Ashes on His Boot

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The First Patrol - May 1836

The air was hot and sticky again on the morning of day ten just northwest of San Antonio. At dawn, Jack had ordered Chief Flacco and Red Wing to move ahead of the rest of the Ranger squad to find a spot for the patrol to rest. Now he surveyed what they’d found, a thicket of live oaks and low mesquite bushes near a small, fast-running creek.

The ground between the trees and brush was overgrown with thick grasses and reeds. Messy, but good cover for the time they’d be there. Some spots were matted down, maybe from earlier travelers. Deer? Indians? Mexican deserters? Just when the rest of the squad caught up, Hays spotted his two Indian scouts on foot near a clump of mesquite.
“Sergeant Jack,” Flacco called, waving. “Here. See. Pony shit from Comanche.”
Flacco pointed to what looked to be scant evidence of horse dung, but from the large Comanche war party? The area had been picked almost clean.
“This be Comanche, all right.” Flacco insisted. “They ride fast. Always leave shit behind. Mucho braves here, maybe more than two hundred, I think.”
“How long ago?” Jack asked, wondering whether Flacco was certain or just anxious.
Red Wing interrupted. “Two sun and moon, maybe three. Chief Flacco correct. Many light pony tracks. No travois. This some big war party.”
Red Wing hadn’t uttered a word in any language till now. The boy spoke pretty good English. A good recruit by Flacco. How did Red Wing know so much already?
Hays ordered the squad to dismount and get under some shade for rest. Still saddled, their ponies were watered and tied to nearby mesquite bushes. The animals nibbled quietly at the greenery.
Jack’s men dropped for sleep, some on oilskins, others on dusty blankets. Their pommel bags were suitable pillows. Not soft, but the bags kept their side arms close. Jack could see the training was working.
Denny O’Keefe and John “Rusty” Stimson drew the watch for the morning. Hays’ eyes followed both men as they moved toward the perimeter. They stayed low and took separate paths. Good, they’d remembered his instructions. Jack turned and settled himself on the ground. He needed some sleep.

“Sergeant. Sergeant Jack, you gotta wake up,” Stimson shook him and whispered. “There’s a pile a’ Indians comin’ our way. Denny’s out there yet. Got ’em in his sights.”
“Get your ass back out there,” Hays whispered, suddenly awake. “And signal Denny not, I repeat, not to fire till he hears us firin’. Got that?”
Stimson acknowledged and scuttled off. Hays touched Flacco on the shoulder. No need, the Chief was awake. Hays and Flacco roused the rest of the squad.
No noise so far. Good. Horses stirred, but made no snorts or whinnies. Men moved low to their assigned firing positions. All faced the clearing with their backs to the muddy creek bank. Nobody would surprise them from the rear, nor would the squad retreat. They were committed to battle.
Jack eyed the enemy. Many carried long feathered lances. Bows with full arrow quivers were slung across mostly bare backs, and some warriors’ legs were covered with fringed, leather trousers. Their faces were painted black and red. Some were bare headed. Others wore a buffalo horn headdress or skullcap with three or four feathers. All rode confident and proud. Jack counted twenty warriors in total. They were close, but not quite close enough.
“Comanche wear war paint. Come here, want water.” Flacco whispered to Jack. “Maybe last from big party gone east. We make sure these not go further. Kill now, I think.”
Jack nodded. He drew one pistol and hunkered in the tall, thick grass at the edge of the clearing. He waited as long as he dared, then full-cocked his pistol. Very little sound.
Chief Flacco and Red Wing snugged double-cocked rifles against their shoulders and took aim down the barrels. The rest of the squad readied their weapons as they’d been drilled to do. Jack raised his free arm.
He held tight until he was sure the lead warrior was still headed straight for the creek through the opening in the live oaks. They had to be almost on top of Stimson and O’Keefe by now. Hays dropped his arm and fired his first pistol.
The morning quiet abruptly shattered with synchronous cracks, smoke, fire and echoing thunder. Flintlock pistols, muskets and rifles blasted lead. The galena balls whizzed and zipped through thick brush and grass and thumped into their human targets. With breechclouts and fringed legs flailing, five Comanche braves thudded onto the hardpan in clouds of dust.
Jack’s eyes fixed on a sixth brave. He’d been hit heavy in his mid-section, but he somehow straightened his body and turned his pony to retreat. The rest of the war party saw the gut-shot brave and their dead comrades in the dirt. They reined up short to regroup.
Seconds later the Comanche rallied, shrieked their war whoops and charged. War-painted, wildly feathered braves brought arrows to bows and launched salvos into the Rangers’ thick grass and mesquite cover.
“Here they come, boys!” Jack Hays yelled. “Make every shot count!”
Arrows swished past him and ricocheted in three directions off the high, thick grass. The war party drew up short again. Chief Flacco had been right; riding into this underbrush was hard. Take that, you devils. Jack Hays’ campsite was a well-protected ambush spot.
More arrows rained in. One hit Eddie Halvorsen with a shot through his thigh that buried the shaft almost to the fletching. Halvorsen glanced down at the blood. Maybe it didn’t hurt that much. The boy ignored the protruding shaft and busied himself with his gun again.
Jack reloaded while Halvorsen cocked his weapon and fired next to him. Eddie took a warrior out with a single shot to the head. The boy could still aim and shoot straight, in spite of that arrow.
An idea formed then struck Jack. He grabbed Jaime Esteban who’d crouched nearby and pulled the young Mexican running and stumbling by one arm toward the ponies. The two mounted up amidst Jack’s shouted instructions and a third assault by the Comanche war party. The Indians were met first by the deafening roar from another Ranger volley out of the grasses.
Jack and the Mexican pounded out of the woods, the ponies galloping with their riders hanging side saddle. Hays and Esteban fired into the charging Comanche flanks and knocked down two more of the horsemen. Jack slowed his pony to reload both flintlocks. He knew he and his squad had their enemy dead to rights, but he sure as hell wished they had extra pistols already loaded and at the ready.
Esteban’s pony took an arrow in its midsection and reared violently, unhorsing Jaime just as arrows hissed overhead. Jack wanted to pursue one group of retreating braves, but he wheeled and rode hard to hoist up a sweating, grit-covered Jaime Esteban behind him instead.
Hays glanced toward the four Comanche riders disappearing over a hillock. Probably wouldn’t be back. He turned and watched the remaining skirmish from a distance. The rest of the warriors charged again.
The Comanche launched flurries of arrows, shouted their death cries and jumped from their ponies into the head-high grass swinging war clubs and axes. Jack heard the cries, grunts and shouts coming from the deep shade. The tall grasses shook and waved. Life and death was being waged with his boys in there.
Jack needed to get back into the fight, and quick. He kicked his pony with Esteban still clinging to him and rode straight for the ruckus. Seconds later, the air in and around the grasses and bushes near the stream fell quiet, as if there’d never even been a fight.
Hays and Esteban dismounted and found Rusty Stimson pacing the battleground. Fresh carnage. Not like Goliad. Hays counted fourteen Comanche bodies flattening the thick grasses and dotting the clearing just beyond. Could any of them be older than him? Jack reckoned not. War was a young man’s business.
A deafening, thunderous single crack echoed somewhere behind Jack and startled him back to the present. Jack wheeled around with his pistol re-drawn and double-cocked. Jaime Esteban had put down his wounded pony and now chased after a riderless Comanche mount.
Dumb. Real dumb, boy. Esteban should’ve rounded up the new pony first and warned everyone that he was gonna shoot his pony. Good way to end up just another dead Mexican.
Jack shook off the scare and drew in a couple of deep breaths. He spotted Flacco and Red Wing a little further out – the two Apaches were straddled over corpses, harvesting scalps. Disgusting. But Indians had their traditions.
Bobby Haynes was dead. Jack stared down at the arrow buried between the boy’s shoulder blades, and somehow the scene didn’t look real. Haynes had been one of the first to sign on for the mission. Jack remembered him saying he wanted to even the score “with the damnable savages that gutted my brother.” Haynes’ dead hand clutched a feathered war axe. The metal blade was bloody.
“Sergeant Jack,” Rusty Stimson muttered close by, his wild eyes now meeting Jack’s. “A’fore he died, I saw Bobby pull two a them bastards down from their horses. He grabbed one’s axe there and split both their devil-painted heads. Like he was crackin’ a gourd or a pun’kin.”

Hays heard the killing lust in the boy’s husky voice. He saw the tears mixed with dirt that muddied his cheeks. So this was what Andrew Jackson had seen and felt, what he had talked to Jack about back in Nashville when he was a boy. His men’s “will to kill” in the war with the damned British.
Red Wing treated Eddie Halvorsen’s wound. Hays tried not to look. The young scout broke the arrow off near the fletching and pulled the shaft out forward by the point. The boy screamed mightily, but he’d ride and fight again when he’d been bandaged up.
Jack Hays led his men down to the creek where they laid Ranger Robert E. Haynes in a shallow grave on the bank. Before the muddy dirt and stones were piled on, Jack put a small blue flag of the new Texas Republic on the boy’s chest. Some men stood and leaned on muskets, others sat on their ponies. Ranger sergeant Jack Hays removed his hat. The other men followed his lead, doffing hats and caps, unwrapping bandanas and head rags. Jack bowed his head.
“Fellers, let’s pray for Bobby.”

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