Chapter One: A Comanche Moon
The 23rd Texas Cavalry bivouacked along El Camino Real, near the banks of the Red River outside Natchitoches. It was an old road, haunted by the ghosts of French and Spanish soldiers and traders who had long ago trod upon its wagon rutted clay. Many obedient soldiers or greed-driven adventurers had died along that road, from disease or from the arrows of savages.
As the curtain of this Louisiana night fell, campfires and candle lanterns flickered, speckling the sloping ground like sad giant fireflies. Gray plumes of smoke spiraled and swirled into the darkness. Those soldiers without duties were settling in for the night, attending to gear or cooking what food they had. These soldiers had fought every day since the Red River campaign had begun, and all were weary. Some had already collapsed in sleep.
Micah and Elbert sat near their own small fire, their eyes fixed on the flames. Shaking himself from his reverie, Micah set a tin coffeepot on the fire, then untied and opened a small sack of coffee taken from the black-tarred haversack of a dead Yankee. With his Bowie knife, he split the end of a stick and slipped it over the lip of a tin plate. He poured the beans into the plate and roasted them, stirring them with a wooden spoon and shaking them back and forth. When the beans began to crackle and reached the dark color he liked, Micah poured the beans back into the sack and pounded them with the Bowie’s pommel. He dumped the grounds into the coffeepot’s boiling water and set it back on the coals. After the coffee boiled again, Micah set it aside to let the grounds settle. A few minutes later, he filled their tin cups, and they slowly and deliberately sipped the brew. After pouring a second cup, Elbert reached for a hunk of salt-cured bacon wrapped in cheesecloth, and they cut and speared hunks with Yankee bayonets and held the meat over the flames.
Sergeant Adams, the quartermaster, had issued the Texans a canvas tent, but it lay on the ground where it had been dropped. There would be no rain, so Micah and Elbert would sleep that night as they had when they were Texas Rangers on patrol—their blankets spread on the ground under a naked sky, their heads resting on their saddles.
Weapons, tacking and accoutrements of all sorts were stacked and piled about them, recent spoils of war cast aside by the Federal soldiers in another panicked retreat after the company of Texas cavalrymen had broken their battle line at Mansfield. The Federal commanders had clung to the established belief that lines of infantry could repel attacking cavalry. The Yankee commanders learned they were wrong. One of the many harsh lessons of war tutored to the men on both sides in this campaign.
In the most recent battle, after secessionist artillery had softened the Federals, the 23rd attacked the Yankee flank head-on, but then Comanche style, suddenly wheeled to the side. Some cavalrymen clung to the side of their horse and aimed their firearms over the saddle as they had seen the savages do. The wild riders from Texas emptied their buckshot-laden double-barreled shotguns and the rain of lead tore great holes in the blue formation. Now, only a few feet away from the infantrymen, the riders hung the short empty shotguns on saddle horns and drew revolvers from saddle holsters. Spurring and quirting their mustangs, they whooped and roared like berserk Norsemen as they plunged their horses into the Federals and their pistols spewed death. When the saddle guns were empty, they drew the smaller caliber pistols they wore high on their waist. The Texan’s pistols were a collage of Colts—five-pound Patersons, Walkers, Dragoon and Navy models, pistols that the Rangers or their fathers had used to kill Comanches and Kiowas and Mexican bandits in former years.
The Federal men who remained standing suddenly realized their vulnerability. Their line broke and they ran for their lives, sprinting into the woods behind them toward a creek as Rebel horses trod corpse, wounded and fleeing. Many Federals tossed their Springfield muskets into the creek so they could claw their way up the steep bank. Plunging into briar thickets, they cast aside their belts, cartridge boxes and canteens. Scratched and bleeding, the Yankees fled till they could no longer hear the demonic caterwauls of the hellhounds in pursuit.
Two Louisiana soldiers herded another group of Yankee prisoners past Micah’s fire. The men in blue, wearied from battle or flight, trudged along slowly with downcast countenance.
“Damn,” Elbert said. “We sure captured a passel of prisoners today. Wonder what they’ll do with them all?”
“Send them to Camp Ford at Tyler to be with the others, I reckon,” Micah replied. Micah looked up at the full moon. During his three years with the Texas 23rd he had watched the moon wax and wane, much like the Confederate armies he had fought with. It hung in the sky like a harbinger of death. He had listened to the Louisiana soldiers talk of the moon’s beauty, heard one quote a poem about it, but Micah hated the moon. The full moon was a reminder, a terror. In his mind, he saw his house in Jack County bathed in its blue light, Erin inside sewing or reading or cleaning. He saw his twins, Skye and Benjamin, playing together near the fireplace. Outside, this same Comanche moon would be illuminating the garden, the neglected fields, and the surrounding buttes. He tried not to imagine dark savage eyes in the darkness spying on his family.
Micah said, “I know a tracker by the name of Chicolithe. He works at Camp Ford tracking down escaped prisoners. He said he saw a Comanche outside of Tyler once.”
“I wondered how long you could go without talking about Comanches or Kiowas,” Elbert said. “You’re eaten up with worry, and you ain’t going to rest until I’m the same way.” He tossed his cup’s coffee grounds into the fire and it made an angry hissing noise.
Micah saw Isaac, a cavalryman in the 2nd Partisan Rangers, walking to them.
“Micah, Elbert,” Isaac said. He sat at their fire.
“Coffee, Isaac?” Micah asked.
“I’ll take a spot. Thank you kindly.”
Micah filled his own cup and handed it to him. “I heard they’re thinking of making your unit dismounted cavalry.”
“Much obliged for the coffee,” Isaac said. He sat down on a log. “They’s talk of sending our horses home, but that’s all it is so far. Listen. I brung some news. Comanches and Kiowas have been coming down the corridor something fierce. Burning, raping, stealing children, killing. Jacksboro’s become a ghost town. None of the ranches can keep cattle. The Indians have been selling them to the Yankees in Indian territory or to the Comancheros.”
“Any folks we know hurt?” Elbert asked.
“Well, who, dammit!” Micah said.
“Well, in Parker County—William Youngblood and John Killen were killed. Hugh Blackwell, well, they kilt him, took his little boy, then took the Sullivan girl. John Reasnor, he’s dead. You know that Mrs. Brown who lived on Grindstone Creek? The Indians killed her, took her twins . . .”
Micah’s stomach rolled when he heard the word twin. “I’d just as soon not hear any more. I reckon we get the idea.”
The four sat together, lost in silence, in the swirl of thoughts that chased thoughts, thoughts that churned their insides. Instead of feeling their earlier patriotism for the war, an unspoken but poignant guilt filled them. Elbert lived in Parker County, where nine companies of eighty men each had left with the start of the war. Jack County, Micah’s home, had actually voted against secession, but experienced a similar loss of men and they joined the Confederate Army in droves—though some in Jacksoboro, like Micah’s friend Frederick, had signed on with the Union. As Micah understood the war and its issues, Lincoln and the North resembled England and Longshanks too much to claim his loyalty.
Micah picked up the coffeepot and emptied the grounds into the fire. “You don’t bring us the best of news, Isaac.” Micah stuffed the coffeepot into his saddlebag that rested on top of his saddle.
“Damn this war,” Elbert said. “Damn this Comanche moon. And damn me for not being in Texas with my family.”
Isaac stood up and looked west. “When my enlistment time is up, I’m going home. This here campaign has gone better than most, but I still wonder if Generals
Taylor and Smith know what they’re doing. I hear General Taylor is most unhappy with Kirby Smith. Guess they don’t see things eye to eye. Goodnight to you, Micah, Elbert. I need to find a couple of other boys from our area and let them know what I’ve heard.”
“Much obliged for the news, Isaac,” Micah said. Isaac nodded and walked toward the fire of Company F, about fifty yards away.
Elbert cut a sliver from a tobacco plug, chewed it, and spat a stream of the brown juice into the fire. “You’re thinking the same thing I’m thinking, ain’t you, Micah.”
Micah didn’t answer right away. Isaac’s silhouette was visible in the light of Company F’s fire. He listened to Isaac’s voice relate the same and other stories. He would likely spend much of the night going from fire to fire. He knew Isaac wouldn’t think it right to not tell what he knew. “You know I am.”
“Isaac’s likely to have half of the Twenty-third leaving for Texas if he keeps talking. The Comanche and Kiowa were making things bad even before we left, Micah. It was insane for us to join up and leave our homes undefended.”
“We were told they’d be plenty of men to watch the area. Elbert.”
“They sure changed their minds on that one. Ain’t no men there hardly. I hate like the devil being away from my family. Makes me want to quit soldiering and go home.” Elbert spat again into the fire. “I been dreaming crazy, Micah, and worrying so that I can’t sleep.”
“Well, hell, let’s go home. Other rangers have been drifting away. We might as well go too. I’d rather risk hanging for deserting than to put my wife and little ones into the hands of the Comanches.” Micah spread out his bedding and stretched out on the ground. He rested his head on his hands behind his head. “Better get some sleep, Elbert. We’ll talk about what we’re going to do tomorrow. I’m supposed to see the captain first thing in the morning.”
“I don’t know. I do know that every time an officer wants to see you it’s generally because you did something he’s unhappy with or he’s got something he wants you to do.”
Micah closed his eyes and listened to the snores and coughs of men, and looked up at the Comanche moon until he slipped into sleep.
He rose at first light and found the captain sitting outside his tent on a canvass stool, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He was reading a book.
“Where’s Elbert?” the captain asked.
“Did Isaac come by your camp last night?”
The captain turned a page in his book, never lifting his eyes from the page. “Are you a reading man, Micah?”
“Not much. My wife reads a good bit.”
He held up the book. “Macaria. A wonderful piece of literature. Notice the pages. I do believe the leaves are made of wallpaper.”
“Sometimes we have to make do with what we got,” Micah said.
“Yes, a good book. Pure propaganda though. Every idea the South has espoused to justify this conflict, every rumor that has been spread or whispered about us in the north is addressed in its pages. Yes, it’s propaganda, but effective propaganda. So effective that the Yankees have banned the book. Like our black servants, this book is now what they classify as contraband. They’ve ordered it to be burned whenever it’s captured.”
“Yankees seem to be fond of burning things.”
“It’s a savage man who doesn’t respect a book,” the captain said.
“My father told me of a shield he took off a dead Comanche. He said it had been stuffed with the pages of some book called Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
“Interesting choice the warrior made. A barbarian trying to protect himself with the words of civilized people. Back to the Yankees. Would you destroy a book, Micah, just because you disagree with what it says?”
“I never thought much about books. Never had any of my own, and I’ve only seen a few.”
“I’ve always been fond of Ms. Evans’ writing. Ever since I discovered Inez: A Tale of the Alamo. In Macaria, Miss Augusta Jane Evans argues that women should be more independent and serve the war effort just like the men do.”
“Makes sense,” Micah said.
“It does if you’re talking about spoiled, pampered, soft plantation belles. I don’t think she knows many frontier women. She sure doesn’t know how hard life already is for them. I never realized how tough our Texan women were until I came here. And I also didn’t realize until recently how wrong it was for us to leave them. We should have known that the savages would take advantage of our absence.”
Micah squatted down and stabbed the ground with his Bowie knife. “What’s on your mind, Captain?”
“I was ordered to choose some men to escort some newly captured Federal soldiers to Camp Ford at Tyler. I chose you and Elbert. After you deposit the prisoners, I’m giving you a furlough.”
“I want you to go back to Jack County and check on our families. With any luck, the war will be over before you have to return to duty. I hear it’s not going well at all in the East.”
“How long is the furlough?”
“Usual furlough is thirty days, but since each of you recruited someone, I can extend it to forty days.”
“What if I don’t come back in time?”
“I’ll report you as captured.”
“I’m much obliged, Captain,” Micah said. “I’ll stay if you want me to.”
“No, I don’t want you to stay. My motives aren’t entirely pure. I want you to check on my family now and then and help them any way you can. I’m also going to send my servant, Ezekiel, with you. He can cook for you on the way. You’ll have twenty or more prisoners, so you’ll have your hands full with guard duty. Ezekiel’s a crack shot and a good hunter. He’ll keep you supplied with fresh meat. Go to the quartermaster and tell him to find Ezekiel a captured rifle and a brace of pistols.”
“Yes, sir. Why did you choose us?”
“After what Isaac told us, I was half afraid you would desert and go back anyway.”
“You were right about that.”
Captain Allison handed Micah a slip of paper. “Here are your orders and notice of furlough. Try not to lose your orders or your prisoners.” He stood and held out his hand. “I’d let all the men go if I could, would go myself, but a captain can’t hardly leave his unit, can he? Wouldn’t be proper. So, I’m counting on you, Micah. God bless.”
Micah stood, saluted him, then shook the captain’s hand, and walked back to his camp. Elbert was still asleep. Micah kicked the mound of blankets covering him. “Get up, Elbert. Gather your gear. We’ve been given orders.”
“Where are we going?”
“Texas. Back to Texas.”