The Little General - February 1848
The blue norther howled across the barren brown Mexican hills. Cold wind numbed Jack’s ears and made his eyes water. Probably felt the same to his men lining both sides of the trail behind him. He shivered in his saddle, shook off the chill and blinked to better see the uniformed rider with some kind of truce flag trotting toward him. No telling who this fellow was. Mexican Army for sure, but Santa Anna? Probably not, he’d never travel alone. Even so this intruder sure had something to do with the weasly little Mexican general.
The man wore a dark blue uniform trimmed in gold braid. His high-collared tunic buttoned down the front along both sides of an ornate red chest panel. His hat was a tall navy blue cylinder with gold Mexican sunburst insignia over a short bill. A diagonal, brown leather field belt supported his saber, but no other weapons were visible. The man carried the long staff of a white flag in one hand with the bottom end anchored in one stirrup.
The rider drew up fifty yards away from Jack. He had to be high rank in the Mexican army, at least a colonel, maybe even a general. He waved the white flag side-to-side twice, then thrust the sharpened metal heel of the staff deep into the mud. Next, the Mexican officer drew his saber and, touching the hilt to his chin in salute, he stuck the weapon upright into the muddy trail beside his truce flag. The man doffed his headgear, exposing wavy black hair. He bent from the saddle and placed his blue officer’s hat on the still-swaying saber hilt. A helluva lot of ceremony for who-the-hell knew what…or why. Shit, this was the worst. This had to have something to do with the little Mexican general.
Jack raised his pistol high in one hand and turned in his saddle to address his troops. Bundled Rangers lined both sides of the rutted, muddy trail. Almost three hundred scowling, weathered men waited with weapons in hand for Jack’s order. He eased off his pistol hammer with one thumb and lowered the weapon, but gave no signal for his men to stand down. All this white flag business could be a diversion. Maybe this messenger was nothing more than ambush bait. He’d find out quick enough.
“Gents,” Jack shouted left and right. “Today is indeed that cold day in hell. Generale Santa Anna’s here to surrender. This probably ain’t him, but the feller’s damned well gonna tell us where to find the bastard.”
Jack turned again to face the Mexican. The officer bowed from the waist and smiled. Jack did not. Damn, was this man really part of Santa Anna’s entourage? What the hell should Jack do now? He had federal orders to let Santa Anna and anybody with him pass through his defenses unharmed.
“Senór, my humble apologies for the intrusion.” The Mexican rider addressed Jack in excellent English. “I am Colonel Juan Almonte, Aide-de-camp to General Lopez de Santa Anna. Could you please identify yourselves that I might properly present my credentials? I am here to request safe passage to Veracruz for my commander and his distinguished party.”
Hard to believe this tall, elegant fellow was the enemy. He looked friendly, maybe even cultured. Sure didn’t sound like a barbarian, or look like a murderer. How could he be mixed up with somebody like General Santa Anna? And this was how such military truces and safe passage matters were supposed to work? Jack looked Colonel Almonte up and down.
“You’re speaking to Jack Hays. I’m a Texas Ranger,” Jack responded, squinting at the emissary. “That’s all you need to know. Ride on up to me and present whatever you’re carrying. But know this, one wrong move and there won’t be no more presentin’. Understand?”
The Mexican nodded and nudged his horse forward. Almonte held his right hand open in the air and reined up alongside Jack. The enemy officer saluted, then unbuttoned the red chest flap of his tunic from throat to mid-chest and displayed two folded parchment sheets. He handed the papers over. Jack took the documents without saluting and holstered his pistol. A metallic rustling behind him told Jack that most of his men were easing off on their weapons.
He scanned the first page, then the second. Both were hand-written in English. No misreading all this, Santa Anna intended to pass along this very road to safety and would be escorted by his own Regimental Guard. What General Scott had warned him about earlier was coming true. But why did Santa Anna have to come his way?
So many good people dead because of this man. Crockett and Bowie at the Alamo, and Fannin and the four hundred at Goliad, all dead. And the general he was finally about to face had been responsible for the lot. Was Jack going to let the little bastard who’d done all that killing live even one more day?
Jack shook his head and handed the documents back to Colonel Almonte. The Mexican officer returned the folded papers to his tunic, then rested both hands on his saddle horn and gave a tight-lipped smile. Jack again drew and half-cocked one pistol. He lifted the weapon over his head. Hammer clicks sounded up and down the Ranger lines behind him. Jack neck-reined his pony a half turn to address his men. He glanced back at the Mexican officer. Colonel Almonte sat motionless in his silver-trimmed Spanish saddle, his open right hand raised in the cold February air. The smile was gone.
“Fellers,” Jack announced. “I got reason to hate Santa Anna much as any of you do. But his time in Mexico…it’s finished. Papers I just read say so. Colonel Almonte here, he’s Santa Anna’s messenger. His aide. The little Generale and his family’s coming up this road soon’s the Colonel tells ’em it’s OK.”
Murmurs and grumbles came from his men on both sides of the road. Ponies’ hooves restlessly pawed the muddy ground. Jack inhaled the cold, damp Mexican winter air. Had he no means of bringing justice to this confrontation?
“I’m giving them my permission to come on through.” Jack went on. “Here’s my order. None of you’s revengin’ on Santa Anna, nor killing none of his party when they pass us. I want us all clear on that. Any killin’s done today, I’ll do the deed myself. Nobody in my command’s making a move. Nobody’s firin’ a shot unless I fire first. Y’all got that?”
This time, no sounds came from his troops, other than the shuffling thumps of well-shod pony hooves on bare earth. Men nodded. Jack nudged his mount away from Colonel Almonte and trotted further along the road between the two lines of his Rangers. He eyed each man, then turned again and galloped up the line. He reined in his pony in front of Colonel Almonte.
“Tell your General,” Jack said, loud enough for his men to hear, “he and his entourage can come on through. They’ll not be harmed, so long as none a’ you makes even one false move. Anybody does, you all die right here. Understand?”
The Colonel nodded, straight-faced, then rendered a stiff hand salute. Jack sat in his saddle, silent, without returning the courtesy. Almonte turned and spurred his mount. This man was a fine horseman, but could he ride as hard and shoot as well as Jack? Probably not. The Mexican officer thundered away. He snatched his hat and saber in one graceful move, leaving the fluttering white truce flag. Just like that, Santa Anna’s aide disappeared over the hillock.
That damned white flag. Could Jack ignore a symbol of truce? A flag of surrender? Could the act of sparing the little General and his family’s lives somehow honor the loss of his friends and thousands of others that the Mexicans had murdered?
Once again, Jack stretched in the saddle and squinted his eyes against the stiff north wind. Colonel Juan Almonte had been gone less than an hour when a thundering rumble grew in the distance. The sounds of horses and riders, a lot of them, coming closer, just as he’d been advised in Colonel Almonte’s request for safe passage.
Jack spotted the lead elements. The cold February breeze fanned the tri-colored flags of a Mexican heavy cavalry unit. A full regiment of elite mounted dragoons trotted toward him. Their gold-braided, cobalt blue tunics, red plumed shakos, white cross-belts and spotless white trousers were a stark contrast to Jack’s unkempt and grizzled men, but there was no question of who was the true instrument of war. These Mexican boys were just too damn clean and pretty to fight.
A single open carriage rolled in the middle of the approaching Mexican columns. The weak winter sun reflected on the black lacquered sides and lit the white truce flag still fluttering beside the path. A lone military driver sat high in the front and reined a team of four matched white horses. Heavy gold covered the coach rails, and a presidential crest embossed the carriage door. No need to guess the identity of the occupants, or to wonder any longer what they looked like.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna sat facing forward, his head bare and bowed. A sultry, dark-haired woman, for sure Santa Anna’s much younger wife, rode at his side with head held high and proud. The enemy cavalry escort and the Mexican General’s personal carriage moved between the long rows of Jack’s scowling Texas Rangers, their weapons at the ready. Jack was surprised that Santa Anna made himself so openly visible. Was he wanting Jack to kill him, or was he endeavoring to show contempt?
Jack nudged his pony and galloped past Santa Anna, wedging his way in between the stately black carriage and the trotting lines of Mexican dragoons. Then Jack turned about and raced back up alongside the General’s transport. This arrogant bastard needed to feel his hate.
With his full-cocked Walker Colt in one hand, Jack cantered apace with Santa Anna. He wanted the Mexican to acknowledge him and at least admit defeat. But Santa Anna made no attempt at eye contact.
Two children, a boy and a smaller girl, sat opposite the adults on rear facing, velvet seats. The family was covered from the waist down with dark blue lap blankets, but were otherwise unprotected against the chill. Santa Anna now sat stiff and straight, still staring ahead. He wore a navy blue military jacket with gold epaulets, trimmed in red. A light blue sash festooned with medals crossed his upper torso. That jacket sure-as-shit would look a lot better with a hole in the chest from one of Jack’s pistol rounds.
The General’s wife had a black scarf fringed with green wrapped about her shoulders. Like Santa Anna, she was bare headed, so her long, dark hair fluttered in the wind. The woman, or rather, the girl, held Santa Anna’s arm and looked toward Jack. She held his stare.
Somewhere, a dog barked and growled. Then more barking that died away in the distance. Otherwise, the only real sounds belonged to the creaking wheels of the carriage and the horses’ hooves on the hard dirt. A formidable, quiet procession.
Was this little weasel really worth shooting dead on the spot? Worth a bloodbath here on the road to Veracruz? The knot in Jack’s gut tightened. The temptation was palpable. He nudged his pony and rode further ahead of the Mexican entourage.
What now? Killing Santa Anna with his family looking on would sure be Divine Justice. One less devil to torment people on God’s Earth. Jack smirked, then realized he was wrong. If Jack put a bullet in this Mexican, there’d soon be two less devils walking the Earth. He might live through killing Santa Anna, but Winfield Scott would certainly see him hanged.
The carriage reached the end of the Ranger column. Jack reined in his pony and turned to face Santa Anna as his carriage approached. He eased off the hammer of his revolver with a double click. Jack’s hand shook when he holstered the weapon. No reaction came from Santa Anna, but his wife smiled and nodded to Jack. That dark hair and olive skin…. Quite an attractive girl. Could’ve been Emily’s younger sister.
My God, Emily again. What about Susan? His wife would never have taken part in this conflict. Emily, though, would have relished an opportunity to go at Santa Anna again after her capture by his men years ago at Morgan’s Point. But even Emily wouldn’t want Jack killing the man here. Not now. Not any more.
Jack kneed his mount around and followed the procession with his eyes. Galloping cavalry obscured his view of Santa Anna’s carriage. Colonel Juan Almonte, the last to ride past, snatched the white truce flag from the trailside and bowed from the saddle toward him. Jack shivered then inhaled, trying to slow the pounding in his chest. Minutes later, the last of the procession disappeared over the hillock. He turned his pony and signaled to his Rangers. Stand down. Stand down, goddammit. No more would he be Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott’s scoundrel.