Here is my chapter nine of my western, The Month the Babies Cry.
After Micah crossed the Trinity River, he reined his horse to a halt and watched the small, brown human speck weaving erratically toward him through the mesquite trees and grass. Micah studied the youngster and determined him to be about six years of age and a Mexican.
Micah nudged his horse on, holding him to a slow gait. The wind had shifted to the north, and it bit his neck and back and the gusts gnawed their way through his tattered gray-wool greatcoat. Micah thought the northern had arrived early. The gusts rocked the creaking, bobbing mesquite boughs and roared in his ear as they blasted past him. As the wind wended its way past him, it whistled sharply with notes as shrill as an eagle-bone flute in a Kiowa Ghost Dance. He pulled his felt hat down further on his head and tightened the stampede string.
As Micah neared the boy, he saw brown eyes that spoke of terror and loss and sadness. Without stopping his horse, Micah bent over and scooped the little one from the ground. The boy’s teeth rattled and he quivered in Micah’s arms like a captured rabbit. He wore only a nightshirt, and his legs were blue from the cold and lacerated from mesquite thorns. Micah reached for the Federal issue blanket tied to the back of his saddle, unfastened it, and wrapped it around the boy, and they rode on toward Jacksboro. The wild-eyed boy clung to Micah’s neck and buried his sobbing face in his shirt.
“Shhh. Shhh, hijo,” Micah whispered. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. ¿Donde está su paredes?”
The boy turned his face toward his right shoulder and pointed to the west. “Alla.” He sobbed again.
“Si, Mi padre dice son Comanches.”
Micah’s stomach churned in a way it never did under threat of facing Yankees. “How many? Cuantos?”
“Está bien, muchacho. Está bien. ¿Como se llama?”
“Juan. Soy Juan Gonzalez.”
“Me llamo, Micah.” He uncorked his canteen and handed it to him. “Agua. Toma.” As the boy greedily drank, Micah scanned the area. When he finished, Micah corked the canteen and hung it around Juan’s neck. “Hay mas agua si necessitas. Duerme, muchacho. Necessito eschuchar.”
They passed abandoned farms and burned houses of Micah’s former neighbors whose fallow fields and pastures were now overgrown with mesquite, juniper, and prickly pear.
The boy was fast asleep when Micah reached the edge of Jacksboro Square that afternoon. Micah counted the dozen ramshackle buildings left standing along Rat Row and he once again cursed the war that had taken him away for reasons he couldn’t clearly remember and he cursed the Indians who had never left Jack County residents a moment of peace. A few horses were tied outside Jacob’s saloon and Nelson’s hardware store. The store Erin’s parents had owned was boarded up. They had sold the store when the war started and moved to Fort Worth. A man stepped out of the saloon and sat on one of the rough-hewn cedar benches on the porch. He studied Micah a minute, held up a hand in acknowledgement, then limped out to the street where he waited for Micah.
“How are you, Amos?” Micah asked.
“I’m good for an old man. I thought you might be a ghost, Micah.”
“No, don’t know what I am, but I ain’t a ghost.”
“I see you are still wearin’ your Confederate uniform, so I guess you ain’t switched sides.”
“Nope, ain’t switched sides. Here on furlough. This uniform’s all the clothes I got, so I reckon I’ll be wearing them a while yet. You ain’t gonna start carrying on about how I should have joined the Federal Army like some of the other Jack County boys, are you?”
“Naw, ain’t no need to do that. I always favored Southern views myself. I’m glad you made it back home. Yessir, I reckon there’s a passle of boys from here we’ll never see again. Their folks are gone crazy worrying about them. This war ain’t helped nobody that I can tell. I tried to join up. They said I was too old for regular service, but they said they could put me at Camp Ford down in Tyler and give me guard duty. I respectfully declined the offer.”
“You probably gave them a good cussin’ to boot. Things look pretty rough here.”
“That’s a fact. Maybe things will get better though. God knows they couldn’t get no worse.” Amos nodded at the boy. “Who you got there?”
“Says his name is Juan. He ain’t mine, if that’s what you’re wondering. I found him up by the Trinity, just wandering around. Another Jack County orphan. I’ll see if Ramon Chavez cain’t take care of him, being the boy is Mexican, and since I pass by his house anyways. He says some Comanches came. I reckon they killed his parents. I didn’t think it prudent to linger and look for them, so I brought him with me.”
Juan opened his eyes and saw Amos. He turned and buried his face in Micah’s shirt again. His arms clung with a tightness Micah only faintly remembered, a nearly completely buried memory of his own little brother who had died of the sleeping sickness in boyhood years long gone.
“Well, that Mexican boy ain’t the only Jack County orphan. Why don’t you and the boy get off that horse and come rest a spell inside. It’s a mite bit cold out here. You can get some hot coffee or I’ll pour you a cup of mescal I bought from the Mexican sutler that passed through town a spell back. More than likely you been ridin’ all day.”
“That sutler likely was this boy’s folks, I guess. I have for a fact, Amos, but I need to get on out to the home-place and see how my family is doin’.”
“They’re doing fine. Saw Erin and your twins in church last Sunday, Micah. Though I worry about them being so far out from town. Ain’t no family living beyond them no more. They’s all gone. Any other boys come with you?”
“Elbert and Captain Allison’s servant, Ezekiel, rode with me as far as Forth Worth. They went on to Weatherford. I’ll go get Elbert when my furlough is up—maybe.”
Amos turned his head and spat and the wind carried his spittle several yards away. “Damn, this wind is cold.”
“Sorry you got to come home to sad news, Micah. Comanches and Kiowas been raiding us fierce lately. More than a dozen families burned out, bunch of folks kilt. The sorry pagans must have kilt them in their sleep. Burned your and Erin’s parents houses, took all their stock. I just didn’t want you to go out there not knowin’ that you ain’t goin’ back to much.”
Micah’s father had died a year after moving to Jack County from pleurisy, his mother the next year from grief. Micah had taken over the farm. After he and Erin married, they moved into Erin’s parents’ house, as it was bigger, and he had rented out his own place. Micah pulled Juan closer to him, feeling comfort from the little brown arms choking him. “Much obliged, Amos. Can’t be helped, I reckon. They knew about the Indians afore they come out here. I can always rebuild the house if I want to. I passed the Jones’ place coming in. Not a soul in sight. They cleared out too?”
“Them and about half the county. It’s been rough here, boy.”
“What about the Rangers? Ain’t they doin’ something?”
“There ain’t no official Texas Rangers no more. The war took most of the fightin’ men away anyhow, even the ones they said would be left here for protection. But the great state of Texas has authorized us to raise up a minuteman militia to help put down these Comanche raids. Captain Howard from Parker County is coming to Jacksboro soon to sign men up for what they’s callin’ a punitive expedition against the savages. He’s meeting with some of the men in the saloon. If you ain’t got a belly full of fightin’ already, you might want sign up. It would help us to have some experienced soldiers with us. So far, it looks like it’s mostly going to be old men like myself and some boys that were too young to sign up for the war.”
“You goin’, Amos?”
“Thinking about it. My horse was stolen though, so I ain’t got nothin’ to ride but an ornery mule.”
“They payin’ men to sign up for this little expedition?”
“I heared that Texas is going to spot us a bit of money for it. Guess the state held some gold back that Jeff Davis didn’t get his hands on. Besides, the Injun problem is getting so bad that they had do something about it.”
“I reckon so. How is Ramon Chavez and his family?”
“They’ve done well. He’s an odd man, that Chavez. He had a horse stolen not long ago. Chavez swore he’d find a Comanche before the week was up. And low and behold if a Comanche didn’t try to steal another horse that very night. Chavez snuck up on him outside his corral and gut-shot him with his rifle. That Injun still managed to run a spell before he gave up the ghost.”
“Chavez is a crack shot, so I guess he gut shot him on purpose. That ain’t the first Comanche Chavez ever kilt, and I reckon it won’t be the last neither.”
“Mighty good seein’ you alive, Micah. I’ll tell folks you ain’t no ghost.”
“Naw, I ain’t no ghost.” Micah kneed his horse. “I’ll drop this boy with Chavez, but I’ll be back in time to join up with your minutemen.”
He continued south out of town, and the day darkened. He urged his horse to a trot until he reached the homestead of Ramon Chavez. His own house was an hour’s ride beyond that. The moon had risen, and from a rise he could see the silhouettes of Chavez’s Spanish horses as they stirred restlessly in the corral. He reined his horse to a halt and paused. Moments like this always surprised him, those times when one sees sights that are calm, peaceful, and beautiful. He rode on slowly toward the Chavez house. As he neared, a small flock of sheep bleated nervously and huddled together in one corner of the corral.
While Ramon’s dogs carried on, Micah sat on the horse and waited. Ramon stepped outside, closing the cabin door behind him. He held a shotgun in one hand, the barrel pointed to the ground. His eyes scanned the horses and sheep in the corral, probed the dark edges of his property, and settled on Micah’s shadow-form. “What do you want?”
“Ramon, it’s Micah Evans.”
Ramon leaned the shotgun against the wall and strode toward him.
Ramon held up his hand and Micah clasped it, and the iron grip nearly folded Micah’s hand in half.
“Micah, Micah,” Chavez said. “We hoped you would make it back to us. Who is the boy?”
“Juan. Found him wandering over by the fork of the Trinity. Looks like the Comanches killed his parents. His parents must have had the sense to hide the boy before the Indians got them. I reckon I’ll ride out and try to find his folks’ bodies as soon as I can. At least I’ll give them a decent burial—if there’s anything left of them. I saw old Amos in town. He said the Comanche problem is getting worse.”
“Come inside, Micah, and we will talk about it. “ Ramon lifted his arms toward Juan. “Ven aqui, niño.” Juan reached out and clasped Ramon’s neck, and slipped off the horse into his arms. He smoothed down the boy’s black hair. Bienvenido, Juanito. Este es su casa, ahora. Voy a ser su papá. Veronica! Micah is home! Tiene hambre!”
Micah dismounted just as Ramon’s wife stepped onto the porch. Veronica wiped
her hands on her apron as she ran to him. “Micah! Oh, gloria a Dios! Micah, You have returned! Look at you! You left a boy and have returned a man. Your mother and father would be so proud. Come inside from this cold. I have supper ready. Miguel will stable your horse. Miguel, ven aqui! Señor Micah is here. He has finally returned.”
Miguel joined them and took the reins as Micah handed Ramon the boy. He smiled shyly at Micah. “Welcome home, Señor Micah.”
“Good seeing you too, Miguel. He’s nearly a grown man himself, Ramon.”
Ramon placed his arm around Miguel’s shoulder and shook him so hard that Miguel’s hat fell off. “He grows too quickly. Ay! And such a horseman, a fine caballero! Micah, you should see him. He’s already better with a lariat and whip than I am. I know you are in a hurry to get home, but you must stay long enough to eat with us.”
Micah dismounted and embraced each of them—these friends of his lost family. Miguel helped him carry in his guns, saddlebag, and bedding, then returned to feed and corral Micah’s horse.
“Veronica, take the little one inside. It appears God has sent us another son. Take him inside.”
“His legs are eat up by mesquite thorns,” Micah said. “You might need to doctor him so those scratches don’t fester up.”
Veronica peeled back the blanket. “Ay me! His legs are scratched so. I must wash them immediately. Miguel, please bring in another bucket of water.”
At the table, Veronica served them a supper of chicken, beans, and corn tortillas. Ramon studied Juan as he hungrily ate, pushing more food toward him.
“He looks like a fine boy,” Ramon said. “He has strength in his eyes. It is good the Comanches didn’t find him.”
Micah nodded. His father had told Micah enough stories about Marcos so that he understood the nuances of meaning in Ramon’s words. Before Micah’s father and Ramon moved to Jack County in 1854, they had ridden together against the Comanches in 1839 in Colonel Juan Seguin’s Rangers. On one excursion, after they destroyed a Comanche village, they found a sixteen-year-old Mexican boy hiding in the brush. After trying to talk with him, Ramon dragged him into a blackjack oak thicket and blew his brains out. Ramon told Micah’s father that the boy had been with the Comanches too long and was no longer a Tejano.
Micah’s mother had chided his father. “You shouldn’t tell your boy such stories.”
His father replied that Texas was not like other countries, and that if they had let the boy go, he would only have killed more Texans and they would have eventually had to kill him anyway, and that Micah needed to hear that such things are. Sometimes the work of a Ranger was not always pleasant work, his father had said.
Miguel excused himself from the table. He fetched his rawhide lariat and dragged a stool nearer the fireplace. He began to oil the leather, working each inch of the rope with his hands to make it more pliable.
“The Indians must be giving Jack County the devil,” Micah said. “I must have passed a dozen burned or abandoned houses since I crossed the Red River. Are they Comanches or Kiowa?”
“Both tribes as far as I can tell. It’s the worse I’ve ever seen—even worse than when your father and I lived in South Texas. The frontier has been so weakened by the war that the Indios realize they don’t have to go all the way to Mexico now for booty. Before they just wanted try to steal stock and such, but they’ve become vicious lately, Comanches and Kiowa especially. They are attempting to drive us away, and they think they will succeed. Sometimes they’ll start out a large band, then they’ll split up and hit several different homesteads in one night. At other times they’ll come in a large army and attack a small town like they did last year when 600 or so came down the corridor. They steal our stock and then sell them to the Yankees in Kansas or to Comancheros in the Llano Estacado or to ranchers in New Mexico. They kill the men and old folks, and they take the women and children as captives. Tejanos, whites, and Negroes too. Do you know why?”
“Ransom?” Micah said.
“Sometimes. A few parents in Jack County have recovered children with ransom, but not many. I think the Indians want us to leave their land more than they want ransom. They want to rebuild their tribe. Smallpox killed so many of them years ago that now they want to steal our children and raise them to rebuild their tribe. They take our women to breed, and the children they have are raised as Comanches.”
“Maybe we should get them back.”
“No, hijo. How a man or woman is raised determines destiny. Thus, those who are raised among the Indians are ruined. The upbringing confuses and confounds their nature, like when a child is suckled at the teats of a wolf. My father told me stories of these children who were raised by wolves in the mountains in Mexico. Such children cannot stand upright; they bark and bite at humans. There is no way to help them. It is so with the captives. After a few years, they have no memories and their heritage is lost to them forever. They start thinking they’re something else instead of what they really are. Such are better off dead.”
Micah’s thoughts drifted into imagining Juanito’s fate if he had not found him. Ten years as a Comanche or Kiowa would have changed him from the sweet boy he seemed to be into a hard, horse-stealing, killing machine. The thought depressed him. “Amos said that a Captain Howard from Parker County wants to recruit some Jack County Boys to hunt down some of these raiders.”
“I heard, but it I’d be surprised if it does much good. Micah, the ones who raided us are probably Antelope Comanches who will be back on the Llano Estacado by the time they get a unit together. Texas is sending him to form a militia just so we’ll feel like the state is doing something to protect us. I don’t know much about Captain Howard. I do know he is a Ranger and a Confederate like you.”
“I hope he’s got some sense. But being called a captain don’t tell you what kind of leader or Indian fighter he is. We had our share of ignorant officers in our own regiments.”
“Well, if he wants to catch them, he must pursue them quickly. Even now, the trail will be old. They may be too far out on the plains, though I have heard they have been moving their camps steadily closer to us.”
“They’ll keep coming back until we bloody them bad enough, Ramon.”
Ramon daubed his tortilla into his beans and scooped them into his mouth. “I know. Someday, I hope we can exterminate them.”
“I plan on going with this Howard and his militia. I want you to go too, Ramon. You’re the most experienced Indian fighter in Jacksboro, and the best tracker I’ve ever known. I’d feel much better about it if you were with us.”
“Hijo, I am an old man now. The unit will be better off without me.”
“He will go,” Veronica said. “He wouldn’t miss the chance to be a Ranger again.” She reached over and placed her hand on his. “Mi Tejano Ranger. Vaya con Dios, con Micah. Give the savages a taste of their own medicine.” She said this with more vindictiveness than Micah knew she was capable of.
“Ah, Carida. What would I do without you?”
“You would be an old grumpy bachelor, for there is no other woman who could put up with you as I do.”
Ramon’s brow wrinkled.
Veronica smiled. “Nor love you as much as I do.”
Ramon’s scowl evaporated when she kissed his forehead, and he smiled. “Your father tried to warn me about your mischievous nature,” he said. “But no, I would not listen to his wisdom!”
Veronica patted Ramon on the shoulder and refilled his coffee cup. “Someday our own Miguel will find the love of his life, and be the most fortunate of men, just like you, no?”
“I saw Frederick in the Federal prisoner stockade at Tyler,” Micah said.
“Did you speak with him?” Ramon asked.
“No. And I ain’t likely to if he comes back neither.”
Ramon looked at him. “Only a woman could cause such division between two friends.”
“Only a woman like Erin.”
“Did you kill many Yankees, Señor Micah?” Miguel asked.
“I killed my fair share, I reckon.”
“It is good. They wanted to take our liberty. I am sure the great Juan Seguin who my father rode with would have fought with you, with the Confederacy. Papá wanted to go with you, but . . . ”
“That is enough, Miguel,” Ramon said. “We are just happy to have Micah back with us and that the Federal soldiers did not kill him.”
“I am tired of this war talk,” Veronica said. “It is time we prepared the household for the night.” She moved to her rocking chair and Ramon set Juan in her lap. “Tomorrow, Miguel will make you a cot,” Veronica said to Juan. “But tonight, you must sleep on the floor.” She sang to him, and the salve of her voice, the creaking rocker, and Juan’s weariness soon pulled him into a deep sleep. “Hold him for me, Ramon.” She passed Juan to Ramon, then retrieved a pair of quilts from a chest and spread it out on the floor. As her hands smoothed down the brightly colored top, she said, “These quilts were made by your mother. She gave them to me to celebrate Miguel’s birth. I can see her soul in the tiny stitches, all these little scraps of cloth she changed into beauty and into the warmth of a quilt.”
“I remember less of Mother than I should. I know she had a knack of making something out of nothing.” Micah could visualize his mother, rocking his little brother who was so sick that terrible February. He remembered too how at other times she would sit alone and sew on her quilt tops, lost in her own private thoughts. Thoughts so private that at times, even her husband knew them not. And now, those private thoughts and those little scenes, like his mother, were all gone forever.
Juanito fell asleep and Veronica laid him down.
“Soon we will visit your parents’ graves,” Ramon said.
“I’m much obliged, Ramon,” Micah said as he stood up to leave. “I best be on my way.”
“Es nada, hijo,” Ramon replied. “I’d ask you to spend the night, but I know you wouldn’t. Your family is well, Micah. Go with God.”