Ashes on His Boot

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Rain on the Ashes - Early September 1848

“My God, Jack. I thought we were done with this!” Susan yelled. “You’ve truly lost your senses. And the General, or Senator, or whatever that old man calls himself these days, he’s crazy as well. Let him go to the Comanche. He’s old. Finished. Your whole life’s still ahead of you. Ahead of us. You don’t owe anything to anybody in Texas.”

Jack shook his head and stared across the bedroom at Susan, rocking herself into a fit in that railed, wicker chair. His wife had a right to her anger, though. He’d promised her no more war. No more killing. And he’d keep that promise. But neither of them had bargained for Jack being asked to meet alone with his old foe, the Comanche war chief. Houston’s peace treaty or not, Jack would be putting himself in harm’s way. In truth, Susan’s fear was warranted. He was planning to go alone and unarmed. That truly was more than anyone had a right to ask of him.

Jack actually hadn’t given Houston’s request much more thought, what with all his California preparations. In fact he and Susan had spoken no more on the matter until the rider had shown up yesterday with General Sam’s urgent message. Buffalo Hump would see him the morning after the last Summer Moon. Damn, that was barely two days from now, and the old Chief’s village was at least a day’s ride from San Antone.

Jack had argued a bit more with Susan. Now they’d go to bed, probably silent and back-to-back. They’d sure done that before. In the morning, he’d have to gather his pommel bag, oilcloth duster and blanket under a silent roof. One thing for sure, though; he’d test fire the new Navy Colt before he left. Sam Colt’s gift would at least be with him on the trail to the meeting. And back, too, if all went as planned.

Sleep came for Jack only after midnight – fitful and disturbing, with dreams full of nothing but death, sadness and stifling heat. Visions of mutilated corpses, dead horses, blood and gore invaded his thoughts. Weeping and wailing women and children, too.

He jerked upright in bed. Cold sweat had lathered Jack’s neck and soaked the collar of his nightshirt. Susan lay silent and unmoving beside him. He felt her forehead. She turned onto her back and sighed, but kept sleeping. God, the bedroom was hot. Jack breathed in, trying to slow his heartbeat.

There, the crying came again. Then low and long hissing snarls. Maybe a horse or two whinnying? Sure not his dreaming this time. What the hell? Coyotes? Wolves? No. Maybe a puma? Not likely either. Guttural cries somewhere right outside the house, or near the creek. After that, more whinnies, then silence. Jack swung his legs over the edge of the bed and put his feet on the floor.

Once he’d found and pulled on his boots, Jack snatched the new Navy Colt from his nightstand. He checked the cylinder load and scrambled through the hallway out the front door. He vaulted off the porch into the yard and headed down the path, the new pistol a perfect fit in his hand. On the run, he half-cocked the hammer and glanced left and right, expecting damn-near anything.

Jack sprinted past the lean-to that served as the barn. Chickens clucked and fluttered, awake and nervous. He sprinted on past the corral, his breath coming shorter now. Where the hell was his pony? Two others, snorting and stomping, raced around near the log fence.

Just beyond the corral corner, Jack drew up short. Full moonlight exposed some movement near a clump of swamp grass along the far creek bank. Soft, anguished snorts and moans told him he’d found his prized mount, but matters were obviously dire. Jack darted forward and peered left, then right. He reached the creek’s edge on the dead run only to find his pony sprawled and writhing in the reeds and grass up against the opposite bank. One of the poor pony’s forelegs jutted out at a terrible angle. The wounded animal raised its head, struggling and making nothing more than soft cries. Its leg was broken, ruined.

Jack knew what would have to come next. He waded into the shallow water, heartbreak suddenly overwhelming him. What the hell had spooked his treasured pony? A wild animal? A horse thief? Was the intruder still around? How had he gotten out of the corral? Jack reached the animal’s side and squatted, partly to shield himself and partly to comfort his best trail-riding friend and proven combat veteran. Jack shook with grief. Silent for what seemed like forever, Jack stood, steadied himself and pointed the new pistol at his pony’s head. Then he full cocked the weapon and fired. With one great flinch of its body, the awful deed was done.

First light came on scattered clouds to the east. Jack still sat in the dirt beside the dead pony, heartsick. Susan had come down some time ago, looking to his welfare, and Jack had sent her back to the house. In all his years, throughout all his life-or-death struggles, Jack had never felt this amount of self-loathing. He eyed the new Colt pistol lying on a log, off to his side. Might have been beautiful before, but now the sight of it sickened Jack. He bent down, grabbed the weapon by the barrel, and flung the goddamn thing as far as he could. The weapon spun end-over-end above the mesquite bushes, then landed with a dull thud and a soft splash. Good, the gun was gone. Jack was finished with killing. Finished for good.

“Susie, we talked all this out already.” Jack called from the hallway. “You hate where I’m going, I know that well enough. But John’ll be here within the hour. I talked him into ridin’ with me to the foot of the escarpment. We’ll camp there for the night, then I’ll head up into the hill country to see the old Indian alone, soon as the sun’s up. Me and John’ll head home after I’m done. I ought to be back by nightfall tomorrow. Or latest, by noon the day after. You know I got to do this, Susie. Not just for Sam Houston, neither. For me. I need to finish this.”

“Jack,” Susan smiled. “You are indeed an idiot. But you are my idiot. And I know your heart. Now that Santa Anna’s gone, one of Hays’ Devils is finally vanquished. I suppose you’ve one more yet to face. My only prayer is that God will protect you and bring you home to me quickly.”

The sound of a lone horse and rider clattered in front of the house. Susan moved to the window. Jack lifted his trail gear, stuck a hat on his head, and felt for the old Walker Colt holstered against his hip.

“It’s John.” Susan turned from the window and announced. “Go now. The sooner this ordeal begins, the sooner you’re done. Go on. Out with you.”

Jack took his wife’s hand and kissed her, a light peck on one cheek. She smiled, weary with thin closed lips. Her eyes were glassy. Jack stepped out the door and was down the front steps in a few long strides. He lifted a hand in greeting to Caperton and threw his bedroll and pommel bag across his spare pony’s back. Two canteens of water hung on the saddle horn. Jack took the reins from a silent stable hand and mounted up. He swallowed hard. No fanfare. No looking back at Susan. He and John Caperton turned and started the long ride north.

Night enveloped them, cool and calm after the September sun. Now, the last full moon of summer rose in the east and filtered through the pecan trees. The ponies had been left saddled and tied to mesquite bushes down by a narrow, near-dry creek, and Jack sat quietly by a small fire. He chewed on some buffalo jerky. Those yelps and high-pitched howls up in the hills weren’t coyotes. Comanche watchmen for certain. Jack knew it. No need to hide from the Indians on this trip.

“I’m beddin’ down, John.” Jack announced. “Big day tomorrow, then another long ride home.”

“You sleep some, Colonel.” Caperton replied, formal. “I’ll keep an eye out for varmints. Don’t matter none whether they be two or four-legged.”

Jack nodded, stretched out under his trail duster and put his head on his pommel bag. Wasn’t necessary to warn John not to shoot any Indians, but no telling who or what else might be wandering out there. Jack would take the second watch shortly after midnight, then he’d brew a pot of coffee at first light.

The full moon was halfway across a pitch black, star-filled sky when Jack popped one eye open. A gentle shake on one shoulder from Caperton had let him know that his turn at the watch was due. Jack stretched from a short, fitful sleep and stood up. His partner nodded and threw more mesquite on the low fire before spreading his oilskin duster on the bare ground. Caperton curled up by the glowing pile and pulled the duster around his lanky frame. Jack walked a few paces toward the creek and stretched his bones a little more. He squinted in the weak moonlight to see that the ponies were still tied. Quiet. Too quiet. They were being watched, no doubt about that. But there was nothing to do now except wait for morning and his meeting with ol’ Buffalo Hump.

Low, pink and gray clouds caught the light and scurried over the escarpment to the west. Jack sat on a boulder with his back to the smoldering fire and yawned. He rubbed his eyes. Along the ridge-line, a thin column of smoke towered over the high country and flattened out against the clouds in the winds aloft. Penateka scouts were letting Buffalo Hump know that he was camped down by the creek, and that he was not alone.

A rustling stirred behind him. Jack turned to find John Caperton bent over and tossing mesquite into soft embers to stir the fire back to life. Damn, Jack had forgotten to make the coffee.

Barely half an hour later, Jack sipped the last of the dark, bitter liquid from his tin and washed down a few bites of a stone-hard biscuit. Not much appetite this morning, anyway. He put the empty tin beside his foot and stood up. Jack handed his pistol and pommel bag over to his trail companion, who leaned back against on an old log, alongside his long-barreled rifle.

“Time for me to head out, John.” Jack almost whispered. “Especially won’t be needing the Colt.”

“You sure ‘bout this, Jack?” Caperton asked, one eyebrow raised. “Two heads are better’n one in such matters. The two of us together, totin’ pistols and a rifle would show the Comanche you’d not go down without taking some of ’em with you.”

“General Sam knows them Indians, my friend.” Jack tried to smile. “I’ll be all right. I trust I ain’t walkin’ into danger. But if I’m not back by mid-afternoon, you’d best ride on back to San Antone without me. Tell Susan I love her.”

Jack walked to his pony and threw himself into the saddle. No more talking. He looked down and tipped his hat to Caperton. Jack’s one knee urged the animal around, then a soft kick in the sides sent rider and pony at a gallop toward the base of the escarpment.

Jack rocked in the saddle and let the pony pick its way through the rocks and brush on the climb up the switchback trail. He had taken off his trail duster and rolled it behind him. Almost mid-morning and a lot warmer now.

Just as a cloud came over the sun, Jack reached the crest and reined in his mount. The plain stretched westward, seemingly unending. In the distance, Buffalo Hump’s camp sprawled. My God, must be a thousand tipis spread out as far as he could see, blending with the brown grass and brush. Some had wisps of smoke snaking from their tops.

The sun emerged from the fast moving overcast, and Jack squinted in the strong morning light. Closer, less than a quarter-mile away, the narrow trail leading to the edge of the Penateka village was lined on both sides with mounted warriors. Had to be more than a hundred of them. White feathers in plaited hair, all armed with bows and quivers full of arrows. Some had feathered war lances and colored, leather shields. Their faces, unpainted, were all turned to him. Every eye was focused on Jack. But no words. No gestures. Was this an honor guard, or some sort of escort to his execution? Jack nudged his mount toward the entourage and raised his bare right hand in greeting.

Minutes later, he reined into a slow trot between the two rows of silent, stern-faced Comanche. He looked right and left, then focused straight ahead and rode on. So this was how Santa Anna had felt riding through Jack’s Ranger regiment on the road to Veracruz. Santa Anna had been exiled, forced to leave Mexico. And soon, Jack would be leaving Texas, if Buffalo Hump didn’t kill him first.

Like that first day back in Nacogdoches when he’d faced down that big goddamn Swede, Jack hoped he showed no fear. Time seemed to stand still, but the edge of the village crept closer.

An Indian on foot, a familiar face, blocked Jack’s path at the end of the long stretch of Comanche braves. This time no blue lightning bolt was emblazoned across the warrior’s forehead, and no scalping knife showed in his leather belt. But this was definitely Kablito, the Comanche negotiator from years back. He hadn’t aged a bit. Kablito stood with feet apart, dressed in white deerskin moccasins and fringed leggings. His otherwise bare upper torso was partly covered by a white-beaded vest. The Indian smiled, his open mouth showing white, even teeth.

“Welcome, Colonel Hays. Greetings from Buffalo Hump.” Kablito spoke with much better English than before. “Please come down and walk with me. I am honored to accompany you to my Paraibo.”

His guide gestured with one open hand and motioned toward the encampment. Jack threw one leg over his saddle and slid off his pony to face Kablito. He dropped the reins, then fell into step alongside the Comanche. Jack’s mount trailed the two toward the village. Horses’ hooves plodded in the dirt behind them. Jack glanced over his shoulder. The Penateka warrior band was following.

The trail wound through the village. Women and children lined the way, probably curious about the White stranger now moving among them. A few smaller children smiled and tried to wave, only to be snatched up and scolded by mothers or bigger kin. No smiles came from adults, but no frowns either. Silence, except for some faint rumbles emanating from the gray anvil cloud that mushroomed far to the west.

“So, Colonel Hays.” Kablito broke the silence. “You marry Yellow Woman. Have many children now, I guess.”

Jack smiled and kept pace with his guide. That day when he’d first met the Indian, they’d negotiated for release of the Pierce women. Kablito had wanted Emily West as part of the trade, but Jack had protected her by saying she was his squaw-to-be. So, the Comanche warrior still thought about Emily. The damned woman certainly had that effect on people.

“No, Kablito, my warrior friend.” Jack replied. “Too much woman. I married another not long ago. But no babies. Not yet.”

“Children come soon enough.” Kablito spoke. Jack breathed easier. “You happy now. I happy with own wife. But Yellow Woman made big mistake not to come with me. She would be good Penateka. Happier here. Too bad for her.”

As quickly as the conversation had started, Kablito went silent and halted. Jack stopped in his tracks. A short, broad-chested man stood stiffly erect and gazed at him from several yards away.

Could this be the great war chief, Buffalo Hump? The fellow was no taller than Jack. His short, muscular arms were ornately tattooed and adorned with copper wrist armlets. He had severe, dark eyes, but his face held virtually no expression. Still, the overall effect was more friendly than intimidating. The Chief, if this was indeed the famous Comanche, was dressed the same as Kablito, with fringed deerskin leggings, white moccasins and a white-beaded vest. A single long plait of hair embellished with eagle feathers fell over one shoulder and down his chest. No weapon was visible. He’d positioned himself in front of a low oval structure that was framed with crisscrossed saplings stuffed with grass and earth. The small lodge was covered halfway down the walls with finely stitched hides.

“Kee Ūmaarū Ekakwitsūbaitū.” The Indian’s voice was deep and gravelly. He continued with a few words more, then Kablito translated.

“Colonel Hays, this is Chief Buffalo Hump. He welcomes you as ‘No Rain Lightning’ to his village. My Chief does not like talking English any more. Too many mistakes, so he ask me. I speak for him.”

Not waiting for a response from Jack, the Chief turned and walked, gesturing with one hand toward the entryway of the lodge. He stepped through the opening and looked back over his shoulder. Jack took off his hat and and followed the Chief into the darkness, Kablito shadowed behind. Other than the doorway, the only light was provided by a small fire in the center of the room and a small smoke hole in the ceiling. Jack tried to breathe deeply. His heart pounded, but he kept his eyes focused on the Comanche Chief.

Buffalo Hump turned, crossed his legs and sat, all the while keeping his gaze on Jack. Kablito put one hand on Jack’s shoulder, a signal for them to be seated opposite the Chief. Jack settled, cross-legged, but with his back to the open door. Not comfortable like this. The lodge was hot, and the pungent smell of many fires hung in the enclosed air.

A beaded pipe decorated with three white feathers lay in front of the Chief, parallel to a long-barreled German Jaeger rifle. Both pipe and weapon were cushioned by a brightly colored blanket. Buffalo Hump took a short glowing twig from the edge of the low fire and lifted it to the pipe bowl he now held in his lips. He puffed several times. More smoke wafted into the room. The Penateka Chief exhaled and took the glowing pipe in both hands. He offered it to Jack.

“You must please smoke now.” Kablito spoke faintly. “There will be no more fighting between you and Buffalo Hump. He makes peace.”

Jack took the beaded pipe and nodded to his host. He puffed twice. A sharp, bitter taste. Jack exhaled, then puffed twice more. He was, he supposed, being honored with this simple ritual. Jack handed the pipe over to Buffalo Hump, then stared down at the blanketed rifle’s carved walnut stock and long, well-oiled barrel. The piece looked familiar. Where had he seen it before?

Wait a minute! That was Flacco’s rifle. Where the hell had Buffalo Hump gotten his long-dead scout’s prized weapon? Was the thing loaded and primed? What was going on here?

“So, Ranger Jack.” Buffalo Hump broke his silence and Kablito continued to translate. “Too much killing. Too little peace. General Houston and Buffalo Hump make peace already. Now you and me. Soon, nobody fight any more.”

The Chief stopped talking. He furrowed his broad brow and leaned toward Jack. Buffalo Hump turned the peace pipe over and tapped a few ashes from the bowl onto the toe of Jack’s boot. Jack stared down but made no move to brush off the sooty residue. Years ago General Houston had declared that no Indian had ever put ashes on his boot, which meant they’d trusted Houston in all their parleys over the years. So Buffalo Hump didn’t exactly trust Jack in this matter of making personal peace with his people? No matter what Buffalo Hump believed, if Jack made it out of here alive today, he’d not be fighting Comanche again.

Bright light flickered through the lodge openings. Seconds later, thunder rumbled long and low, and much closer now. A gust of wind from the roof vent scattered smoke and dust in the dark lodge.

“Chief Buffalo Hump.” Jack refocused and tried to sound respectful, despite the ashes on his boot. “I am most honored that we finally meet. But more so, I am pleased we make peace.”

Maybe he should’ve brought his old enemy some kind of peace offering. Nope, General Sam would’ve told him. This was all Jack would do or say. This was the Chief’s parley.

Jack eyed the rifle again. The ceremony wasn’t done. The Chief looked down at the weapon then turned his eyes to Jack.

“This rifle you see. Fine weapon.” Kablito translated Buffalo Hump’s words. “We take rifle long time back from horse thief. Mexicano hombres steal Penateka ponies. Other bandits get away. But we kill one. He have this gun.”

Jack swallowed hard. This was the last thing he’d expected to learn today, yet what he’d suspected all along. Now he had the hard truth about about Flacco, Rusty Stimson and Jaime Esteban’s deaths. The fuckin’ Mexicans had done the deed. Just one more reason he should’ve killed Santa Anna when he’d had the chance.

How should he respond now? What could he say to Buffalo Hump? He looked again at the Jaeger rifle then back at his host. The Chief had gone silent, but motioned with one hand toward Kablito. Jack waited for more talk.

Smiling, Kablito put one hand to his chest. “I, Kablito, scalp this man and take rifle. I tell Chief Buffalo Hump, this gun is from your Lipan scout, Flacco the Younger. Now Buffalo Hump wants you take back what not belong to us. Give rifle to Old Flacco.”

Jack gazed unblinking into the stony eyes of Buffalo Hump across from him. “Chief, I know Flacco’s father…. I’m sure he’d feel same as me, that you should keep this here rifle.” Jack took a deep breath while Kablito translated. Then Jack went on. “Not as many buffalo on the Plains as before, but this Jaeger’s a fine buffalo gun. You’ll kill your share with it, and I think Flacco the Younger would’ve preferred that.”

The Penateka Chief smiled with white teeth showing. He waited until Kablito finished the translation. Then Buffalo Hump picked up the rifle, examined it for a spell and softly laid it on the blanket again. The Chief put one open hand in the air between them and nodded.

A bright flash washed through the lodge, followed by a deafening clap. Buffalo Hump flinched. Jack and Kablito did as well. Deep, rolling thunder echoed and shook the ground where they sat. Damn, that was close. Too damned close.

One more weaker flash was followed by softer rattling thunder. Drops of rain tapped overhead. Seconds later, a raging downpour pounded the hide roof of the lodge. Jack, straight-faced, looked at the old Comanche War Chief. What would Buffalo Hump call him now? They’d made peace, then the rain had come. He must be good medicine. Maybe no longer “Lightning without Rain?”

Jack would keep his promise of peace. He looked forward to it. Didn’t really matter if the old Indian trusted him or not. And no matter what Buffalo Hump thought about Comanche spells, once Jack got outside and headed home, the rain would wash the ashes from his boot. Soon enough, he’d tell Susan the whole story. She’d be happy he was finished fighting.

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