Ashes on His Boot

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San Antonio de Béxar - early May 1836

Jack Hays woke from his third damp night in the Ranger camp on the outskirts of San Antonio. A beetle crawled across the tent canvas above him. Somewhere, he heard a bugle sound. Could be reveille, but a few notes were definitely wrong.

The early morning sun warmed Jack when he stepped outside. A thick carpet of cobalt blue buffalo clover and flame red indian paintbrush lined the well-worn wagon path between the tent rows. Jack washed up near the mess tent and hurried through the loose flap for a tin of watered-down cider. Even with such foul stuff to drink first thing in the morning, San Antone was a lot better than Goliad.
Quickened steps got Jack to his first duty meeting in San Antonio. He stepped in past the splintered wooden doors of the Alamo Mission and looked up through the few remaining charred rafters toward a cloudless, blue sky. No wonder somebody had made the Texas Republic flag sky-blue.
Damn, the smell of burnt wood and powder was strong as hell, and the stench of death, while fainter than in Goliad, still fouled the quiet of the old mission. The battle had taken away Colonel Crockett, Jim Bowie and a lot of other good men only a few months earlier. Jack jarred himself back to the moment and looked for his commander, Lieutenant Smith. He found him in his temporary office in one small corner at the rear of the mission.
“Set yourself, son.” Erasmus Smith motioned toward a rough cane chair. “I’m finished in a bit. Just readin’ about an Indian war party. Big one. Maybe more’n a hundred.”
Hays took a chair. My God, there were now two bars on Deaf Smith’s epaulets. Somebody, General Houston maybe, had promoted him from lieutenant to captain. And just since they’d gotten in from Goliad.
“Raidin’ party’s Comanche, maybe some Wichitas and Caddo,” Smith almost shouted. “They was north a’ here and ridin’ east, day before yesterday. Probably headed for Fort Parker, ’bout a hundred mile northeast.”
Hays thought back to some of his trail talk with Flacco. Sounded familiar. Would the whole Ranger company be going after these bastards? Whose squad would he be in? He might be getting some action out of this after all.
“Ol’ John Parker’s a stubborn sonofabitch.” Smith spoke like he wanted the whole camp to hear. “Built hisself a sizable fort and armed everybody around him. Then he pretty much dared anybody, be they red devils, Mexicanos or highwayman. Daren’t try running ‘em off the land they’re farmin’.” Smith sighed. “Wouldn’t want to be part of his flock, myself.”
The Ranger captain picked up what looked like the orders Hays had received from Sam Houston. Jack shifted, trying to get comfortable in his chair. Captain Smith sure hadn’t talked this much before. Being home or getting promoted must’ve loosened his tongue.
“John Coffee Hays, is it?” Deaf Smith kept up in his loud voice. “Who the hell hung that ‘coffee’ moniker on you, anyway?”
Jack shrugged without responding. How many times had he been asked that question? And how could a man named “Erasmus,” then nicknamed “Deaf,” consider a name like Coffee to be odd? Why should Jack have to talk the truth about his middle name over and over anyway? He kept his tongue.
Smith shuffled papers and eyed Jack. “Names don’t matter a damn, I guess. Lemme see…. Based on General Houston’s writin’ and Mayor Sterne’s say-so, you can sure as hell take care of yourself in a fight.”
Hays nodded. Ol’ Deaf Captain Smith ought to get on with things. Didn’t the man already say they had Comanche to worry about, maybe Mexicans to boot? For sure more highwaymen were runnin’ loose. Where was this discussion going?
“So, I been thinkin’ about all this,” Smith said. “And you, you bein’ sent to my care…. You listenin’ boy?”
Hays flinched and snapped his gaze back to the Captain. Now they just might be gettin’ to the point.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do.” Smith frowned. “I’m givin’ you the rank of sergeant in this here company, right here and now. You goin’ to be in charge of weapons and tactics.”
Sergeant? In charge of weapons? Tactics? Yes, Jack was good with a gun and could ride a horse as well as anybody, and he knew attacking was better’n defending. But this sounded like a lot of responsibility and a rank he’d not had a chance to earn yet.
Smith’s next words were another surprise. “Seems you already made the acquaintance of one of my Apache scouts, Chief Flacco. Indian says he likes you. Told me so in no uncertain words. Lots of words.” The Captain smiled for the first time. “That’s good. He don’t like most us White men.”
Sure had taken a long time for Captain Smith to get to the meat of Jack’s assignment. Not so sure he and Flacco would get along, though. Probably needed to hear more about just what his commander had in mind.
“So that means,” Smith said, a little softer now, “Chief Flacco’s gonna be your ‘shadow man.’ You’ll not so much as take a piss ’ner shit without him at your back. Got that?”
Jack nodded. So, the Captain trusted the young Indian. Guess Flacco as his number one man was a good enough start.
“Now to our most serious business, killin’ Comanche.” Smith rolled out a crude map. “You’ll be next out on long range patrol. Ride outta here no later’n a week from tomorrow.”
The new captain moved a shaky finger across the paper. Jack saw where he was headed. Definitely “Comancheria,” as people called it. Even said so on the map.
“You’ll move north fifty, maybe sixty mile,” Smith ordered. “Then the same east, patrollin’ back here. Gonna be you and your Indian and a squad of regulars.” Smith waved another paper at Hays. “Want you to scout out this here Comanche war party report. Just scoutin’, you hear?”
Hays mostly understood, but he felt more nervous now. He had to find the right men and train ‘em, and he had to do it in a week’s time. Get everybody workin’ together. Get ’em prepared for the fight of their lives.
“No fightin’,” Smith ordered. “Less’n you have to. To break contact.”
“And boy,” Deaf Smith handed Jack the fistful of papers. “If you can read more’n a map, then study all this and git to work, dammit. Pick any seven ’er eight ’a my men. Get fixed up with a small supply wagon or a couple ’a pack horses. Tell the men what they gotta do.”
“That’s all. Git now, boy.” Smith yelled in Jack’s direction. “I want you and your party alive and back here with Redskin news in no more’n a fortnight.”
The Captain waved a half-knuckle salute as a dismissal. Jack slapped on his wide-brimmed hat, then snapped to a rigid stance and rendered his commander a two-fingered salute. He’d just turned on his heel and headed for the door when his head finally cleared. My God, he was taking men to war. He about-faced.
“Cap’n, pardon the interruption.” Jack said. “Meant to say it awready. Congratulations on gettin’ promoted.” Then Hays stood at ease and smiled. “And just one more thing, sir. We won’t be needin’ supply wagons nor pack horses. Gonna be travellin’ light. Not taking the whole damn Ranger camp with us.”
Smith looked at him like he wasn’t there, then a puzzled half-smiling gaze. Man knew a lot about war fighting. Gen’ral Sam had told Jack that much. Smith had a family, though. Used to living indoors, mostly. Having a hot supper and a bed or a cot for sleep. Rangers hunting the enemy didn’t need all that. Couldn’t afford it, neither.
“No tents. No fires.” Hays went on. “Just two pommel bags each and more flintlock pistols, extra powder and galena. Maybe two or three good Jaeger rifles like that Indian’s got. Couple more sabers and some real sharp knives.”
Deaf Smith’s eyes told Jack all he needed to know. The man thought he was plum daft. Well, maybe he was, but Jack knew how to stay alive out in the open. Draggin’ a bunch of home comforts along sure as hell wouldn’t help.
“For chow, just takin’ some hardtack and bull cheese.” Jack kept on, louder. “Uh, guess that last one’s called jerky here in Texas. We’ll also need two canteens each for water.”
“Goddamnit, I heard you, boy.” Smith said loudly. “Spite a’ my nickname, I ain’t full deaf, you know. Don’t ask me no more.” The Captain ordered. “What I can spare, quartermaster’ll issue. Go tell him all that crap. Now git.”
Hays took his leave. Seemed to Jack like the man just didn’t believe him. But hellfire, this warn’t much more than huntin’ bear back home. You didn’t go after bear with a whole raft of wagons, pack horses and such. You took what you needed to eat and drink, something to put your head on at night, and what little else you needed to live long enough to sneak up and kill the goddamn bear. Didn’t need wagons and shit to bear hunt, nor to kill Indians.

In the early afternoon, Jack found Chief Flacco alone and working near a tree line beyond the last tent row. He figured Flacco had been told of his new assignment, maybe even before Captain Smith had told Jack. The Indian threw a broad knife again and again at a makeshift target propped against a live oak trunk. Pretty damned accurate and deadly with that knife throwin’.
The Indian turned to face him. “Sergeant Jack, I think you find me already quick. You and me good team. Teach Comanche not mess with Rangers.” Flacco stabbed his knife at the air. “What you want I do first?”
Jack knew he didn’t have much time. He needed men he could whip into shape and hit the trail. Flacco had to know who was good with a gun, who could ride and shoot, and who wouldn’t mind sleeping in the bush night after night.
“Flacco. Uh, Chief,” Jack still stumbled a bit over the title. “Find me boys who can shoot on the move, fight with their bare hands, and don’t need fancy food nor drink. Not prone to carousin’ around, neither.” Jack went on. “They got to have no fear. Not even of th’ Evil One hisself.”

The Indian nodded. Flacco said nothing. Made no sound. But he grinned. Now that was more Indian-like. The Chief bowed, arms extended and palms up, then scurried off, Jack hoped, to find some boys who wanted to fight.
Less than an hour later, he was back and standing straight and proud at Jack’s open tent.
“Sergeant Jack,” Chief Flacco was excited. “Four White Faces and one Mexicano will join Hays’ Rangers. Mexicano good boy. Three White Faces good, too.” Flacco caught his breath, frowned and went on. “One White boy, Iverson, bad. He volunteer, but Iverson lazy, no-good bone picker. Only like Rangers for money, whiskey and women.”
Jack Hays had seen Trooper Theodore “Tojo” Iverson more than once at Goliad, but he’d never talked to him. Even so, he was pretty certain Flacco had him pegged. Hard to fathom why Iverson would want to be part of Hays’ Ranger patrol. Reckon he’d have to see what this fellow was all about.
“Chief,” Jack Hays said. “Iverson’s yours to shape up. And we still got to have two more for the scouting party. You know what we need. Men that listen more’n they talk.”
Flacco looked like he had an idea. This new, quieter Apache was more to Jack’s liking. The Chief was talking only when he had something to say, and he got to the point fast.
“O’Keefe boys we need.” Flacco surmised. “They not older than you and me, Sergeant Jack. Real good with pistol and musket, too. Run fast, like deer. Always like fight. Fight with everybody, every day. Eat mostly mush and jerky. They say mush is hasty pudding.”
“But boys drink mucho beer.” Talkative Flacco was back. “No water, no whiskey. They not like ‘no beer rule’ by Sergeant Jack.”
Hays stopped Flacco. Whatever their ilk, they should be recruited. He’d work around the beer problem. One more thing Jack wanted to know, could the O’Keefe brothers ride? Flacco thought not, but he’d have them ready anyway for Sergeant Jack’s powwow in the afternoon.

Jack Hays stood on an empty crate and addressed seven heavily armed, slouching men. No uniforms. One of the O’Keefe’s wore a pair of striped pajama pants tucked into high boots. Some had clean shaven faces, others scraggly beards. Broad hats, a sombrero, a couple of short-billed caps, even a wrapped scarf and one black headband covered each of the seven heads. They were a rough looking bunch. If they could fight, Jack didn’t care.
“Fellers, y’all got pistols or muskets? Enough powder, wad and galena? Everbody’s got a knife, hardtack and bull, uh…jerky?” Jack glanced around, “And water too, right?”
Nods of agreement came, along with a mumble or two. Looked like the boys were nervous. Maybe they didn’t know what was next.
“In about an hour,” Jack went on. “Soon as it’s dusk, we all headin’ outta San Antone. Two night’s and day’s foot patrol. No horses.” Surprised faces. Jack went on. “Patrol by night, sleep by day with gear on. We packin’ everything we need on us.”
“Y’all know out there’s Comanche country,” Jack said, more stern now. “Might be trainin’, but we gonna need a watch ever’ mornin’. Chief here,” Jack pointed to Flacco and ordered. “He’s sayin’ who gets that duty.”
He finished. “So that’s it. All of you be right here at sunset, ready to go. Anybody got questions, complaints?”
Silence. No telling what was going on in their heads right about now. Jack stepped down and strode back to his tent. An hour later, he led them out of garrison on foot, single file and spread ten yards apart. He’d learned a lot about how Indians fought and why Rangers had had problems dealing with Comanche battle tactics so far. Flacco had seen to that. Now the time had come to teach these men what he knew.

The shake down patrol went well the first night. Jack had the squad make camp and lie low, concealed till late afternoon the next day. The second night, he went man-to-man on the march to make certain they kept their tactical spread and moved silent as possible. Jack taught his squad how to see better at night by looking off-center. He made damned sure they conserved water. So far, so good.
The squad camped the second morning in a sizable grove of live oaks. Jack wrapped his duster tight and lay down. He was exhausted, but he was satisfied with their progress. Filtered sun came at him through the sparse tree canopy after a passing shower had cooled the air. Jack dozed off, then quickly came awake after half-hearing soft footsteps.
“Sergeant Jack,” Flacco whispered, touching his commander’s shoulder. “Sergeant Jack, you come now. Come quick. Mucho bad medicine. You come.”
Hays shook off the sleep. What the hell had gone wrong. He bounced up and stared, then rubbed his eyes and blinked at his Apache scout as he hastened to follow.
Flacco motioned, palm down, for Jack to walk low and soft toward the tree line. Ahead, Jack saw the sentry, Tojo Iverson, not moving, hat off, musket in his lap, and his back resting against a live oak. Iverson’s legs were stretched straight out. His boots were off and lying to one side.
Jack approached him and leaned down for a closer look. His sentry was sound asleep. Scrawled in mud across Iverson’s forehead, plain as day, was a big “X.”
Hays pulled his pistol, gripped the barrel, then swung the handle in a blow against Iverson’s head. The wood-on-bone thud was loud enough to wake some of the squad. Bits of the dried mud on the scrawny boy’s forehead flew off. Iverson came awake, startled, then grabbed at his head with both hands.
“He’s all yours, Chief.” Hays ordered. “Truss this piece of shit up and lead him home. Man’s lucky he’s still got his scalp. Guess we all are.” Jack glared at Tojo Iverson. “Mister, you won’t be Rangerin’ with us no more.”
The squad was awake now, everyone standing around. No doubt Jack had everyone’s full attention. Iverson stayed down in the dirt and rubbed his temple. He held his head in one hand and picked at the leftover mud with the other.
“Fellers, this trooper’s real fortunate.” Hays waved the handle of his pistol at Iverson. “Fact is, we all are. We’re all still breathin’, in spite of him. He shoulda died today for what he done.”
“Gents, here’s my new standin’ order,” Jack made sure everybody was listening. “Anybody else that me or Chief catch sleepin’ on watch, we’ll slit his throat front to back. No questions asked. No quarter. You boys got that?” Silence. So Jack growled again. “That clear?”
Foot shuffling. Otherwise, silence. To a man, the new Ranger squad nodded their understanding and began milling around and fidgeting with their gear. Flacco busied himself securing his prisoner as Jack had ordered.
Late in the afternoon, Sergeant Jack Hays led his squad back into the Ranger camp. Flacco brought up the rear, leading the lanky, bound-up Iverson by a heavy rope around the prisoner’s neck.
“Chief Flacco,” Jack made sure everyone within earshot could hear. “Take the prisoner to the stockade. He’s Cap’n Smith’s problem now. Rest of you take the night off. Mess tent’s got grub and ale. Be here on the quad with your mounts and arms at sun-up tomorrow and ready to ride.”

Hays assembled his squad shortly after daybreak and led them to the edge of the encampment. He and the Chief sat side-by-side on their ponies and studied the line of seven mounted men. Iverson was gone. Overnight, Flacco had recruited a second Apache scout, “Red Wing,” a boy who couldn’t have been older than fifteen.
The rest, except for Jaime Esteban, were the White boys who’d volunteered: Stimson, Halvorsen, Haynes and the O’Keefes. The O’Keefes insisted they were English immigrants and could ride, but Jack bet the brothers were Irish and had never been near a damned horse. Well, whatever the O’Keefe boys were, he judged they could take care of themselves in a scrape.
“Awright, men, listen up.” Hays made his voice as command-like as possible. “Y’all look downfield there.” Jack gestured toward five posts in a long row, a hundred feet apart. Each post had several hay-filled bags tied to it. “Chief Flacco’s gonna give you the idea what this is all about.”
Flacco kicked his mount and galloped toward the first post. The scout drew the long-barreled Jaeger rifle from his saddle holster and, weapon snugged to his shoulder, double-cocked and took his shot. A straw-filled bag flew apart, scattering its insides to the wind. Still at full gallop, the Chief stowed the rifle and weaved left, guiding his pony with his knees. Flacco snapped his bow around, then slotted and quickly launched an arrow that struck and buried to the feathers in a bag on the second post. Seconds later, bags on the last three posts had been similarly through-shot. A satisfied Chief Flacco then trotted back and edged his pony in beside Hays in front of the squad.
“OK, who’s next?” Hays asked. “Volunteers?”
Jaime Esteban, the squad’s only Mexican, spurred his horse and rode hard at the first post. Jack couldn’t believe the boy took off with no warning. Esteban drew a curved, gleaming saber and slashed the first bag cleanly from its mounting. He stashed the saber and drew, cocked and fired his flintlock on the second post. An eruption of scattering hay and dust lifted into the air. The bag on post three was pierced by a quick throw of a wide knife, but the Mexican’s second knife missed the fourth mark, instead skewering deep into the mounting post beneath the targeted hay bag. For the last post, still riding hard, Esteban pulled a second flintlock and destroyed the target. He turned his mount and trotted back toward the squad line. The way Jack looked at it, the boy had five kills, just as Flacco had done.
Others also fared well on the course. Denny O’Keefe, the young, pajama-clad boy, had fallen from his pony midway toward the first post, but he somehow managed to pull his musket and a pistol with him to the dust. After scrambling to his feet, Denny took the first target with his pistol, then shouldered his musket quick as lightning and, with a loud crack of fire, struck the second post. Next, a raving madman, he charged the third post with a long knife. Jack ordered him back to the line, yelling loud as he could. The big Irish boy had spunk. As Jack had suspected though, the O’Keefe brothers were terrible horsemen.

Hays gathered his squad late on day two of mounted drills. Every man in the squad was sweaty and caked with dust. Jack had spent the second afternoon drilling them on the sidesaddle attack technique. Red Wing, the new Indian, got it. Flacco did not. The only other squad member who’d mastered the maneuver was Jaime Esteban.
Jack eyed each of his men in turn. “Fellers, time’s almost here. Tomorrow we head out after Comanche. We had a little fun and did a lot of hard work these last few days, but I got just one more little trick for y’all.”
Groans and grumbles came from most. Jack dug deep in one pocket and held up a silver coin. He tossed the small silver piece into the dirt.
“Now this here’s a money maker, boys.” Jack shouted from his prancing horse. “How many think I can pick that five cent piece outta the dirt at full gallop?” No hands came up. Jack went on. “I’ll bet anybody here I fetch it on the first try. If I don’t, beer’s on me. If I do, beer’s on you. Awright?”
Nods of most heads showed the challenge had been accepted. Jack reined around and readied his pony. Close by, a young woman stood, a silent observer. She had a bouquet of daisies in her hands. Looked to Jack like she’d been picking wildflowers, and he’d stopped her in her tracks. Was she curious to see what he and his boys were up to?
The gal was damned good-looking. She had on a long white dress and had tied a red scarf around the crown of a broad straw hat. Her shiny black hair matched her cinched-up belt and a pair of expensive-looking boots. Jack trotted past her on his pony and tipped his hat as politely as he could. He’d need to do this coin trick perfect if he was to keep his boys’ eyes on him and not her.
Jack galloped downfield, turned, then charged back toward the squad and the young woman. Coming into his sidesaddle position as he rode, head down with dust and black hat flying, Jack bent to the dirt and plucked the silver coin between two fingers, then raised the prize over his head.
Rousing cheers and applause erupted from his squad. Jack galloped past, catching the young woman’s eye. She smiled, then turned and walked away toward the hamlet of San Antonio, waving her flowers in farewell.

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