Ashes on His Boot

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Hill Country Hostages - August 1836

Three months had passed since the great Comanche Massacre at Fort Parker. Captain Erasmus Smith’s company had been ordered into the field late in July by General Sam Houston. The last two nights, Jack Hays’ squad had camped with the rest of Smith’s unit on an open higher plain in the hill country northwest of San Antonio.

The Rangers had been guaranteed safe passage by the Comanche for their special mission. Jack was nervous anyway. He paced the open area just west of the main campsite. The early morning sun was already oppressive.
“Make damn sure that table and them barrels sit in the clear,” Jack ordered. “Way out there in the middle of the field. Cap’n says everthing’s got to be just so before these bastards will even show up to talk, much less do any hostage trading.”
Trooper Eddie Halvorsen and the O’Keefe boys followed Jack’s orders. They lined up wide boards on empty wooden barrels. The rest of his squad came with more barrels and set them around the makeshift table.
Jack constructed a white flag that he tied to a sharpened tent pole, then jammed the end into the ground next to the table. Why talk? Why bargain with a bunch of savages who wanted only to trade horses and money for White women? Oughta just shoot ’em – all the Comanche – when they showed up.
Jack yelled an order to his Lipan scouts. “Chief Flacco, Red Wing, take the horses we brought for trade and wait in the tree line.”
No sense pissing off the Comanche more by having Apaches visible near the trading table, according to Cap’n Smith. Jack had left Jaime Esteban back in San Antone, too. Didn’t want to rub Buffalo Hump’s boys’ noses in the fact that Mexicans and Tejanos worked together in the Rangers.
One more thing, though. Why the hell had General Sam ordered some mulatto woman brought all the way from Morgan’s Point down on Galveston Bay for this parley? Supposedly some kind of Indian expert or Comanche talker named Emily West. Jack doubted the woman would be that useful today.
“Cap’n Smith,” Hays reported. “We got it all ready. Ain’t a single Indian in sight, though. So far, this whole goddamn thing stinks like…like…” Jack raised a hand to his hat. “You want me to fetch that West lady from her tent? She ready for this?”
Deaf Smith snapped the latch on a small box of silver coins and tucked the container under one arm, Then he closed his tent flaps and glanced at his pocket watch. Did Smith think the Comanche might be late for their own damned party? Jack walked a step to the rear of his commander down the path toward the last tent in the row. At least from behind, Deaf Smith couldn’t read the frustration on his face.
“Sergeant Hays,” Captain Smith shouted, turning his head. “Gen’ral Sam personally ordered the West woman to be here, just like us.” Smith’s upper lip curled. “Main reason is, she speaks Comanche lingo, so the bastards cain’t put nothin’ over on us. Second, she ain’t White, so the fuckin’ Redskins are more likely to trust her. Least that’s what the General thinks. And he’s the one knows her.”
Hays stopped in his tracks behind Captain Smith. The woman stood outside, tying her tent flaps shut. She was a couple of inches taller than Jack and had smooth, olive skin and blue-green, oval eyes. Her dark, straight hair was pulled back under an expensive-looking broad-brimmed leather hat. A bright green scarf hung at her long neck. She wore an open black leather vest with silver conchos. The woman could’ve been William Goins’ daughter, the best looking female Jack had seen in quite a while.
Damned if Miss West didn’t have a McKenzie flintlock stuffed into those leather pants, too. Jack would’ve admired her beauty more, but he was distracted by that pistol. The same heart-shaped handle as Big Red’s weapon. Wonder if she’d ever fired the thing? He’d like to have seen that.
“Captain Smith,” The woman spoke, her voice soft as velvet, “My thanks for the accommodations. I hope the trouble of all this will prove worthwhile to Texas.”
She smiled. Jack Hays smiled back and tilted his head. Smith frowned.
“Miss West,” Captain Smith spoke, softer than normal. “This here’s Sergeant Hays. Jack Hays.”
Jack nodded. He touched his hat brim and tried not to smile any more. Emily West was looking him over, for sure.
Smith continued. “Him and his squad, they’re going to be your personal protection while we talk with the Comanche.”
West extended her hand. Her palm felt as calloused as Jack recalled Sam Houston’s was. A lot prettier, though.
“Sergeant, I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Emily West said. Her eyes were big and serious, with a deep twinkle. “I heard you’ve already had a run in or two with the Indians we’re dealing with.”
“Just one skirmish, Ma’am,” Jack responded. “Turned out okay for us Rangers. Hopin’ today’s not another one, though.”
The pounding thumps of running feet interrupted Jack. Chief Flacco dashed toward him across the open field with both arms waving in the humid air.
“Captain, Sergeant Jack, they…” Flacco stammered. “The Comanche come. Red Wing hear pony feet, maybe twenty riders. Half mile now.”
The young Indian’s chest heaved from the long run in the morning heat. He glanced from Jack to Deaf Smith and nodded, but did not acknowledge Emily West’s presence.
“Let’s get on with it,” Deaf Smith ordered. “Chief, you only come with horses if I give you the signal.”
Flacco nodded and ran back toward the trees. Jack squinted in the bright sun toward the ridge-line. He hoped the scouts were right about the Comanche peace party.

A dust cloud formed on the hill crest. Jack stood at the end of the barrel table next to Emily West with Smith directly to her right. He counted a little more than twenty bronzed, bareback horsemen riding toward them. Red Wing’s estimate had been close.
The Indian party slowed to a trot. All of the young, stern-faced braves had weapons. Bows with quivers full of arrows were slung across their backs, some had muskets, and all appeared to have knives in their belts. The leader carried a feathered lance with a white flag fluttering from the blunted shaft. The flag matched the face paint of the entire party. Hays had been this close to Comanche already, but never peaceably.
The warriors flanked two blond, long-skirted women riders. Hard to tell they were White, except for their hair. Once they got closer, the younger of the two showed small scars on her face. She was already spoken for in the Penateka village. Flacco had said ownership marks like these could make for a hard trade.
Three braves dismounted and ambled toward the table. The lead Indian had inscribed a thin, jagged blue lightning bolt across his white-painted forehead, a sign of tribal rank and power. Eagle feathers in his hair blew in the light breeze. Jack was itchy.
Open, beaded vests draped the upper torsos of all three warriors. They walked in high-top moccasins and wore long-fringed leggings, not breechclouts. The leader carried the blunted lance with the white flag upright. They’d dressed for peace. A good sign, if it was true.
The three negotiators carried broad-bladed knives, but no other weapons. They placed them one-by-one on the table opposite the three flintlocks that belonged to Jack, Emily West and Captain Smith. The rest of the Comanche party and the two captive women stayed back nearer the ridge-line, astride their ponies.
Jack Hays glanced down. Three flintlock pistols on the table, loaded, not cocked, with muzzles pointed toward the Comanche. And three gleaming knives pointed in his direction from the Comanche side. How many scalps had those taken over the years?
West sat in the center on the Texas side with Hays and Captain Smith flanking her. The lightning bolt brave, apparently the spokesman, sat across the table facing her flanked by his two bare-chested Penateka braves.
He broke the silence. “I am Kablito. I bring you greetings to our land and wishes for health from Buffalo Hump, Chief of all Penateka.”
Captain Smith spoke for the Texans, and the palaver started. Frustrating minutes, then more than an hour passed. The sun and the August humidity pressed down. Jack lifted his hat and wiped his brow with a bright bandana. The Comanche did not sweat. Neither did the bastards blink. They looked to be not human at all.

“So, Tejas friends,” Kablito spoke, his palms turned up. “There is agreement on the mother for you. We keep daughter.”
Deaf Smith nodded. Jack couldn’t believe his Captain. The man was willing to let the young girl go back with these savages? Hays shook his head. West didn’t react.
Kablito ignored Jack. “We take ten ponies and one hundred silver pieces. You get Mother Pierce. Daughter stay with Chief Buffalo Hump. Stay with Penateka.”
“Penateka brothers,” West spoke her first words. Comanche talk? Jack didn’t understand. “It is bad medicine to separate mother and daughter. Both must come back to us.”
The three braves looked toward each other, then from West to Captain Smith. Dammit all, until now everything had been clear and in English. What the hell had she said in Comanche? And why now? From the looks on the Comanche faces, she was sure saying something that was not in the original plan.
“Your Paraibo, Buffalo Hump,” West continued in their language. “Knows well the value of family. Could your Chief have sent you to trade women like animals? Such behavior does not make for peace.”
More bad looks from the Comanche. The leader stared at Emily West, wide-eyed. Matters didn’t look very good at all. The other two Indians now seemed confused. They shifted on their barrel stools and leaned forward toward their knives.
Emily West’s hand moved toward her flintlock, maybe an inch. Why? Why the devil had she done that? The Comanche leader, Kablito, laid one hand on his knife, covering the blade.
This crazy woman was going to get them all killed. Jack could take down one Indian before West or any of the three savages could finish their moves, but after that? Twenty braves stood armed and ready less than a hundred yards away on the other side with no fear of death.
On Jack’s side of the parley, thirty hot, dusty Rangers stood the same distance behind him, locked and loaded. Flacco and Red Wing hid in the tree line with rifles ready. Out here in the sun, everybody was wound up tight. One mistake or false move and they’d have a bloodbath on their hands. Things were restlessly quiet now. No more words from either West or Kablito.
My God, the heat. Jack’s mouth and lips were parched. Still, nobody moved. A horse whinnied from the tree line. The only other sound Jack could hear was his pulse pounding in his ears.
“We just here for trading. Peace business, Yellow Woman.” Kablito broke the uneasy, overheated silence in broken English. He spread both hands palms up on the table. “No war today. Maybe another day better.”
He smiled and looked Emily West up and down. Jack tensed even more. Been in lots of uncomfortable circumstances, but never in such a fix as this one. What the hell could he come up with to ease things up?
“New bargain.” Kablito looked first to Smith, then to Hays. “Rangers take Pierce mother and daughter, we take ten ponies and Yellow Woman.” Kablito gestured with his hand toward Emily West. “She not White Face, anyway. Yellow Woman be happier with Numunuh.”
Hays grimaced, then stared at a wide-eyed Emily West. Her hand still rested near her pistol. Seemed like the woman had just gotten a lot whiter. Jack leaned in and put one hand over Emily’s hand and squeezed tight. Leastways now she couldn’t shoot the damned Indian.
“Afraid not, Chief.” Jack Hays spoke, still looking at Emily. “Already took this squaw for myself some time ago.”
West turned and looked at Jack. He stared as romantically as he could. He kept his hand snug over hers. Jack felt the woman relax, then she smiled.

Sunset in the hill country heralded a cooler, welcome breeze from the northwest. Astride his pony, Hays escorted the Comanche party away from the Ranger campsite. Kati Pierce, the daughter, rode with the band as they passed her mother. Marianne Pierce sat cross-legged in the grass at the edge of the woods. Hays had ordered her held there, watched by Flacco and Red Wing. The mother did not look to her daughter. What in God’s name could the two Pierce women be thinking?
Near the crest of the ridge, the peace party halted. Hays faced Kablito and rested one hand across his saddle. The Comanche laid his lance across his pony’s back. The white flag was gone and rawhide held a metal point where the flag had been.
“Tell your Chief, Buffalo Hump,” Jack said, “that we appreciate his peace offerings. Returning the woman.”
“Maybe another day,” Kablito replied, open hand raised, “you meet Buffalo Hump, face-on-face. Maybe talk peace. Maybe not.”
Hays tipped his hat and eased back in his saddle. Kablito kneed his pony around. Had the Indian smiled? Kablito jabbed his lance point at the air. A shrill cry not unlike like an eagle’s scream came from the young Comanche’s throat as he galloped to the head of his party. The braves turned and kicked at their ponies, the young Pierce girl in their midst. The Comanche band galloped over the hill crest and out of view.

Jack reined his mount, turned and headed in the opposite direction toward the double line of white tents and blue Texas flag. Emily West sat in front of her tent with her hat in her lap. She waved the hat when Jack rode by. He gripped the brim of his hat in a salute and rode on.
Emily West wasn’t any prettier than the young woman he remembered from that coin trick afternoon back in San Antone, but something about her sure could turn a man’s head. Wait a minute. Why the hell was he all of a sudden thinkin’ about all these women all the time? He ought to be wondering what General Sam was going to say about this mission.

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