Ashes on His Boot

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Disbanded - San Antonio - August 1848

The rocker on his front porch creaked with every forward motion. Colonel Jack Hays pushed back-and-forth with one foot and read the order again. His unit, the First Regiment, Texas Mounted Volunteers, was officially disbanded. President Polk’s signature on the bottom of the page said so. And George Tyler Wood, the new Texas governor, had no doubt taken pleasure in adding his dirty, scrawled signature beside Polk’s.

At the Battle of Monterrey, Wood had been a colonel in the Texas Militia. He’d commanded the Second Regiment. Damn him. Colonel Wood, all prim and proper, had been one of Jack’s accusers in General Taylor’s investigation into the killing of civilians in Monterrey. In fact, he’d provided his opinion that Jack was an assassin, and that his men were nothing more than “bloodthirsty barbarians.” Wasn’t much real proof behind all that, but General Taylor had formally reprimanded Jack all the same. He’d held up George Wood and his unit as the proper example of military decorum. They had abided by the “rules of war.”

Had they been right? Had Jack influenced his Texas Rangers to be nothing more than hired gunmen, mercenaries without conscience or remorse? Lawless killers unfit for a civilized society? Jack stopped his rocking. He recalled his Great Aunt Rachel years ago back in Nashville reading him the old commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Jack shivered despite the August heat and buried his head in his hands.

Minutes passed. A metallic clang, probably pots and pans, sounded somewhere inside the house. Jack looked up and smeared his wet eyes with a rough hand. Susan’s animated Spanish flowed through the screen door, along with some pungent, familiar aromas. Manuela had apparently done or said something to set his wife off on one of her rare Spanish language cooking lectures. Whatever they were doing inside smelled fine, though.

Jack rocked some more and stared at the brown hills. Everything was dead out there. No rain around San Antone since early June. Back to war and killing…. Death.

A little over a year ago in Washington, President Polk had introduced him to Congress as a war hero. The President’s wife had gushed about him being a great Indian fighter. Everybody said he and his Rangers had scared the Mexicans to death, even Santa Anna.

Jack had certainly done in more than his fair share of men, but he’d never killed anybody who hadn’t threatened him or tried to come at him first. That had to count for something. Buffalo Hump, Santa Anna, even General Sam – they’d killed people, sometimes innocent people, just for punishment, or as nothing more than examples.

No turning back the clock. But Jack Hays had learned more than one lesson about life and death here in Texas. Just thirty-one years old and already Jack was a retired colonel. Now, whether he was a real hero or no more than somebody’s villain, Jack was finished with war and killing. Santa Anna, Buffalo Hump, General Sam, they were all old, so they’d had a full life of killing. Here he was, barely half their age, fortunate in war, but way too young to have so much history. From here on, he’d have to be as good a surveyor as he had been a soldier.

The screen door hinges popped and Susan Hays appeared, smiling, in the doorway. Her crisp white apron covered a long blue and white gingham dress. She was still the best-looking woman around, Emily included. What would he do without Susan? Jack was lucky she loved him after all his shenanigans.

“When do you expect John to be here?” Susan Hays spoke in a soft, soothing voice. “The brisket is done. We can eat any time.”

“Should’ve been here by now,” Jack sighed. “But as I know the man, promptness ain’t one of his virtues. Only thing John’s truly quick to do is fight. That or run a survey chain.”

Susan wiped her hands on the apron and sat next to Jack in a second rocker. Something was on her mind. She’d been happy when the Rangers disbanded, but she knew he was having trouble getting used to being home and under foot. How much did she understand about his pangs of conscience?

“Jack.” Susan looked at him and smiled. “I do have a good idea why John’s coming here tonight. You two have cooked up some new surveying project. One that I suspect means we won’t be staying in Texas.”

“There might be some truth to that, my dear.” Jack touched her hand. “We need a new start. We need to go someplace where I can put all this warrin’ well enough behind me. Get on with family matters. Have children. How’d that suit you, Missus Hays?”

She smiled, grasped his arm and squeezed tight. Maybe he could tell her tonight about him and John wanting to go to California. Some fellow named Marshall had discovered gold there. Jack had no intention of mining it, but opportunity might be had for surveying and organizing claim registrations in California Territory. It all depended on how much of the metal was found. Might even be money in laying out the first real trail overland from here to the Pacific coast. Whatever was out there, he’d have more freedom, surely more satisfaction, than staying here in Texas as a leftover from fighting Comanches and Mexicans. Jack had no desire to become somebody confined to the past before his time.

Noise. Horse’s hooves pounding the hardpan. A rider galloped toward the house waving his hat. Jack recognized the floppy whitish headgear. Tardy or not, John Caperton was a welcome sight. Jack gripped Susan’s hand and stood up to welcome their dinner guest.

“Susan, this dinner’s always been my favorite.” Jack wiped his lower lip with a napkin and extended a hand to his wife, “There’s just nothing like your old-fashioned brisket, skillet bread and gravy.”

Jack’s wife took his hand and smiled. John Caperton, sitting opposite Jack, dabbed at his chin with his well-used napkin and announced his stern agreement. Susan motioned for Manuela to clear the table and moved to excuse herself, but Jack kept his wife’s hand clasped in his to keep her seated. Bird’s Nest pudding and fresh cinnamon cream might be waiting, but now was the time to get the talk over with.

“Susie, the dessert will keep awhile.” Jack slowed his breathing. “We got to talk some, the three of us.”

She half-smiled. For sure, Susan knew something of what Jack had in mind. But did she know he’d been out and about already, rounding up ex-Rangers? Men to help survey, and others as security for his party on the long trek west?

“Like I said already,” he started again. “Me and John here, well…we’re goin’ back into land surveying. You yourself agreed all along that this was a good idea. ‘High time for a new direction,’ you said.”

No fear or anger showed on Susan’s face. She knew he was done with Texas. No keeping him here. Only question was, would she make the long haul with him?

“Susie, what I ain’t explained yet,” Jack went on, “well, this time the surveyin’ work ain’t goin’ to be local like the first time me and John done it. They’ve found gold in California, you know. A lot of gold. I’m organizin’ an overland survey party.” Jack spilled the rest of his words like water from a bucket. “Hopin’ to head out in the next few weeks to find the fastest way from here to California. I aim to do that ’fore anybody else can.”

“Jack,” Susan smiled. “After all you’ve been through, you think I’d stand in your way? You said to me after our wedding that we’d married for better or for worse. Things in Texas have gotten worse. For you. For us. I care not a whit about Texas or what it thinks of my husband. My life is with you, Jack Hays. And, by Heaven, your life is with me. You’d best remember that.”

“Excuse me, folks,” John Caperton broke his silence. “It’s gettin’ late and I ought to be headin’ on out. Maybe save that dessert for another day.”

Jack turned and looked at his dinner guest. He’d almost forgotten John was still sitting across the table. Caperton stood, stuck his hat on his head, and put one weathered hand on Susan Hays’ shoulder.

“Missus Hays. Susan. I sure appreciate the hospitality.” Caperton smiled, crinkling his face. “One thing needs sayin’ before I go, though. Jack here’s not so good with smooth talkin’. I know that well enough already. I’m sure you do, too. But I promise you this. Him and me, we damned sure know what we’re doing with this California plan. Nothin’ll happen to him on the trail, nor when we’re out there. You’ll see. And you’ll get there soon enough after we’ve settled.”

Susan smiled close-mouthed at Caperton, then stood to face him. “I know what it means, John, for my husband to have you at his side….”

His wife went silent after that. Wasn’t Susan going to say more? She stepped aside, still smiling thinly. Jack could only push his chair back and see John Caperton out to his horse. The man hadn’t said much this evening, and Jack hadn’t been much of a host, but John had sure held up his end of the evening with that last little speech to Susan. On the porch Jack waved a goodbye to his business partner, about-faced and strode back into the house. Susan stood, her arms folded, looking out the front window. Jack put one arm around her small waist. She turned and smiled, eye-to-eye. Good thing he hadn’t married a tall woman.

“Susie, one more matter.” Jack’s voice was low. “Next week, I got to ride over to General…uh, I mean Senator Houston’s place in Huntsville. He’s home from Washington for a spell and wants a sit-down with me. Don’t know exactly what he’s got in mind. Anyway, it’s something I’d best go and at least hear out. It’s a long ride, but I’ll be back quick as I can.”

Susan shrugged and glanced out the window again. She turned back to Jack, put a hand on his arm and laid her head on his shoulder. Must be hard for Susie, all his coming and going. Been that way since the day they got married. Would it always be so?

“Jack, do as you must.” She spoke and brushed his cheek, whispering more. “Go and hear General Houston out, whatever he wants to say. Just no more war. I demand that much. And my love,” her voice wavered. “We have to be together. Your leavings are agony. I only exist when you’re gone, waiting. But when you come back, no matter where we are, life starts again. At least for me.”

The lump in his throat and tears, the big ones he wiped back now, hadn’t come to Jack since Sam Walker’s death. But this woman was his world. No one else. And no more thoughts of Emily. God, please.

Two hot, dry August days and two humid nights on the trail, followed by a hard ride for the better part of a third morning finally brought Jack to the front of a whitewashed, double-pen house with an inset porch where a dog run should’ve been. Certainly a fancy enough place for Senator Sam Houston. “Woodland” was the man’s stated pride and joy, and it had been his and Missus Margaret Lea’s home just outside Huntsville village for the last two years.

Jack tied his lathered pony to the hitching rail and bounded up the front steps into the welcome shade of the porch. The screen door pushed open before he could even knock. Margaret Lea Houston, Sam’s third wife, eased her tall, well-dressed frame in front of him. The woman’s long black hair was pulled severely to the top of her head and secured in a large bun. Her puff-sleeved maroon blouse was held shut at the neck by an ivory brooch carved with an image that might’ve been George Washington. Jack doffed his cap and bowed, he hoped, just enough.

“Colonel Hays, welcome to Woodland.” Margaret Houston’s voice was formal and airy. “Samuel has been expecting you. Go on back ’round the corner yonder. His cabin’s behind the main house. I’ll see to your horse.” Then she frowned a bit. “He’ll have refreshment enough there. God knows what, though. Difficult to keep that man from his sinful imbibing.”

Margaret Lea was the daughter of a well-known Baptist circuit rider, and truth be known, General Sam had always been a heavy drinker. Maybe this new strict wife, along with his election to the US Senate, was the right direction for an aging warrior like Sam.

Jack rolled his cap brim and addressed Houston’s wife. “Thank you, Ma’am. A real pleasure to meet you. I’m hoping one of these days to make you acquainted with my wife, Susan. Her father, Judge Calvert, I believe has been acquainted with your father for some time.”

He got nothing more than a formal smile from Lea Houston. Time to head for Houston’s cabin out back. Jack turned and strode down the front steps. Wonder why the General had wanted him to come all this way on such short notice? He’d find out pretty quick. General Sam didn’t really bother mincing words.

Not more than a hundred yards behind the main residence stood a rough, square-hewn log cabin with red trimmed window sash and matching door. Sam Houston, in an open white shirt and black suspenders that held up his equally plain black trousers, leaned against a well wall just beyond the front steps. A full dipper, presumably water, hung loosely in one hand. He lifted the utensil and offered it to Jack.

“Jack Hays. Son, it’s good to see you alive and prospering.” Houston spoke, smiling. “After the ride you must’ve had the last two days, dunno if you want this inside your belly or poured over your head. Suit yourself.”

Jack took the dipper and drank deeply. The water was cool and refreshing, like a spring rain, going down. He took a second dipperful from the bucket and bent over and poured the water over his bare head. Hard to believe after all these months, he was back with General, or rather, Senator Sam. Jack ran one hand through his wet hair.

“Senator Houston.” Jack tried to sound reverent, slowly glancing from Houston’s bushy eyebrows down to his polished boots and back again. “I’m real pleased to see you after all this time. Don’t know who’s been busy shining those boots, but Washington life must be agreein’ with you and the missus.”

“Aw, dammit.” Houston wrinkled his forehead. Bushy brows lowered, “don’t get goin’ about me and Washington. And as for Maggie? She hates politics. Won’t go east with me. Then, once I’m home, she’s busy harpin’ on my ass about drinkin’. That’s how come I built this office out back. She’s a good woman, though. I’d prob’ly be dead already without her.”

Houston put one hand on Jack’s shoulder and guided him toward the cabin. Good, this was no social call. The man meant to get down to business. Maybe Sam Houston understood that Jack wanted to get back to Susan just as soon as their parley was over.

Inside the cabin, Houston’s office was not like any Jack had seen him occupy before. Books were scattered about, but far fewer. Some were stacked neatly on a rough bench against one log wall. The General’s saber and his silver-handled cane were cross-mounted above the heavy stone fireplace mantle. Apparently, the new Texas Senator could do without both. Sam Houston sat in a rocker facing Jack, relaxed and somehow younger with his trimmed sideburns and close-cropped, graying hair. Sure was a different feeling from that day he’d first met the General at the Fanthorpe Inn. God, Jack had been nervous back then.

The polished oak bench with spindled backrest where Jack sat now was too slick in the seat and straight up for any long meeting. As such, he hoped they’d get the matters attended to quickly. Trail riding was sure easier than sitting on this contraption.

“Here’s to you and your Missus, Jack.” Houston raised a short tin from the low table between them and eyed him. “Don’t worry, it’s cider. And not the real hard stuff, neither.”

Jack grabbed his tin, gave a quick salute and took a sip. Tasted a lot better than he’d expected. Maybe General Sam was indeed mellowing. So was he after all these years.

“Story I hear,” Houston spoke, at once steely-eyed and serious. “Now that the Rangerin’s done, you and Caperton are off on some fool mission to California Territory.”

Houston stared at Jack as if he was waiting for a response. Jack knew better. General Sam, or whatever his title was these days, wasn’t done with his lecturing. Besides, where the hell had he heard the California story already?

“Some folks say,” Houston took a deep breath. “you’re leaving ‘cause you don’t feel needed. No, worse than that. Leavin’ because you’re not wanted here in Texas no more.”

“General Sam.” Jack responded, then caught himself. “Hell, I cain’t even say ‘Senator Sam’ yet. Truth be told, that’s exactly how I see things. Santa Anna’s gone, and between us Rangers and the pox, the Comanche are basically done for, too. You yourself left Tennessee a long time back for a better life. I figure it’s time me and Susie did the same. Head further west. There’s money to be made in California, Sam. Not just in minin’ gold, neither.”

“Jack, I was run outta goddamn Tennessee,” Houston interrupted. “Even had a fistfight with a feller my first stint in Congress. If it hadn’t been for that lawyer of mine, Francis Key, I might still be in jail. That boy put on one helluva show. Then there was all the fufaraw with Jim Polk over the Cherokee. He didn’t treat those poor devils right. No sir, not at all. So off I went, right along with them Indians into Arkansas Territory. I reckon you know the rest. But here in Texas? Son, nobody’s runnin’ you out. Not even tryin’ to. You’re a genuine hero.”

Jack stared at his old mentor. How could he tell the man that he was part of the reason for Jack’s leaving? General Sam had gone soft on Santa Anna. Now he’d signed a peace treaty with Buffalo Hump and the damned Comanche. Some of them, leastways. Best he kept his mouth shut, though. At least till the General got to whatever the hell his point was going to be. Besides, maybe ol’ Sam was right, the time might have come for peacemaking and politics.

Houston interrupted his thoughts. “Jack, you’ve damned sure helped settle Texas. But apparently, Texas ain’t settled you, so you best head on to whatever’s waiting on the trail between here and California. Nobody’s stopping you. But before you go, there’s some unfinished business here.”

Sam Houston stood and walked to a small desk under one window. He took a sizable oilskin-wrapped packet from the desk and handed the heavy bundle to Jack. What the hell was this? Felt like a pistol. Jack untied the rawhide thong and peeled the oilskin covering away.

Wide-eyed, he stared down at the blue-burnished octagonal barrel, hammer and cylinder. Damn, a new design. A new six-shot pistol. The trigger guard and handle mounting were bright, beautiful brass, and the empty cylinder was engraved with some kind of naval battle scene. The handle was carved of solid ivory and highly polished, and a wolf’s head had been engraved on each side of the hammer. A real thing of beauty, this weapon.

“I got this by courier from Sam Colt a few weeks ago.” Houston said. “Package had a note inside. Colt wrote that Miz Emily West was supposed to deliver the pistol to you personally, but she’d told Sam Colt that she’s never comin’ back to Texas. She bought herself a little East Coast cottage and settled in, according to Colt. I was supposed to make up some kind of ceremony and present the damn weapon to you myself. Now, I know neither of us is big on such merry-makin’, so….”

Jack hefted the handsome weapon. Switched hands with it. A well-balanced handgun, .36 caliber. Probably the finest pistol Jack had ever gripped. He’d be obliged to send Sam Colt some kind of thank you. And as for Emily not being here? She’d be just fine – better off, even – back east. Emily West was a survivor just like him.

“Now Jack,” Sam Houston said. “Before you get too attached to that new Navy Colt…. That’s what Sam Colt’s named it…. Here’s the real job I asked you here for. And on this last mission, you’d best not carry that piece with you.”

Job? Mission? No weapon permitted? Jack did not like where General Sam was headed with this. He put the pistol back on the table between them and took a sip from his tin.

Houston fixed his eyes on Jack and went on. “The old Chief, Buffalo Hump, he’s asked to meet with you. Needs to powwow with ‘Lightning without Rain,’ he told me. That’s your moniker in Comanche lingo, apparently. Chief wants to bury the hatchet. And not between your shoulder blades, neither.” Houston grinned. “You know, Jack, me and Buffalo Hump, we smoked the peace pipe. When we signed that Council Springs Treaty a few months back, he asked me this favor. I promised him right then and there that I’d see to it you paid your respects. That Old Indian admires you, Jack. Besides, he says he has something that rightly belongs to you. Wouldn’t say what it is, though. I figure it must be pretty important.”

God Almighty. First, being ordered to let Santa Anna pass. That was humbling enough. But Jack had done as ordered. Now as a civilian, him being asked to meet with Buffalo Hump? General Sam was mad. Just plain loco.

Since Jack’s confrontation with Santa Anna on the road to Veracruz, that little Mexican had sure lost his mystique. And because of that, Jack had felt less urge for revenge these days. Maybe the same would be true if he met his old nemesis, Buffalo Hump. But what could that bastard possibly have that belonged to him? And how could Jack be sure this was not just some trick? Some kind of plot so Buffalo Hump could finally punish the man who had killed so many of his people? Jack stood up and stuck the heavy pistol in his belt. Enough palaver with his old mentor, he was ready to get back home.

“Gen’ral Sam,” Jack sighed. “Guess I’ll do the thing you’re askin’. I owe you that. That Indian might not kill me if he’s promised you as much. But as for goin’ alone? Unarmed? Well, I’ll have to think awhile on that. Anyway, can you let the old Chief know I can ride up to his village sometime later? Let’s say, early next month.”

Sam Houston smiled, nodded and shook Jack’s hand. There’d be no invite to stay the night, no dinner with the Senator and Missus Houston at Woodland. Jack’s business here was done. And anyway, he had to get back to Susan. He needed her more now than ever.

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