Ashes on His Boot

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On to Goliad - April 1836

Three days out of Nolansville, near a rough trail deeply rutted from spring rains and wagon traffic, Jack made camp. The Guadalupe River roared in shallow rapids upstream, but it was calm here where he’d stopped for the night. Early tomorrow he’d come out of the mesquite thicket and swim his pony across.

Trail riding in Texas was a hell of a lot different from Tennessee. More wide open and flatter the further south and west you rode. Almost no forests, just scrub brush, mesquite and live oaks. And no cover to speak of, except along the few creeks and rivers he’d crossed. Thick marsh grass and reeds grew there, along with plenty of critters, snakes and such. He’d seen few people, mostly just settler families on scattered farms and one or two isolated hamlets. Texas had miles of land to be surveyed one of these days, for certain.
Where had all the ruts in the trail come from? There’d been only two wagons – one a finely outfitted dry goods trader, the other a real pale migrant family. They spoke some language he’d not been able to make out. Both were headed in the opposite direction from him. Wouldn’t there have to be more than two wagons to make all those ruts?
A desolate place, this here Texas. He’d been given good well water by a Spanish – or more likely Mexican – ranch hand at one of the homesteads. Jack had filled both canteens, but he’d gotten nothing else from anybody.
No Indians so far. At least no Indians that he’d seen. People or no people, desolate or not, he had a mission to tend to. An order straight from Sam Houston himself. He slept lightly.
At dawn the next morning, Jack swam the fast-moving current of the Guadalupe alongside his pony. He climbed into the saddle as soon as he found footing and rode up the southwest bank, soaked to his neck. The pony shook its head and snorted repeatedly to rid itself of the wetness. Jack checked his pistols inside his oilskin duster to make sure they’d remained dry.
Some distance away, two riders appeared, headed at a gallop in his direction. Jack reckoned they were still maybe half-a-mile upstream. He reined in his pony and stayed in the morning shadows near the line of low pecan trees along the river. They kept coming, spurring their horses and riding hell-for-leather straight at him. The two were damned-well up to mischief of some kind. Not Indians, for sure. They had to be highwaymen, and they’d spotted him. Jack was not about to give up the almost sixty dollars in gold pieces and silver coins he’d stuffed deep into the lining of his new pommel bag. That was his life savings. In such instances, best shoot first, General Sam had said.
Jack unhooked the bag flap and hoisted the heavier of his two flintlocks. He half-cocked the pistol, then spurred his pony hard and charged the two highwaymen, thundering at the riders through the prairie grass. From the way they reined up, his move had surprised them. Jack slid from his mount’s back and clung to the saddle horn from the right side, mostly shielded by his galloping pony. He crossed his left leg behind his right knee and pushed hard, jamming his right boot tighter into the stirrup. The two highwaymen fired on him as the gap narrowed. Both shots missed high and wide.
Jack cocked his flintlock full and took jostling aim. He fired over his empty saddle at the closer of the two riders. The shot caught the man in the shoulder and toppled him head-over-boot, one foot still caught in the stirrup. The marauder’s mount bolted to the left and thundered away, its rider little more than a rag doll flopping and bouncing against the hardpan. Mushrooming dust trailed the pair through the underbrush and over the ridge.
Hays came erect in his saddle and wheeled his pony. He stashed the spent pistol, then grabbed his other flintlock, galloping hard at the second rider. The dark, bearded man had drawn a long saber of some kind and rode scowling and screaming toward him.
Jack fired. Dust flew from the man’s jacket. His attacker lost his blade into the air and grabbed his chest. Grimacing through his dark beard, the second highwayman pulled up short, his mount rearing to a skidding halt. Sagging rider and frenzied horse turned tail and fled from the fight, disappearing over the low ridge-line. No blood that Jack could see, but his shot sure as hell had found its mark.
Jack reined his pony to a pawing stop and reloaded the second pistol. Flintlock still at the ready, he held his hat on and bent down from the saddle to have a closer look at a grayish, short-billed sea cap laying on the trail. A cap very much like the ones Big Red’s boys had worn.

Once in Goliad, Jack Hays had no trouble finding the encampment of the Texas Ranger burial detail. Houston had told him the camp was where three roads came together, right where most of Colonel Fannin’s Texas detachment had been murdered on Santa Anna’s personal order.
Dirty, off-white tents rustled in the wind in crooked rows just beyond the entrance to Fort Defiance. The sun warmed the air, but the stink of death fouled the April breeze and made it hard to breathe. The choking odor of burned and rotting flesh even managed to work its way through the bandana Jack had pulled over his nose and mouth as he rode.
Hays dismounted, still holding the kerchief over his face, and stared up at the blue-and-white one-star flag of the Republic of Texas. He was for sure in a foreign country. The stink and that flag proved it. Hellfire, this was a strange place all right.
Jack tied his horse near the flagpole and walked toward the largest tent. A sullen, slouching cavalryman he guessed to be the guard responded to his question about Lieutenant Smith. Two muttered words and one finger pointed Jack through the tent flap. The trooper was the first person Jack had heard a word from in days.
Lieutenant Erasmus Smith sat behind his crude board of a desk near the rear of the tent. He looked up when Hays entered, and put hard eyes on Jack as he saluted, announced his name and handed over his orders from Sam Houston. Smith’s blue militia jacket looked much like General Houston’s, apart from the single brass bar on each shoulder where Houston’s stars had been. Any further similarity to military dress ended with the jacket.
Plain to see, Smith wasn’t too interested in him. Not today, leastways. The Ranger Lieutenant had those same tired eyes as the barkeep back in Nacogdoches. Seemed wore out. Deaf Smith put all Jack’s papers aside without even so much as a grunt.
“Boy, you got a bedroll.” the Lieutenant shouted. “Put it and the rest of your tack on down the tent row.” Smith waved an arm in the air. “Empty cot’s down there somewheres.”
Jack waited for more, shifting nervously. There had to be a rank. An assignment. He’d not just joined the Texas Rangers, Gen’ral Houston had said he was going to the Rangers’ best unit. Wasn’t much, so far.
“Supper’s at sunset.” His commander said. “Cider and biscuits sunup tomorrow. Burial detail’s all day after that. Horse corral’s by the creek.”
Deaf Smith wasn’t only hard of hearing, he wasn’t much of a talker either. No more orders from his commander. Jack saluted as best he knew how, then turned and took his leave.

The days and nights in Goliad pressed down hard on Jack. They were always hot and sticky, but the duty was worse than the heat. The burial detail sickened him. Pissed him off. He’d never in his nineteen years seen this much death piled up, not even at hog butchering time back home. This was a hell of an initiation, for sure. Anyway, he’d do what he had to and not fret too much these first few weeks.
“Deef’s Devils,” they called themselves. Lieutenant Smith’s company of Texas Rangers. Hard to believe what he’d heard General Sam say about these men blooding themselves well and proud against the Mexicans at San Jacinto. They might’ve fought well, but they sure as shit weren’t much to look at.
He liked their war cry, though. “Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!” Jack would most surely never forget Goliad. And he’d see the Alamo soon enough. Probably pretty lucky he’d missed that fight. Two hundred or so murdered in San Antone before Sam Houston had kicked the Mexicans’ asses at San Jacinto, and that had been just a few weeks before he arrived.

Jack Hays rode north with “Deef’s Devils” toward San Antonio de Béxar. He still had the smell of death in his clothes. They all did. But bad smell and all, Jack was finally headed for excitement. Deaf Smith rode at the head of the column, going home to what General Sam had said was a wife and four children. Lieutenant Smith looked even more bone tired when he’d passed Jack on the trail than he did weeks ago when Jack had first reported in.
Before long, Jack would stand inside the Alamo Mission. Maybe he’d get somebody to show him where Congressman Crockett had died. And one day, if he was lucky, he’d face General Santa Anna. Then he’d do the deed and even the damned score with that little Mexican.
A curious and talkative Indian scout rode beside Jack part of the way. Hays reckoned him to be about his own age. The scout sat sinewy and proud in a Spanish-looking saddle. What he wore was truly something to behold, especially for an Indian. Head-to-toe, a fine, near-white, fringed deerskin, but without beads or decoration. A black bandana protected his forehead and tied his long, black hair down his back. He sure wasn’t like the Cherokee and Choctaw Jack had known back in Tennessee.
The young Indian had a full quiver of arrows and a short hunting bow slung across his back, plus a fine Jaeger rifle tucked in a quick-draw saddle holster at the back of his leg. Hays guessed the fellow knew how to use both equally well. Andrew Jackson had shared a story with Jack long ago about the Jaeger. He’d been up against the weapon in the 1812 War. German-made, deadly accurate and reliable, the rifle had been the British Infantry’s standard weapon.
“I am called Flacco the Younger,” the Indian remarked. “In my Lipan band, I am chief. So, OK you call me Chief Flacco.” Flacco continued, not waiting for a response. “We Lipans part of famous Apache People. Everybody know Apache here. We good people. Not enemy to you White Face.”
Maybe not warring Indians, the Lipans, but Flacco couldn’t possibly be their main chief. He was just too damn young. Besides, if he was Chief, he wouldn’t be out here dressed halfway like David Crockett, sittin’ in a fancy saddle, packin’ a fancy rifle and ridin’ with Texas Rangers.
Flacco was full of questions for Jack. He just never shut up. Most Indians Jack had come across were not this noisy. And for somebody so young, Flacco sure seemed to have been around. He’d had more’n his share of ups-and-downs. Who knew how much of it was truth, though.
“Why so many Tennessee White Faces come to Texas?” Flacco asked. And before Jack could answer, “You really know famous General Sam?”
When Jack didn’t talk, Flacco seemed to take his silence in stride. Maybe because he was used to not being quiet, not being listened to. The young Indian gave a lot of opinions and simply asked a different question if he got no answer.
“You ride like Apache, not like White Face soldier. How you anyway get Indian pony?” Flacco went on…and on and on. “You kill Comanche and take pony? Mucho good, if Comanche die. They kill Apache people. They kill Tonkawa people. Take our land. Comanche shit, you know. They just shit!”
Jack hoped the young Apache was half as good at tracking as he was at talking. Eventually, Jack asked questions. The “Chief” gave long, often angry answers. All Indians called themselves “The People,” he was told. Flacco’s people, the Lipans, had another name for the Numunuh bands in Texas. They were called “Ku-man-shee,” the Apache and Ute word for “enemy.”
“Ku-man-shee always like fight. Kill everybody.” Flacco wailed. “Always kill all men, everywhere. Take my Peoples’ land. Take White Faces’ land. Mexicanos’ land, too.”
“They come down sneaky from great cold North, long time back.” Flacco continued. “Comanche coward. Not like cold weather. Move all tribe. Make women and children move tipis and do all work. Comanche man no farm. Only hunt. Only kill.”
Then Flacco announced his warning. “But Comanche very clever tradesman. First time, Comanche happy to trade buffalo skin and meat for whiskey and gun. Maybe horses, too. Not enough whiskey and guns come, so clever Comanche now take women and children. Can trade for much more whiskey and gun.”
Flacco still wasn’t finished.
“And long as Comanche take woman and child, why not take horse, too?” Flacco patted his pony and stared straight ahead as they rode. “Comanche take everybody horse. Comanche ride good. Shoot much arrow quick from horse.” Flacco pointed at Hays’ flintlock. “White Face gun slow. One shot, bang. Comanche quicker. Arrow, arrow, arrow. Kill White Face reloading every time.”
Jack Hays liked this young Indian, despite his talking and talking. Couldn’t quite put his finger on it all yet, but Jack was sure Flacco’s coal-black eyes held no fear. And the Indian wasn’t tired of fighting. Not by a long shot.

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