Here is chapter thirteen of my western novel, The Month the Babies Cry.
Ramon and the Tonkawas dismounted at a sandy area near a creek. The Tonks squatted, and Ramon knelt on one knee and together they studied the ground and talked quietly in Spanish.
“What’s wrong Ramon?” Micah asked
“The group we’re following has been joined with another. We’re not following a dozen anymore.”
“Maybe fifty. They’re pushing along a good-sized herd of cattle too.”
Micah felt their pace to be too slow, but knew since their grain supply was limited, he knew they must allow the horses to forage on the way.
The Minutemen moved northwest, circling back toward the Trinity, following the tracks of the unshod Indian horses now mingled with those of shod stolen horses. After they crossed Lost Creek again, another twenty horse tracks merged in with the war party, then a few miles later, another group of horses before the trail turned north. The horse prints were spaced closely together, indicating the riders were moving along leisurely. Now and then they would see a scrap of cloth or an odd object taken from a ranch.
“Ramon, what do you reckon they’re thinking? They sure ain’t in no hurry to get where they’re going.”
“Their numbers make them arrogant. They know that most of the fighting men left years ago. They think this is their land again. If they knew that there are only a couple of experienced Indian fighters in this bunch, they’d be attacking us now. Take a look at this bug of ragamuffins—mostly boys, old men, men from the war who are still stove up from their wounds. Would you be very worried if you were a Comanche? They are farmers, not Rangers. ” Ramon raised his arm and pointed. “Look.”
Micah saw a lone wagon. “This is close to where I found Juan. Must be his parents’ wagon.” He spurred his horse and rode over.
The wagon was more like a cart, in the style of the old Comancheros—a single axle with two giant, solid cottonwood wheels. Some trash and scraps were strewn on the ground, but everything of substance had been taken by the Comanches. The two oxen pulling the cart were dead on the ground. Indians had killed, skinned, and butchered them. A few bones lay scattered about a fire. A scalped Mexican man and a woman lay close together, their sun-blackened bodies naked, bristling with arrows, mutilated. Micah noticed how close their hands were to each other, almost as if they had flicked fingers in one last pitiful, painful moment.
“We should stop and bury them,” Ramon said. “Their skin is turning black. We might not have another chance to bury them—pigs and buzzards will have eaten them before we can get back to them.”
“I’ll stay behind and bury them. You need to go on with the others and find the Comanches. I’ll catch up when I’m done. Even with the Tonkawas, I’m half-afraid this bunch of peckerwoods couldn’t follow a trail.”
Micah stepped off his horse and tied it to the cart. He took the militia’s shovel from one of the pack mules, found a sandy area, and started digging.
“We can’t stop, Evans,” Captain Howard said. “We’re too close to them and I don’t want to lose them.”
“Well, Captain, you and the boys go on and I’ll catch up when I’m done. I ain’t gonna mutiny on you. It’s just that I was the one who found their son alive, and I just don’t think it would be right for me to not bury them.”
“Alright. Hurry up with it and catch up. Troop, let’s move on and see if we can find these Comanches before dark.”
“Yes, Captain,” Ramón said. “They have circled south now, instead of going out to the plains. That means they’re not finished raiding yet.”
Micah watched the Rangers move on. He dug down in the sandy soil till he hit rock, then after he yanked the arrows from their bodies, he dragged the couple over and laid them together into the three-foot-deep hole. He covered them with dirt and rocks, then he cut and trimmed two mesquite limbs and fashioned a crude cross that he hammered into the ground between them with a stone. Studying the cross a minute, he yanked the cross from the ground. The Comanches had been known to dig up the graves of Texans. Someday he might be able to come back and mark it properly.
“I’ve got to go now,” he said to them. “I’ve never been good at talking with the dead, but I found your boy, and me and Chavez will take care of him the best we can. I’ll find these Indians and make things right. I reckon you’re Catholic, so if I ever run into a priest, I’ll send him your way. Other than that, I don’t know what else I can do for you.”
He mounted his horse and held him to a steady gait so that he could catch up with the militia.
As Micah neared them, he saw that they had stopped.
On the horizon, Micah saw why–a line of Comanche horsemen faced them. Micah joined the militia.
“What do you think, Ramon?” Captain Howard asked.
“I reckon they want to fight. Being we’ve only got twenty men, they think they’ve got an advantage. They might be giving us a chance to run.”
“If we had any sense,” Micah said, “we would run, but in the war I lost all the sense my father put in me. We can whip them, but they’re likely to bloody us if it turns bad.”
“How many are there?” Captain Howard asked as he lowered his binoculars.
Micah counted horses, though he knew Howard had already counted them. He had fought under officers like this before. Howard was either scared shitless or double-checking himself. Micah thought the latter. “I count about forty. From the tracks, Ramon said there were close to fifty, so maybe the others are around somewhere too, or up ahead pushing the stolen stock along.”
“ Forty. That’s what I counted.”
Micah pulled out his Whitworth rifle and used the scope to look the Indians over. “Well, it looks like they’re putting on paint now. Probably giving each other courage talks until we get closer. They’re looking for a fight, but then we are too. I guess that’s the calling of being a Ranger.” He took another look through the scope. They were shaking their shields and the constant movement of the feathers fastened to the edges of the shields bewildered his eye.
The captain handed Chavez his binoculars. “Take a look, Ramon.”
Ramon raised the binoculars and studied the Comanches. “They have fought before. Did you see their shields, Micah? Bear teeth, scalps, and horsetails are hanging from most of them. Means they are seasoned warriors. They will be tough.”
“How many did you say there are?” the Smith boy asked.
Micah heard the nervousness in the boy’s voice.
“About twenty,” the captain said. He leaned his arm on the pommel of his saddle and spat.
“Sure looks like a bunch of them. Maybe we should make a run for it,” Smith said.
“No,” Ramon said. He drew out his rifle from its scabbard. “We had better get ready to fight, hijo. Our horses are tired, so we couldn’t outrun them. We’d have to turn and fight them anyway. Let’s do it now and get it over with.”
The Indians slowly started toward them, some of the riders veering toward the left flank.
“They’re wanting to circle us,” Ramon said.
“I see it,” Micah said. “My father said that the Comanches were the best horsemen in Texas, and that until his units learned their tactics, they gave them fits.”
“Christ, There’s too many of them for us to fight,” another Ranger said.
“Well, let’s see if we can even the odds a little.” Micah slipped off his horse and laid the barrel across the saddle. “Ramon, grab his reins so he don’t jump on me. Steady, Colbert,” he said. “You done this before. Let’s see if we can slow them down a bit.”
“Don’t waste your bullet,” Captain said. “They’re too far away.”
“I’d guess they’re about five hundred yards.” Micah sighted down the brass four-power scope, squeezed off a shot knocked one from his horse.
“I’ll be damned,” Captain Howard said. “That must be a half-mile away. I never seen a gun that could shoot that far before.”
“It’s a Whitworth. Made in England. A friend gave it to me.”
The Comanches hesitated, puzzled by the fact they had lost a man at this great a distance. Micah knew the man had fallen off his horse before they heard the shot. He tore open another cartridge with his teeth, squeezed the powder and hexagonal .45 caliber bolt into the barrel, pressed in the cartridge wadding, and rammed it down. He fitted a cap, took aim and dropped another. The Indians whooped, quirted their horses, and rode toward them furiously.
“I was hoping they’d turn and run,” Micah said. “I guess they do want a fight.” He loaded, aimed, and a third rider fell. “I can get one more before they reach us. Captain, you reckon your boys can shoot some of them when they get inside a hundred yards?”
“Dismount, men! Take cover if you can find it. Smith, Evans, Fogle—you hold the horses. Pass on your rifles when the other men fire. Steady, men. Take careful aim.” Captain Parker pulled his two-band Enfield from its sheath. “You’re sure taking your time loading, Micah.”
“Can’t load this rifle in a hurry. Captain, I say we should use our rifles till they get close, then mount our horses, charge them, and finish them off with our pistols.”
“That’s pretty big talk for a runt like yourself,” one Ranger said. “You can chase them if you want, but I ain’t gonna take an arrow,” one Ranger said. “I hear the Comanches poison’em with dead skunks. I’m doin’ what the captain said and get to a safer piece of ground where I can shoot and have some cover besides these scrubby mesquite trees.”
Micah knew the man had fought with a Missouri Yankee infantry unit, but then deserted. “If you didn’t come out to fight Indians, you should have stayed at the house,” Micah said. “But if you want to go hide in the rocks, go on. Quit yakking and get that Springfield to working.”
Micah had dropped his fourth one when the Captain ordered the men to fire. Micah cursed. Only two Comanches went down. He had also heard a rifle misfire. “Captain, your men don’t even know how to check their rifles before a firefight?” He loaded, sighted, and dropped another. The Rangers had not finished reloading when the Comanches let loose their first volley of arrows. One ranger caught an arrow in his right shoulder.
“God damn it! God damn it!” he said.
The Comanches were now close enough that Micah could see their faces and hear the thunder of the unshod hooves on the hard clay ground and a steady shower of arrows descended upon them.
One Comanche, a sixteen-foot hooked lance in one hand, and a pistol in the other, was almost upon them, showing off by falling to one side of his horse’s flank and then swinging over the horse’s back to the other. Micah sensed the Indian’s timing, and fired the Whitworth for the fifth time, and he could tell by the sound that the bullet had struck flesh even before the Comanche crumpled to the ground. Micah slung his Whitworth onto his back, mounted his horse, and pulled the shotgun from its sheath. “Let’s go boys. Better get on your horses. You don’t want to get caught on foot out here in the open.”
“Micah,” Ramon said. “I’ll ride toward the ones circling left of us, you go to the right of the rest. Entiende?”
“Yeah, you want to bunch them up.” Micah turned his horse and rode behind the unit so that he could face the lead riders who were trying to get behind them, knowing the unit couldn’t afford to let the wheeling mass of warriors encircle them completely. Each barrel of the shotgun took an Indian down, and he clubbed another off his horse with the, then slid it back into its sheath.
Pulling a pistol from the saddle holster, he reined in his horse, and shot another. The Indian managed to stay on his horse, slapping at his buckskin shirt that had burst into flame. Another dropped down on the side of his horse as he rode by. Since Micah didn’t have a clear shot at the Indian, he shot the horse down, then another horse racing by with only a hand and foot of its rider in sight. One of his bullets hit the shield of another, and Micah knew the .36 bullet had deflected. “Damn it,” he said. He lowered his aim from the shield and put two bullets into the Comanche’s leg and watched that horse go down with its wounded rider.
A group of warriors swarmed toward him, and Micah instinctively spurred his horse and turned him so that he could not get caught in the middle of them. He heard the strained breathing of his horse, and Ramon’s booming .44’s. He sighted Ramon in the melee, and headed toward him. The big pistol bucked in Ramon’s hand, and Micah saw him unhorse two warriors. “Micah, cover me while I reload my pistolas,” he said.
Micah pulled his horse in between Ramon and the Indians. “Who’s got the mules?” Micah shouted.
“The Smith boy and Jacob.” Ramon broke open his revolver and replaced his cylinder. “Can you see the others? They’re not trying to run, are they?”
“No, but every man but the Captain looks like he could shit in their pants.” Micah shoved the spent pistol into its holster and withdrew his second. “The Comanches will get tired of losing warriors and run directly.”
“Not that one yonder. Spear carrier. I shot his horse down, but he didn’t run. Pinned his war bonnet to the ground. Must be seeking a big coup. The only way he’ll move is if one of his own comes and removes the spear.”
“I’ll fetch him.” Micah spurred his horse toward the bow-wielding Comanche fifty yards ahead of him who had pinned his bonnet sash to the ground with his own lance. Micah rode directly toward him, hoping that an arrow wouldn’t get him before he could drop him with the pistol. You want to die, Micah thought. Well, your friends are going to miss you. Micah shot him three times, then when the man crumbled, the others in the band circled away, working together in pairs to pick up their dead. Micah saw them herding some Ranger horses with them.
Just out of spite, Micah dismounted, loaded the Whitworth, and planted a bullet in a warrior’s spine. The warrior’s horse was herded into the bunch with the stolen Ranger horses. This time none came back to pick up the dead warrior.
Micah loaded it again, then pulled out his shotgun and loaded it. Micah bit his tongue to keep from cussing. The Rangers in the unit had emptied their rifles and pistols, but as far as Micah could tell, he and Ramon had killed eight, while the rest of the unit had only killed three.
“That’s some rifle you got. You ever shoot Yanks with it?” O’Connor said.
“Yes, a few. The dead Yankees were my gift to the Confederacy.” Micah saw Ramon ride over to the Comanche he had shot in the leg. “Watch him, Ramon, he could be playing possum. I only hit him in the leg.”
Ramon shot the Comanche in the head, then did the same to the two others the Comanches had failed to recover. Then, uttering oaths in Spanish, he shot each again in his ritual of death, a red baptismal sprinkling of the Texas earth, seeing in their dead bodies the ghosts of others. Ramon searched the Comanches, taking their weapons, amulets and pouches. He lifted one by the hair and pulled out his Bowie.
The captain saw him and shouted, “Chavez! Leave him be. We’ll have none of that.”
Chavez hesitated, then slipped the knife into its sheath and dropped the Comanche’s head to the ground. He started walking back toward his horse, then turned back and began kicking the dead warrior, hooking kick after kick into the corpse.
“That Mexican sure don’t like Comanches none,” one Ranger said.
“They ain’t ever give him a reason to like them much,” Micah replied.
The Captain shouted, “You peckerwoods clean and reload your rifles and pistols if you ain’t done it already!”
A couple of younger minutemen began doing so. Micah shook his head. “Damn youngsters ain’t got no cause to be out on an expedition like this, Captain.”
“They got to learn sometime,” Howard replied.
“My father always said that experience isn’t the best teacher—but you can count on her being the hardest teacher.”
“Your father was right, but sometimes there just ain’t no other way to teach a man something. If a man’s able to live through it, it can be a good thing.”
The Rangers regrouped under the mesquite scrub. Since the sun was going down, they pitched camp. The unit had two men severely wounded and one dead—the Smith boy who had stayed to hold the horses. A Comanche had ridden directly to the horses, hoping to spook them and leave the rangers on foot. He had clubbed the Smith boy with a sling club. The captain had ridden over in time to shoot the Comanche before he could cut the mules loose or kill Jacob who was trying to reload his pistol with his one good hand.
The Rangers also had two horses and their pack mule killed in the line of duty. After they tended to the wounded and buried the Smith boy, the captain said a few words in the mule’s honor. “Our dear Jenny will be sorely missed. Amen. Now, if you boys are ready to eat, let’s get her skinned out and have supper.”
* * *
After they ate, Micah unfastened the tin cup hanging from his haversack and filled it with water from his canteen. He fastened a swab to his ramrod, dipped it and the water, and swabbed out the Whiteforth’s barrel, then oiled the gun. After the rifle, he cleaned the shotgun and pistols. Ramon sat down beside him with his guns. Micah passed him the small corked bottle of oil.
“I see you have not forgotten to quickly clean your weapons.”
“Better twenty minutes now, then two hours later.”
Captain Howard walked over to them. “Micah and Ramon, I’m giving you sentry duty for the second watch of the night.”
“Si, mi capitán,” Micah said.
After Howard moved on, Micah asked Ramon, “You reckon the Comanches will be back?”
Ramon blew into an empty pistol cylinder, looked through it, then deliberately loaded it. “They may not be done with us yet, hijo. There’s still more of them than us. We shamed them. Their leader will want to return and teach us a lesson. Such pride makes them dangerous, but it also makes them predictable. We will kill more of them tonight.”
Micah was ordered to patrol on foot the camp’s perimeter. Ramon wrapped himself in a blanket and stationed himself under a mesquite where he could watch the line of hobbled and staked-out horses and mules.
Micah slowly and quietly prowled the camp’s perimeter, his shotgun cradled in his arm. Coyotes carried on in the distance, and the sound of the horses grazing mingled with the snores and coughs of the sleeping rangers.
Every hour he circled back to Ramon, stopping when he neared him and signaling with a short whistle. After his third trip around the camp, he sat down next to Ramon.
“Captain says we have to go back to Jacksboro,” Ramon said. “With two men wounded, and four of the men on foot, he says we can’t do much more good out here.”
“How in hell did the Comanches get so many of our horses?”
“They must have got them when they killed Smith.”
“I think some of us ought to go on and hunt the rest down. Let the ones who couldn’t hold on to their horses walk on back.”
“The War changed you, Micah. Your fierceness can be a good quality. But when los indios are gone, what will you do with that fierceness?”
“What did you do with it? I remember how you and Pa used to talk about the Indians.”
Ramon’s eyes fixed in dark aperture on a point in the darkness. He touched Micah’s arm and pointed.
Micah saw the man-shadow, crouching and slowly creeping their way. He was nearly to the horses. Ramon slipped his pistol from its holster and motioned for Micah to circle toward the right and that he would go straight ahead.
Micah readied the shotgun and slipped from tree to tree, hoping that the Indian would make the mistake of stepping into a moonlit area. Ramon’s pistol barked and a body thudded to the ground. Micah heard moccasin-clad feet trotting through the brush, and a spectre passed by him. Micah raised and cocked the shotgun. The spectre stopped and searched for the sound. Micah fired his shotgun. The shadow reeled in a death-dance and fell. Micah slipped into the shadow of another mesquite and waited.
The camp had come to life. Men shouted in confusion. “Be quiet, damn you,” the captain’s shouted. “Take a position and be still, you idiots! Sentries! Chavez!”
Ramon’s voice called out. “We are here, Capitain. Did you get the second one, Micah?”
“Yeah, he’s down. Were there any more?”
“I only saw the two.”
“Captain,” Micah said, “send a couple of men out to watch the horses while Ramon and I slip around and see what we can find. They probably came on foot, but they may have horses nearby.”
“Are you sure you got them?” one of the Rangers called out.
“He’s sure, you idgit,” the captain said, “or he wouldn’t have answered anything at all.”
When he woke the next morning, Micah poured himself a cup of coffee. He looked toward the horses and through blurred eyes and saw Ramon standing over the two dead Comanches. Ramon’s fingers briefly touched the handle of his large Bowie, and he muttered words Micah couldn’t make out, words with memories and rage buried deep inside them. He gulped down the hot coffee, refilled the tin cup and carried it to Ramon.
“Thought you might like a cup of this coffee. Sure beats that sweet potato coffee I had to drink sometimes in Louisiana. Everything alright, Ramon?”
Ramon took the cup, blew across the lip, and carefully sipped at the coffee. “Esta bien, Micah. Two lodges will now be without warriors. Their families will be hungry. Do you know what the Comanches call this time of year, Micah?”
It was late February. “No, I don’t.”
“They call it, turuetuu nahweetuu tsihasuatuu. In Spanish, it would be, El mes cuando los niños llorar para comida, the month the babies cry. Many nights, I have heard these babies, Anglo and Tejano babies, crying. And now at night, when I sit at table with my family, our bellies full, our bodies sheltered by our cabin, I will hear their babies crying, and I will know that they will feel what we have felt.”