that.


Early the next evening, Colonel Jack Hays stood at rigid attention in the parlor of a commandeered Mexican hacienda facing the U.S. Theater Commander, Army General Winfield Scott. The General was seated at a field table in weak candlelight, grim-faced and chewing an unlit cigar butt. He did not offer Jack so much as a stool or a tin of coffee, nor did the General return Jack’s salute or put him at ease. Just dabbed that ugly cigar butt into a bent tin plate.
“Fifty executions! Probably many more than that, Colonel.” Winfield Scott shouted and waved a paper in the air. “Defenseless Mexican troops and unarmed civilians, murdered in cold blood by men under your command. I’ll have an explanation, sir, and the story had best be credible.”
Jack cleared his throat and began. “Don’t know why all the fuss, Gen’ral, Sir. You wrote me yourself, ‘use necessary force.’ Captain Roberts’ boys…when they went in, Mexicans grabbed one of our troopers right off his horse and cut his throat. Us Rangers, we don’t take shit like that, Sir. We get attacked, we kill ’em. That’s necessary force, sir.”
His heels were together and both arms locked tight and straight against his sides. Jack stared down at the seated general. The theater commander dabbed at his cold, wet cigar butt again. He motioned for Jack to continue.
“Sir,” Jack spoke evenly. “Roberts’ men had to get rid of more’n fifty, maybe as many as eighty Mexicans before things quieted, before they could even pick up poor Private Allsens’ corpse without getting cut up. Good thing Allsens was the only man we lost. Just two others injured. Barrio’s peaceful now. No more resistance.”

General Scott shifted in his chair. He ran his hands through long, silvery hair and unfastened a second collar button. Jack moved his feet apart and crossed his palms behind his back.

“Colonel,” General Scott snapped. “You are to remain at attention. I’ve had quite enough insubordination from you and your band of military misfits. That clear?”

Jack clicked both heels back together, slapped his hands down to his side again. Straight-faced, he eyed Winfield Scott. So what came next, the ‘International Rules of War’ lecture? A fuckin’ invitation to dine with Santa Anna? An involuntary grin crept onto Jack’s tight lips.

“Dammit, Colonel Hays,” Winfield Scott scowled. “Wipe that smirk, or I’ll have you thrown in the stockade within the hour.”

Jack took two quick breaths. He turned his thoughts first to Susan, waiting for him back in Texas. What would she think of all this war mess? She’d hate what he’d done. Susan would tell him that it was high time he found another line of work. And Emily? Well, she’d just tell him not to back down.

General Scott went on with his lecture. “Mass killings in Cutthroat Barrio occurred some distance from your personal control. But the men who did the deed, you freely admit, operated under your direct orders. Moreover, troops of your command, and in your presence, engaged in at least two other murderous acts, did they not? Civilians, no more than defenseless children, some of them, were gunned down.” The General frowned, eyes narrowing. “Colonel Hays, this is the same barbaric disregard for non-combatants that General Taylor reprimanded you for back in Monterrey. You are indeed reluctant to grasp the difference between legitimate combat and the unconscionable slaughter of innocents.”

Hays nodded a silent acknowledgement of the Army Commander’s accusations. Was the ass-chewing done? Was Jack being relieved of his command? If not, would he act the same in situations like Cherry’s and Bigfoot’s again? Would he give Jon Roberts the “no prisoners” order again? He’d best calm down now and choose his words carefully. Jack took another deep breath.

“Don’t know that they was all defenseless or innocent, Gen’ral.” Jack’s voice was low. “Seems almost everybody here’s got a knife, a rock or a gun. Some of ‘em was even wearin’ parts of goddamn uniforms. My men defended themselves like they was ordered to do. Killed Mexicans throwin’ rocks, Mexicans shootin’ at ’em, Mexicans using knives and cutting throats.”

Jack stared at the general. Winfield Scott leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. He waved one hand for Jack to go on.

“That said, sir, you’re right,” Jack admitted. “I did nothing to my men who killed those boys in the street. Might’ve been too easy on ’em. And I did give Cap’n Roberts the killing orders for the barrio. That was too strong. I take full responsibility. Somebody’s gotta hang in the wind for all this, it oughta be me.”

“Colonel Hays, enough.” Winfield Scott shook his head, then met Jack’s eyes with his. “You are fortunate, sir. Doubly fortunate. First, the United States needed you and your misfits for this fight. Second, I am most assuredly a reasonable and practical man. I abhor your atrocities and your callous disregard for human life, but there’ll be no court martial. Nobody’s hanging anybody. That being understood, your job’s finished here. You, Colonel, are to get the hell out of Mexico City. I want you and your men cleared out of here by this time tomorrow. Do you understand?”

Jack breathed easier. Not sure where the hell he and his boys were supposed to go, but he’d find out soon enough, maybe from General Scott’s Adjutant. He gave the General his best effort at a proper salute, and this time, his salute was returned. But when would he be dismissed?
“There’ll be no written orders, Colonel,” Winfield Scott said. “But here’s what I want you to do. General Joe Lane’s just broken the Puebla siege and taken Huamantla from Santa Anna. He’ll get a Presidential Commendation for that. You and your men are to move out and secure the route over to Lane’s division, post haste. Supposedly, there are still Mexican irregulars operating east of here and Puebla. Seein’ as how you and your men seem so apt to kill, put as many of those bastards in the grave as you want, I don’t give a damn.”

Jack smiled, relieved. This was the kind of mission his Rangers were cut out to do. He’d be back to operating on his own, clearing hostiles and securing the main road from Mexico City east back toward the coast. Jack saluted again, this time more of an informal acknowledgement, then turned on his heel ready to leave.

“Not yet, Hays,” General Scott ordered without looking up. “You are not dismissed until you acknowledge my next and final order, crystal clear.”

This wasn’t going to be good. Jack about-faced. Winfield Scott stood and pulled his jacket tail down. Stared at him, straight-lipped.

The Theater Commander spoke with authority. “General Lane, acting on the express wishes of President Polk to me, and on my order, has granted General Lopez de Santa Anna and his entourage safe passage from Huamantla to Veracruz. From there, they will proceed by ship to Jamaica and permanent exile. Get this clear, Colonel.” Scott pointed one finger at Jack. “Should you encounter the Santa Anna entourage en route, you will extend every courtesy. They are to be permitted safe passage. No impediment.”

“No, dammit. No, sir.” Jack interrupted. His voice cracked, high-pitched. “All respect, Gen’ral Scott, but we cain’t let Santa Anna off the hook this time. All he’s done to Texas over the years. Murdering people at the Alamo, at Goliad, double-crossin’ General Sam, even lyin’ to President Andy Jackson. I’ve sworn to my men I’d kill Santa Anna myself, ever I got the chance.”

“Colonel Hays.” The Commanding General frowned. “General Santa Anna is considered to be a prisoner of war by the United States. Our job here in Mexico is almost done. The killing part, anyway. Killing a prisoner of war, especially this one, would be murder. You will, by God, provide Santa Anna reasonable and proper military courtesies and protection, should he request passage through your regiment. If he or any of his party suffer so much as a scratch by your hand, I shall hang you myself.”

The ramrod straight general had delivered an ultimatum. Jack had no doubt that Winfield Scott would have his ass, stretch his neck in a noose, should he waylay Santa Anna. Rigid and stone-faced, Jack saluted, then turned sharply and made for the door. Halfway across the parlor, he slowed and looked over his shoulder toward Winfield Scott once more.

“I’ll do it, sir,” he said loud.

Did Jack mean he’d grant safe passage to General Santa Anna? Or did Jack intend to defy a Presidential Order and kill the murdering sonofabitch if he encountered him? Jack wasn’t sure yet himself. If Sam Houston was here, right here in Jack’s spot, what would he do? General Sam had already let Santa Anna go once. Why? What made Santa Anna’s life more important than his death? Jack hastened through the door and made his way to the street. He’d had enough of Winfield Scott, and he’d had more than enough of goddamn Mexico.

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