Western Texas, Boquillas Canyon along the Rio Grande, November, 1850
* * *
"What now, gringo? You gonna' kill me?"
"No. That's up to the judge in Eagle Pass."
James Robert Mitchell had beat the wounded Mexican horse thief nearly into unconsciousness with his feet and fists, leaving the outlaw delirious from pain. Mitchell swore he heard one of the bandit's ribs break after being kicked by the pointed toes of his square-cut knee-high boots. The outlaw's hands were now cuffed in front of him. Mitchell dragged and slammed the bandit against a low stone wall. The Mexican yelped into submission and slumped to the dirt.
Mitchell draped his plain brown and tan serape over his shoulders to allow for easy access to his gun belt. He caught his breath and adjusted the brim of his brown felt sombrero to keep the sun out of his eyes. Sweat beaded behind his knees beneath his dark wool trousers. A white linen shirt clung to his back and chest beneath a buckskin vest.
"No se mueva," Mitchell said, but the obese Mexican wasn't going anywhere.
Mitchell had descended upon the man before he could reach another weapon, and that was when he was still a hundred yards out. A slug from one of his .44 Colt Dragoons was buried deep in the outlaw's left thigh. Mitchell had five more shots and all the time in the world to squeeze them off if necessary. A large Bowie knife was sheathed across his waist and two .36 Colt Patersons, butts forward, were also holstered high on his hips—all were eager for a fight, but at this point the fighting was done.
The outlaw's four companions were already dead long before Mitchell rode up on them. The wounded man had taken care of his partners, their bodies splayed and lifeless near their horses. Mitchell heard the gunshots from half a mile away and closed in quickly, grateful that the incident—in what appeared to be a fateful act of betrayal—had led Mitchell to their location along a trail near the canyon.
After stealing nearly thirty horses from ranchers not far from Eagle Pass more than two hundred miles away, the outlaws had holed up at an abandoned Spanish mission not far from the Rio Grande, perhaps an hour's ride at best. The Mission de San Lucia overlooked Boquillas Canyon and was established when Spain controlled the region along the Comanche War Trail. It was later used during the Republic years as a small fort and resting place for soldiers, rangers, and a few settlers passing through the area, but that was a short-lived endeavor. The mission was abandoned ten years ago after a Comanche raid left it burned and in its current state of disrepair. The state never raised the interest or the funding to restore what was left of the crumbling fort. San Lucia had since become the last refuge of the Mexican rustlers, but now the chase was done. Why the outlaws went out of their way and brought a herd of horses to the mission overlooking the canyon confused Mitchell, especially since they could have just driven the horses across the Rio Grande straight into Mexico.
They were, for all practical purposes, almost home.
Mitchell checked both of the wounded man's revolvers and found that all the rounds were spent. He only fired two shots at Mitchell before trying to reach for one of his dead companion's pistols. Mitchell only fired once, spinning the outlaw around and dropping him with a shot to the leg. He was easy enough to hit given his size, and the olive green and yellow serape he wore over his white shirt and brown trousers didn't exactly make for good camouflage. Mitchell was pissed at himself for shooting sooner than he needed to. If he had been a dozen or so yards closer he would've been more accurate and not having a conversation with the portly outlaw. It may've just been easier just to bring him in dead, but Mitchell could at least question a live man, so maybe it was for the best.
"Why'd you shoot up your amigos, Redondo? You think your share would get bigger with each dead man?" Mitchell collected the guns of the dead banditos. Soon he'd be heaving their corpses onto the backs of their horses, securing them so they could be carried back to the nearest settlement. One of them had been shot in the back of the head—executed. Another was hit twice in the back, while the remaining two were stained in blood over their chests and abdomens. Only two of them had managed to pull a revolver. None of them had fired a shot in return. Three of them looked young—not too young to be stealing horses, but not old enough to be giving orders. The other was no older than thirty years from what Mitchell surmised.
"They tried to kill me first." The outlaw was on the verge of tears. "They wanted my share of the money."
"Money? What money?"
"It was hidden in the mission. We found it."
"Why would you go thinking there was money at an abandoned mission?"
"A gringo in Piedras Negras talked about a pay chest that got left behind when the mission was abandoned," the man said. "It was enough to keep the mission running, pay soldiers, occasional traders. Then the territory joined the Estados Unidos, but that didn't matter to the Comanche."
"The Comanche burned the mission. The soldiers were scalped and killed, everyone but the old gringo in Piedras Negras. The gringo drank too much mescal and told them of this place and the payroll left behind." The outlaw pointed toward his dead companions. "They hired me to come along with them, to tend to the horses."
"Tend to the horses?"
"Sí, I handle horses."
"You expect me to believe you saddled on up here with your amigos on a treasure hunt? Why steal the horses then?"
"To sell them. A bonus."
"Where?" Mitchell kicked the outlaw in his wounded leg.
"At Presidio del Norte!"
"You and your 'padres here also done killed quite a few families back near Eagle Pass, women and children. Was that necessary?"
"I didn't kill no one but them." The man wanted to say something, but held his tongue before speaking. He nodded his head toward the dead outlaws. "They killed those women and children, not me. I was tending the horses!"
"I'm sure you were." Mitchell hated liars. "Let me tell you how much your little fandango just cost me. The bounties on each of you was two hundred dollars, if I brought you in alive for trial. If you're dead I get paid half. Right now you done robbed me of four hundred dollars."
"You hunt men for money then?"
Mitchell said nothing. He started securing the dead outlaws to the backs of their horses, wrapping them tightly in canvas. They were going to start to smell real bad in a day in this heat.
The outlaw sized Mitchell up, squinting and creasing his brow. He focused on Mitchell's horses, eyeing two large .44 Colt Dragoon revolvers in pommel holsters over his saddle, a new .52 caliber Sharps rifle in the saddle boot, and an older .54 M1841 Mississippi rifle in the saddle boot of another horse. Mitchell may have rode alone, but the three mares and single stallion he led—two gelding quarter horses, one light gray and a sabino-white, a sorrel Friesian gelding and a black Friesian stallion—each carried enough firepower for a patrol of soldiers. There were also four mules in the remuda with plenty of field supplies. From a good vantage point and plenty of cover Mitchell was prepared to hold off at least fifty men in a gunfight, probably more.
"Ah, I see what you are, gringo." The Mexican spit in Mitchell's direction, but was too far away to reach him. "One of los Diablos Tejanos, no? There are no Diablos now, not after the war. You're no law man."
"You're wrong. We're still around and this is all the law I need." Mitchell tapped one of the butts of the .36 Colts holstered at his hips. "While you're sitting their bleeding you may want to reconsider spitting my way."
The outlaw was right, though. When the war with Mexico ended almost three years ago the volunteer ranger companies were essentially stripped of their official functions and replaced by Union soldiers to perform the same duties. At least the frontier was supposed to be protected by soldiers. So far the soldiers at Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass were proving to be less effective than anything else. It may have all sounded like a fine plan in Washington, DC, but the realities of the Texas frontier were too much territory, too many Indians and Mexicans stealing horses and cattle, and too few men to put a stop to all the rustling and thieving and killing. It's why Mitchell never stopped doing a ranger's work even when he was no longer being supported to do it.
Mitchell would've preferred to stay with his mother and sister on the family ranch outside of Austin, taming horses as he already had a respectable reputation for, but he found another way to survive by collecting the bounties of fugitives and selling their horses and gear to help make a living. Ranger or not, someone had to help protect the ranchers and settlers of Texas and Mitchell just happened to be damned good at it. He finished securing the last of the dead men across the saddle of a Spanish Jennet and opened the saddlebags. Mitchell looked inside the bag and removed a stack of red printed money, neatly bound and almost crisp. He thumbed through it and glanced at the Mexican.
"Ah, you see, gringo? I told you there was money here." The man smiled, revealing crooked and chipped teeth stained by too much tobacco.
"Five thousand dollars' worth." His grin grew even larger as he accentuated his words. "I needed my share of that money to feed my children."
"You should've thought this through some more before crossing the Rio and killing those families. You've got bigger problems than feeding yours right now."
"And what would that be?"
"Other than getting shot, this money is worthless."
"You just don't get it, do you?" Mitchell shook his head.
"Stop playing games! Tell me!"
"You done killed your amigos here for a few thousand redbacks when you had all these horses and were this close to making it to the border."
"That's a lot of money, gringo, five thousand dollars' worth! I know how to count!"
"Are you stupid by choice?" Mitchell knelt in front of the Mexican and smacked his face with the stack of bills. "You see this? They're called redbacks. It's the old currency of the short-lived Republic we took from your asses when we didn't want to put up with Mexico's crap anymore. These ain't the shinplasters or greenbacks you think they are. This money never added up to much even when it was in use. They were so worthless a God-fearing Texian couldn't pay his damned taxes with them."
The Mexican glared at Mitchell. The reddish ink on the currency was plain and clear. It was money, that was certain, but it was printed by a government that no longer existed.
"That's right, Redondo, imagine that. The same government that printed this money didn't even want it back. You murdered your compadres here for stacks of useless paper when you should've just kept right on going to the border with the horses."
"You're a liar!" The Mexican didn't find his situation as amusing as Mitchell did.
"Really? Can you read English?"
"You can count numbers then? They're the same in English and Spanish."
"I know numbers, puta!"
"Then read the damned dates, right here!" Mitchell slapped the outlaw across the face again with the redbacks and held them closer so he could read the print on the bills. The notes were issued in 1839 when Texas was an independent republic.
"You still need a history lesson or are we settled?" Mitchell walked away from his prisoner and stuffed the money back into the saddlebags. There was no need for a further lesson in humility when his leg was wounded plenty. The Mexican cursed for the better part of an hour while Mitchell rounded up and calmed the horses.
Two of the horses in the herd were wild—a Choctaw and an Appaloosa—and neither were branded or shoed. The animals were familiar with each other but apprehensive around the rest of the herd, keeping their distance without straying too far. The wild horses had no brands, nor were their hooves shod. Rather, they had hide wraps molded around their hooves. These were Indian horses and had to be handled differently than the horses of a white man.
Rather than facing them from the left as a white man would, Mitchell approached them from the right as an Indian would mount his horse. The technique worked, and after a few minutes of reassuring the horses Mitchell worked a lasso around each horse and led them over to the rest of the herd. When the animals were ready he turned his attention to the outlaw and dragged him toward the horses.
"That Appaloosa and Choctaw you picked up are Indian horses," Mitchell said. "You kill some Indians you want to confess to?"
The Mexican said nothing. Mitchell pulled the man to his feet and tied his cuffed hands to a length of rope, securing the loose end to the saddle horn of one of the mules. The outlaw was in too much pain to put up much of a fight.
"You've got several days of walking ahead of you, Redondo," Mitchell told the man. "You ain't making it to Presidio. We're going all the way back to Eagle Pass where you started. Try to keep up with the horses, don't get trampled, and don't make me drag your stinkin' ass all the way home."
"Stop calling me Redondo!" The outlaw spat again in vain at Mitchell, aware of the insult to his girth. "My name is Paco Rivera!"
"I didn't ask. Just start walking while I get us down from the walls of this canyon." Mitchell mounted and spurred his horse to a trot while the rest of the herd followed. The rope binding Rivera's cuffed hands yanked him forward and kept him hobbling behind the pack mule he was tethered to.
"You gonna make me walk with all these horses? You shot me in the leg!"
"Use your good one."
Eagle Pass was a little more than two hundred miles from the Mission de San Lucia. Mitchell wasn't going to let Rivera walk the entire way, as that would slow him down and increase the risk of being ambushed by Indians or Mexicans. Yet it was necessary to exhaust Rivera to keep him weak. Rivera would be turned over to the authorities at Eagle Pass. The trial would be swift. Mitchell wasn't looking forward to riding with Rivera, as that meant almost a week of light sleep and heightened security in the event the outlaw attempted to escape. Yet keeping men alive long enough often leads to useful information, such as the names of complicit ranchers or accomplices and their locations on the Mexican side of the border. That could be more valuable than the bonus of bringing Rivera in alive. If Rivera grew smart he'd also figure out that sharing more information might save his life.
* * *
Mitchell wouldn't light a fire for the night, a fact that caused Rivera to curse at him even more. It was a little cool for November and a wind cut through the Baquillos Canyon with no regard for any man's comfort. It wasn't freezing, but the chill at night was noticeable. Mitchell enjoyed the warmth provided by the extra layers of his serape. He left Rivera partly bound with his back to a tree in the bosque forest along the Rio, though he took some time to wrap the wounds and staunch the bleeding, leaving the bullet inside. Not that it mattered to Mitchell, since the man was likely going to hang in within a week's time.
"You should light a fire, gringo. You wouldn't have to eat cold beans."
"No. Indians." Mitchell moved about the camp, carefully tying up the horses within the tree line and unpacking their gear. They needed rest after several hours of swift riding along the banks of the Rio. The Mexicans had run the horses hard and fast without much care. Mitchell wanted to ensure the animals had enough water and grass to regain their strength before bringing them back to their rightful owners.
"To hell with Indians."
"They'll find us even without a fire. I just don't want them seeing what I'm doing."
"What're you doing anyway? I can barely see."
"I ain't doing nothing that concerns you. We're nowhere near the Comancheria, but we're still not safe. Apaches also come down here. With this many horses we're still a tempting target. Plus, we've been tracked."
"Tracked? By Indians? How do you know?"
"Can't be sure if they're Indians yet, but I saw a dust cloud on the horizon behind us before sunset. Whoever it is they'll make a move tonight or tomorrow."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I know Comanche. They'll travel at night. It's easier for them to raid a herd this close to Mexico, but further down the Rio they're headed into settled white lands. Get some sleep."
Mitchell knew how desperate the Comanche were becoming despite the existence of trading posts and somewhat tenuous peace with the Texans. The once proud Comanche nation was being decimated by the white man's diseases. Raids on Texans were now uncommon while the numbers of Comanche warriors riding into Mexico were increasing. They were more also becoming ambitious and more daring out of necessity. Killing a lone Texan with his Mexican prisoner in a river canyon far from nowhere could be easily overlooked with more than two dozen horses to gain. A treaty may have been negotiated only a few years ago with Chief Buffalo Hump at Council Springs, but that didn't mean hard feelings were put aside between every Comanche band and Texan. Opportunities could still be exploited or created. If Apaches were also in the area that would be a problem. There were no such treaties between the Apache and the white men.
Mitchell was almost right. The Indians found the horses in the canyon, but they took their time. It was just sunrise when they began drifting into Boquillas Canyon, alone or in pairs. Mitchell slept lightly through the night among the horses, relying on their instincts to alert him in the event of trouble. The horses grew nervous as Mitchell finished saddling the horses and mules just as the sun rose on the horizon. The Indians came into plain sight as the sun rose at the eastern and western ends of the canyon. Rivera was still snoring. There was no escape from this, but Mitchell didn't know why the Indians weren't closing in for the kill yet. He kicked Rivera awake.
* * *
"Indians. Hopefully they're Penateka Comanche," Mitchell said.
"Hopefully? What do you mean, hopefully? Quick, untie me! Give me my pistolas!" Rivera stumbled to his feet, ignoring the pain in his wounded leg.
"Shut up." The Indians closed in, crowding the riverbank in greater numbers. Mitchell counted twenty-five of them, but expected there to be more. From a distance it was difficult to tell whether these Indians were Penateka, Nokoni, Tenawa, or any of the other Comanche bands. He hoped they weren't Lipan or Mescalero Apache. Mitchell held the length of rope binding Rivera's hands and mounted his black Friesian, walking the horse slowly into view.
"Friend," Mitchell said. "Friend. Amigo. Amigo." He held his hands upward to show they were empty and that he held a prisoner of his own. The Indians fanned out with caution, sizing up their opponents while scanning the canyon looking for others.
"Sí, amigos!" Rivera said. "We are friends! Amigos!" The Indians came closer. Their leader rode first, a tall lean warrior painted with black stripes on his face and clothed in buckskin hides and dark blue knee high riding boots. The warriors carried a variety of muskets and bows and arrows, lances and axes and knives among them.
"Do you speak English? Spanish? Are you Penateka?" Mitchell had no other options. He knew a few Comanche words and phrases, but not enough yet to be a translator.
"I speak your words, taibo," the war leader said. "I am Penateka."
"I am James Mitchell." He contained his relief. With the Penateka he had a chance at living. "These horses belong to my chief, Governor Peter Bell, and his people. This thief from Mexico stole them from us."
The Penateka examined the herd from the back of his own horse. He was broad shouldered like Mitchell and perhaps the same age. His face revealed a stoic wisdom greater than his years. The Penateka and his warriors saw the bodies of the dead outlaws draped and secured over their horses. They saw the arsenal of weaponry and supplies on Mitchell's horses and mules. They sized up Rivera and saw that he was unarmed, hands bound and secured by a rope. The war leader directed the attention of his warriors toward the Mexican.
"We hunt heavy man with short step," the war leader said. He gauged Rivera's stature and examined his boots. "A man like this killed my father, my wife, my son at trade post north from here. Took two horses. I see them now." The Comanche pointed at the wild horses, the Choctaw and the Appaloosa, who were becoming anxious within the herd. The Comanche whistled, a shrill call that brought the two horses trotting towards the war band. They were readily welcomed by the band.
Mitchell's suspicions were right. He glared at Rivera.
"Is that true, Redondo? You took those horses from the Comanche after murdering his family?"
"En Español, gringo?" Rivera was sweating, but not from the heat.
"Go ahead. What is it?"
"Yo no maté a ningún Indio!" Rivera said. "Son mentirosos y ladrones! Nos tienen rodeados. Matarán y nosotros tanto el cuero cabelludo!"
Mitchell didn't believe that Rivera didn't kill any Comanche. It didn't matter which of the Mexicans pulled the trigger. Rivera was partly right about the Comanche, though; they may not be trustworthy, but they weren't all liars even if some of them still stole horses and cattle from white men. The Comanche had them surrounded, but whether they'd kill and scalp both of them remained to be seen.
"También hablo Español." The Penateka leader glared at Rivera with cruel eyes and smiled.
The rest of the Comanche laughed and encircled the herd. They started to cheer. If Mitchell was forced to fight to the end he resolved himself at best to kill as many as possible before they cut him down. They hadn't yet, but that could change any second. Mitchell was in no position to instigate a fight to the death even though he was prepared to meet it. A different tactic—if not a desperate one—was needed right now.
"I offer trade with the Penateka," Mitchell said. The Comanche fell silent.
"What are you doing, gringo?" Rivera hobbled closer to Mitchell and his horse. It was the only hope at protection he had from the Comanche, even if it was only for a few moments more of life.
"Shut up," Mitchell said.
Mitchell removed a briarwood pipe from his vest pocket, showing it to the Comanche before filling it with tobacco and striking a match to light it. Mitchell took several puffs before offering it to the band leader. The Penateka was not old by any means, for he had a full head of long black hair without a hint of gray. Mitchell guessed they were close in age at twenty-five years. The Comanche took the pipe and smelled the tobacco before inhaling it. He approved and passed it among his warriors. Mitchell stayed calm but cursed himself. That was his father's pipe, God rest his soul at the Alamo. Now he may never see it again.
"I am Black Hawk," the Comanche leader said. "You offer trade. I will listen."
Mitchell shook his head and glared at Rivera.
"It's bad enough you stole from us, Redondo. Even the Comanche need their justice!" Mitchell handed the rope securing Rivera's hands to Black Hawk.
Rivera cursed and tried to pull the rope free and run, but Mitchell used the weight of his stallion to knock him to the dirt. Without hesitating Black Hawk handed the rope to one of his warriors, giving the band orders as they yelped with victory and dragged Rivera away from the herd. Many warriors followed after the captive Mexican, hooting and cheering for blood over Rivera's pleas for mercy.
"There's more," Mitchell said. "You can have his horse. I ask nothing of you but one thing."
"What do you ask?" Black Hawk asked.
"I need to bring these horses, all of them, and the bodies of these dead Mexicans back to my chief."
"Why is that good trade?" Black Hawk said. "You have many fat horses. I have one fat Mexican and his horse. You are one man. We could spare you but still take all horses."
Mitchell removed the saddle bags from Rivera's Jennet that contained the redbacks and placed them over his shoulder before handing the reins to Black Hawk. Most of the remaining Comanche were tearing Rivera apart, scalping and flaying him slowly in small pieces at a time. Rivera's gurgling screams were drowned out by the joyous cries of a victorious Comanche war party. They would take their time with him—that much was certain.
"You could," Mitchell said, "but consider this. We both want justice. That man murdered your family and stole your property. I need these horses and dead Mexicans as proof the Comanche did not steal them or murder Texans. This will be proof that the treaty at Council Springs is honored." Mitchell's last hope was appealing to the treaty with the Comanche only four years earlier. If that didn't work, he may never make it home—at least not with the horses, and it was a long way home.
"You have fine horses," Black Hawk said as he rode among the herd, stroking the backs and manes of the horses as his steed trotted past them. Mitchell could see that Black Hawk was familiarizing himself with Mitchell's weaponry, the rifles and arms of a ranger.
"You have also killed Comanche." Black Hawk led his horse alongside Mitchell.
"I have. I reckon you've scalped many taibo." Mitchell mentally prepared for treachery and the possibility that Black Hawk would attempt to strike at him any time.
"Not after Council Springs. I translate there. I know the terms."
"I was also there, an escort for my delegates."
"Crow Spirit is wise, but cunning. He plays tricks. Sometimes evil. Some of my warriors are not Penateka and would have killed you, but I say no. To kill the Crow Spirit is bad puha." Black Hawk took a final deep and long puff from Mitchell's briarwood pipe before handing it back.
"Tell your Chief that Black Hawk honors treaty at Council Springs. The word of Chief Buffalo Hump still stands."
"Ride fast from this canyon, White Crow," Black Hawk said before departing to rip his piece of justice from Paco Rivera's flesh. "We will not pursue, but Apache may find you. I will send escort. You will not see them, but they will be there."
There was no need to linger and watch the slow and bloody execution. Rivera had what was coming to him anyway—but if Mitchell didn't get out of Boquillas Canyon fast enough he'd have no one but himself to blame for what any Apache or renegade Comanche would do to him. Mitchell led his herd away, grateful he couldn't hear Rivera's screams over the thundering of hooves.
Handing Paco Rivera to the Comanche was a cruel but just fate, for he had wronged the Comanche as much as he had the Texans—as much as he would any man, woman, or child who stood in his way. Mitchell prayed that God would forgive him for what he'd done, though there was little remorse for the man. If turning one horse thief over to the Comanche bought even just one more day of peace for Texan settlers it was a wager Mitchell wouldn't hesitate to make again.
Now there was the matter of getting the herd back to their rightful owners, at least the ones with living family members who survived the raids on their herds. Local authorities could deal with finding any next of kin. Mitchell intended to keep the dead men's horses and gear, either to sell or trade later or use for his own burdens.
Mitchell was also counting on turning in the cache of redbacks that Rivera unearthed. It was true the redbacks were no longer in use. Most Texans had already redeemed theirs for below face value over the past few months and Mitchell knew he'd have to as well. If the exchange rate was still holding around fifteen Texas redbacks to one United States dollar then there might be at least three hundred, maybe close to four hundred more dollars he'd receive for turning the old money in. Mitchell was going to have to count up the exact amount later. It wouldn't be enough to offset the extra bonus for bringing in the Mexicans alive, but it was a start.