We rode into the McAlester ranch south of Black Mountain too late to prevent the carnage. The Comanches were gone and the coyotes and buzzards had started feasting on the bodies of the twenty-one men and boys they'd killed. We let our horses rest and graze in McAlester's grass while we buried what was left of them in shallow graves and piled the rocks high over them. The Captain opened his Bible and said a few words.
That was the Comanche way. Kill the men. Take the women and horses and guns and whatever else they wanted. Burn what was left. Captured white women knew what fate awaited them and many times they'd kill themselves rather than let the Comanches take them. The Comanches usually mutilated them with fire and steel, burning or cutting off lips and noses and breasts, leaving them disfigured and praying for death. Those they didn't mutilate, they broke with work and whips and pumping out little Comanche bastards until the women were dead inside and docile as old mares.
The Comanches wouldn't torture these captives until they returned to the safety of their mountain retreats on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. If we could catch them first, we could rescue the women. They wouldn't have a home or family to go to, but at least they'd be alive and back with their own kind.
"Let's ride," Captain King said. He mounted his big roan and led the way, following the signs on the trail as well as any Indian.
We thought they were a day ahead of us, maybe two, but they were traveling with booty and captives. If they let the woman ride, they could move faster, but Comanches liked to make the women walk. Walking all day under the Texas sun took the starch out of them.
There were eleven of us in Captain King's Company. We each had two horses and switched between them to let them rest. We traveled light and we traveled fast with the Captain leading and me right behind him.
My horses were Texas pintos whose grandsires were wild mustangs descended from the horses the Spanish left when they first came to this country two hundred years before. Like me, they were tough, lean, and hard, and could go for days on little water and less rest.
I carried three Colt Walkers, one tied to each leg and the third nestled in a holster behind my back. My trusty Henry repeating rifle was in a scabbard under my right leg. Between them, I could fire thirty-one rounds before I had to reload. All us Rangers carried Colts. Captain Samuel H. Walker, a former Texas Ranger himself, taught old Sam Colt what a gun should be. Colt made them and named them after the Captain. That was in eighteen forty-six, before the war, and Colt had made new ones since then, like the Colt Army the Captain carried. But I liked the Walker. It was big and kicked like a mule, but its.44 caliber could stop any man.
The next day, we found the Comanches camped by a watering hole, letting their hobbled horses eat the thin turf. We went in before dusk, five from the north and six from the west, crawling through the grass on our bellies until we were close enough to spit on them. But we didn't spit. We waited.
We start the same way each time, with the Captain firing the first shot. I had counted twenty-seven Comanches before the shooting began. They were drinking McAlester's whiskey and whooping around the fire. We'd kill them before they remembered their white-women prisoners.
Their captives, exhausted from being dragged along the trail, were coffled with rope around their throats near the northwest edge of their camp. I counted eleven women of child-bearing years and six girl-children. Two women were singing an old hymn in high, clear voices that pierced the dry desert air. One was pitifully crying. Most sat with dead eyes and slack jaws, too shocked and exhausted to move.
Two of the captive women seemed composed. One was older than my age of thirty-five, I'd guess. She was substantial and bore the expression of someone in command. She was at one end of the coffle with her hands tied in front of her and one leg secured to a mesquite.
The other was the fourth woman down the coffle. Her eyes were cold and focused and her jaw was set as she watched her captors around the fire. Her mane of bright yellow hair glittered in the fading light and fluttered when the wind touched it.
One of the young bucks by the fire stumbled to his feet and staggered toward the captives. The woman with the yellow mane watched him advance with hate in her eyes.
"No, no," another woman whimpered. Yellow-mane shushed her.
A second Indian staggered to his feet and yelled at the young one. I knew enough Comanche to get their gist. The younger one had raped yellow-mane the first night and the older one wanted her now. The other Indians listened to the two argue and so did we. The older one was the war chief of this little band. He thought he had the right to take the best woman for himself, but the younger one was a buck too drunk not to fight.
The two savages were haranguing when the crack of the Captain's rifle cut the air and the Comanche war chief seemed to jump and fall on his back as blood spurted from his chest. The Henry repeating rifle's.44/40 did that to a man.
I shot the young buck near yellow-mane. Her head jerked up and somehow our eyes met. She knew the man who shot him. The buck fell at her feet, but he wasn't dead. He was clawing at the dirt. Yellow-mane scrambled to her feet, dragging the coffle toward him. She rolled him on his back, pulled his knife from his belt, and cut his throat clean as a whistle. She stood over him and watched him die.
Some Indians tried to reach their horses to escape, but not a one made it. A few ran to the south, scampering away in the dying light.
It was over in less than a minute. The Captain called, "Cease fire," and the steel against steel of our rifles' levers as we each loaded another round was the mechanical shrill before the hush. "You women get down flat on your bellies," the Captain roared. The coffle collapsed to the ground. A woman screamed and another covered her mouth to silence her.
We entered the camp cautiously. Most of the men did as I did, laying down their rifles and walking in with a cocked Colt in hand. We checked the Indians one by one. No need to get killed because we were in a hurry. Twice I heard the bellow of a Colt when a Ranger found a Comanche who wasn't dead yet. We didn't take prisoners.
When we were sure they were all dead, the Captain said, "Tully, you're in charge. Second Squad, follow me."
He and five men rode off after the escapees. I put the other four men in my squad on guard and went to free the captives. Yellow-mane was already cutting away the rope around her neck.
"Sergeant Tully, Texas Rangers," I said to the substantial woman.
"I'm Annabelle McAlester," she said as I freed her. "There's a squaw with them. I don't know where she went."
I hollered at the men to be on the lookout for a Comanche woman. "Mrs. McAlester," I said. "We'll need you to keep the women under control." I gave her a knife to let her free some captives.
I looked at yellow-mane closely for the first time. She was young, twenty or so, with a square-jawed face, pretty, yet strong, like the frontier and Indians were nothing she couldn't handle.
"You all right?" I asked her.
"Fine, thank you."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Mrs. Cora Mae Stockman," she replied as she looked me full in the face and her strong, clear blue eyes held mine. "What's yours?"
"I'm Sergeant Ezekiel Tully, Company 'G', Texas Rangers," I said.
"Tully," Moon called out. "I think the squaw went that-a-way."
"You and Hans go after her," I ordered. I turned back to face Cora Mae Stockman. "You handle a knife well," I said.
"Thank you, Sergeant Tully." It wasn't said proudly or arrogantly, but like a neutral acknowledgment of my praise.
"Was your husband there at McAlester's with you?" I asked.
"Yes, he was," she replied.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
In the heat of battle when there is just you and a man trying to kill you, sometimes the rest of the world is a blur around you. You can read his thoughts because ever fiber of you is focused on him. For a moment, I saw Cora Mae Stockman that way. Every breath and muscle twitch and nuance of her face was clear. She held my gaze, looking at me the same way, until her eyes flickered demurely and her head turned a fraction to show me the long line of her neck. Her eyes met mine again and held them.
"Sergeant Tully?" Mrs. McAlester called and that special exchange disappeared, never to be forgotten.
Mrs. McAlester, Mrs. Stockman, and I quickly freed the rest of the captives. "Ladies," I said. "We'll camp here tonight, on the other side of the watering hole. Mrs. McAlester, who can watch the children?"
"Mrs. Clinton," she replied, pointing to an angular woman standing nearby, "And Mrs. Smith," she continued indicating another.
I said, "You ladies take the young-uns over there on the other side of the water and clear out a place to build the fire."
"Yes, Sergeant," they replied.
"Mrs. McAlester, you and Mrs. Stockman start gathering their weapons. We want firearms, holsters, ammunition, and knives. Anything else you see you think we might want, ask about it. Pile them there by the remuda. You other ladies get personal possessions together, you know, your things they stole and any of their things we might be able to use."
I watched Mrs. Stockman as she worked. Don't think I was poaching another man's wife. Her husband lay in a grave at McAlester's ranch and she was the Widow Stockman. That's the way it was on the frontier. Death came too soon and too often to let it throw away the living for those still alive. Better to say your goodbyes to the dead and get on with your life.
She was a tall woman, but not broad of girth like Mrs. McAlester. More of a mustang to Mrs. McAlester's Belgian. She appeared fully collected despite the terror she'd endured, and she moved with strength and efficiency as well as feminine grace. She was a beauty, no doubt. And she was a woman of the West. I watched her check each gun as she retrieved it. She loaded them that needed loading, but didn't cock them. The first pistol she checked, she stuck through her sash.
My wife had been dead too long a time. The whores in Fort Worth were far away. Maybe I just needed a woman. Whatever it was, The Widow Stockman rested mighty easy on my eyes.
When Moon and Hans returned to report they couldn't find the squaw, I realized none of us had checked the tepee.
"Moon, back me up," I said as I walked to the tepee with my Colt in hand.
When I tossed the flap aside, a woman lunged at me with a knife. If I was a spilt second slower, she would've gutted me, but I knocked her arm aside and thumbed her between the shoulder blades with the butt of my gun, knocking her on her face in the dirt.
She scampered to her feet and stared down the barrel of my Colt.
I was damn sure I needed a woman because for the second time in an hour I saw one that made my guts churn. That dirty squaw, with her breast heaving, her long black hair around her, and her big, black eyes filled with fear, was magnificent.
Slowly, she spread her arms and gracefully knelt. She lay face down, crossed her ankles, and crossed her wrists behind her back.
"Get some rope, Moon," I said.
The Squaw lay at my feet without moving until he returned. I bound her hands and feet. I rolled her over, picked her up in my arms, and carried her toward the fire. Her eyes never left my face, and I couldn't look away from hers if I tried.
I laid her down there. She scampered to her knees to kneel beside me and look up at me with supplication and submission. In Comanche, I told her to stay there.
"That's her," Mrs. McAlester hissed. "You ought to kill her, Sergeant. She's an Injun." There was something in the Squaw's face that made me think she understood what was said. She moved closer to me with her body against my leg, hunkering down like a whipped dog.
"That's my dress. Take it off her," Mrs. Clinton carped.
"She's our prisoner, ladies," I replied. "We'll wait until the Captain gets back."
The Widow's expression was inscrutable as she watched the Squaw and me.
The woman and children gathered around the small fire we built to ward off the cold of the desert. The Comanches starve their prisoners, giving them just enough to make the trek back to Mexico without dying. We broke out our rations and the Indian food we captured, feeding the women and children until they fell asleep in utter exhaustion.
Even Mrs. McAlester succumbed, but the Widow, who had a girl of three or four asleep in her lap under the blanket draped over them, was awake and her eyes followed me.
It was full dark when the Captain and the Second Squad returned to report they killed two. That made the body count complete.
"We've got a captive, Captain," I said. "A squaw."
The Captain was a preacher man who knew his Bible and said his prayers every day. When he wasn't riding for the State of Texas, he rode a circuit for God and John Wesley. He looked at the squaw and at me, studying us before he spoke.
"What do you want to do with her, Tully?" he asked.
The Squaw's eyes bore into me like arrows and the Widow got up, setting the girl in her lap by another of the woman. Hell, I didn't know which of those two women was more intent. I felt the two of them tugging on me.
"I don't feel right about killing her."
I knew that wasn't the answer the Captain wanted. He'd look her in the eye and blow her brains out as he muttered a prayer for her soul.
He said, "Do you want to keep her?"
It was hard to say because I knew the Captain would be angry and he wasn't a man to forgive and forget. "Yes, Sir."
"She'll kill you as soon as look at you." I nodded. "Did you check her for hidden weapons?"
He laughed derisively. "Checking for weapons needs to be done. Want me to do it?"
"No, Sir!" I replied.
I turned red at the chortles of my friends and redder still when the Captain said, "Take her into the tepee, Tully. You can check her there." That said something about the Captain's black-and-white moral code. You killed Indian women, but if you didn't kill her, you treated her like a woman.
I picked up the Squaw.
"I'll check her for you, Sergeant," The Widow said. She stuck the Colt revolver that laid by her side in her sash and followed after me.
The Squaw's face was different this time. She wasn't afraid. She had the look of a woman who knows why she's in the arms of a man and likes being that way. As I laid her down, the Widow brushed by me and I felt her breasts against my arm. The Squaw was afraid now, but because of the other woman, not me.
"What would your wife say if you came home with an Indian squaw?" the Widow asked.
"My wife died from consumption two years ago," I replied.
"It was long ago. Let me have your gun," I said, holding out my hand.
"Why? She's bound."
"Because you want to kill her. Don't you?"
The Widow didn't speak, but the hatred in her eyes answered for her.
"Did she kill with the braves?"
"Did she hurt any of you?"
"She's an Indian."
"Did she do any killing?" I repeated.
"No. We didn't see her until we were all bound, but..."
"I brought you water and wiped your brow," the Squaw said in English.
The Widow jumped back like she'd been stung, standing there wide-eyed.
"You speak our language," I said.
"My mother taught me. She was white, like you." She stared at the Widow. "She was captured and raped, like you. Maybe there's a baby in you now. A half-breed baby. Like me."
Tears burst from the Widow's eyes and she started to draw. I wrapped my fingers around her wrist and was surprised by her strength, but I held her.
"Let the gun go," I said.
"I'll kill her," she screeched. "I'll kill all of them."
Her screams brought the Captain and Moon, each with their guns in their hands. By then, I'd wrestled the Widow to the ground with her arms pinned over her head, far away from the hogleg in her sash between us. She was sobbing and struggling, blathering about Indians and her rape, about her husband and his death.
"Need any help, Tully?" the Captain asked.
"Get Mrs. McAlester, Captain," I beseeched. He sent Moon to retrieve her.
The Widow stopped struggling. I rolled beside her, tossed her gun away, and pulled her onto my lap. She burrowed against me with her arms limp. She was shivering and sobbing as I wrapped my arms around her and held her tightly. Despite my pity for her, a part of me enjoyed the feel of her in my arms. When Mrs. McAlester arrived, she knelt and pulled the Widow to her ample breast, clucking like a mother hen.
The Captain's hard eyes bore into me before he holstered his Colt, turned on his heel, and walked away.
I sat cross-legged and waited, feeling some of the horror of the Widow's ordeal and the terror in the half-breed squaw roped and tied beside me. Only God knew the true depth of their traumas.
The Texas frontier was harsh, with life short and none too sweet. I buried more kin than I had left and them that were left I hadn't seen in years. I'd killed more Indians and whites and Mexicans than I cared to tell. I lived my life in the saddle under the merciless Texas sun.